With pollution, climate change, and other issues plaguing the health of our environment, industries operating in different sectors around the world are adopting greener solutions to build a sustainable future. The pharmaceutical industry, too, in recent years, has been gradually moving towards green manufacturing to reduce carbon footprints. But other opportunities for embracing sustainability can also be explored with plant-based natural ingredients. There are several vegetarian excipients available today that can replace conventional excipients. Naturally derived ingredients hold a promising future in drug product and supplement formulation.
Gelatine – Ideal but not sustainable
In the pharmaceutical industry, gelatine obtained from animal sources (bovine or porcine) has been a key pharmaceutical excipient that has been used as a gelling agent and for fabricating capsule shells. It has excellent gelling properties over a wide pH range, its rheological behaviour demonstrating temperature-dependent reversible sol-gel transition, its non-toxic and inert nature and its ability to form robust, flexible films. However, with veganism now officially becoming “mainstream”, it has become necessary to switch to more sustainable and plant-based alternatives. Moreover, its sources may also not be acceptable to all due to religious or cultural reasons. Besides, gelatine’s animal origin can pose a severe risk of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) contamination.
Moving towards sustainable ingredients
Cellulose, a renewable plant resource is now being widely used to manufacture capsules. It has greatly helped in broadening the scope of capsule-based drug delivery. A cellulose-based capsule is more than just a vegetarian gelatine substitute. Unlike gelatine capsules, these plant-based capsules have inherently low moisture content, allowing for the encapsulation of a wide variety of ingredients, including those that are moisture-sensitive or hygroscopic. Their versatile applications have opened innovative avenues for drug delivery. Vegetarian capsules can be filled efficiently on all capsule filling machines, with optimum productivity. Because of their manifold advantages, cellulose-based capsules are gradually gaining popularity among formulators for pharmaceutical and nutraceutical use. Besides capsule shells, cellulose is also being used for other pharmaceutical applications such as tablet coatings, binding in granulation, controlled release matrices, drug layering, etc.
Carrageenan, a high-performing pharmaceutical ingredient, is obtained by extracting red seaweeds, which are naturally occurring ocean plants that can be sustainably cultivated. Owing to its high molecular weight, high viscosity, superior gelling and stabilising properties, it can effectively replace traditional gelling agents such as gelatine. Carrageenan has been known to be a safe ingredient in dietary supplements and pharmaceutical products.
Alginates isolated from brown seaweeds can be used as a gelatine substitute for coating capsules and tablets. Alginate can mask unpleasant odours and help enhance patient experience while shielding acid-sensitive active ingredients from the harsh gastric environment. Alginates have even gained popularity as an active ingredient to combat acid reflux in the form of alginic acid for chewable products.
Pectin, produced from the peels of citrus fruits, such as oranges and lemons is mainly used as a gelling agent but can also act as a thickener, stabiliser, binding agent and controlled releases matrices in tablet formulations.
Operating in a stringent regulatory environment, where patient safety, product quality and product effectiveness are paramount, the pharmaceutical industry must look beyond traditional paths to achieving strides in environmental responsibility. By implementing novel approaches such as using vegetarian ingredients, pharmaceutical manufacturers can position themselves in a more sustainability-focused market.