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How can I be sure that my pill will break apart?

We frequently receive questions about how to make sure that a vitamin or other supplement breaks apart properly so that it can be absorbed. Many people write to tell us that their vitamins won't break apart in tests that they do at home.

The question is a good one. To be useful, most supplements must first disintegrate ("break apart") and dissolve ("go into a liquid solution") in the gut for their ingredients to be absorbed and enter the bloodstream. Pills that don't disintegrate properly can't dissolve and be absorbed; they will simply pass through the body unused. The standard laboratory test for disintegration (part of the test known as the United States Pharmacopeia [USP] "Disintegration and Dissolution of Dietary Supplements" method <2040>), is an important test of product quality, although passing this test alone does not assure bioavailability – which depends on additional factors such as how well ingredients are absorbed. During the test, the product under investigation is continuously agitated in warm water for 30 minutes. In that time, the pill should have dissolved or fallen apart to the extent that, if touched, there is no hard core remaining.

This disintegration test is one of the battery of tests to which subjects all tablet and caplet products in its Product Reviews. If a product fails this test, it can not be listed as "Approved" by Some manufacturers claim their products meet the USP specification, although the claim shouldn't be taken as certainty.

Where this is most common?

Poor disintegration is most common with vitamin and mineral supplements. However, other products, including herbals, sold in tightly packed or heavily coated tablets or caplets, may also have poor disintegration, remaining intact after the 30-minute test. Most capsules, by contrast, fall apart easily, and most chewable products (as long as they're chewed) disintegrate. Poor disintegration can result from poor manufacturing practices and quality control.

The CL Home Test:

To determine for yourself your supplement's ability to disintegrate, try the following test (it isn't foolproof, but it does yield helpful information):

  • Heat a cup of water in a heat-safe cup on the hot-plate portion of a coffee machine to 98.6° F (body temperature). For a quick check of the temperature, use an instant-read thermometer, and don't allow it to rest on the bottom of the cup where heat is most intense, giving a false reading.
  • Place a pill in the cup, then stir continuously for 30 minutes, without hitting the pill and keeping the temperature near 98.6° F. If necessary, move the cup on and off the heat to maintain a constant temperature.
  • Regular tablets should disintegrate within 30 minutes
  • Note: This test may not work with "timed-release" or "sustained-release" products. It may also not work for "chewable" products, which are meant to be broken down by chewing. In addition, "enteric-coated" products may not fully break apart in this test because they are designed to release their ingredients further down the gut in the intestines, after being subjected to an environment which is first acidic (as in the stomach) and then neutral or slightly basic (as in the intestines).

Remember, this test isn't as rigorous as a laboratory test (which uses special equipment and controlled conditions), but it is more accurate than simply dropping the supplement into cold water.