Clearer Labelling for Vegetarian Medicines

March 1, 2012
Stephanie Sutton

Stephanie Sutton was an assistant editor at Pharmaceutical Technology Europe.

This week an interesting report was released about the use of gelatine in medicines. Most of us are comfortable with the use of animal products as ingredients.

This week an interesting report was released about the use of gelatine in medicines. Most of us are comfortable with the use of animal products as ingredients, but for vegetarians or other people that follow restrictive diets it can be an issue.  Anybody who falls into this situation should be able to choose whether they will or won’t take a particular product, but the report highlights the fact that many people do not realise that their medicines contain gelatine. In particularly, many vegetarians may unknowingly be prescribed medicines that contain animal derivatives.

As such, the authors of the report, published in the Postgraduate Medical Journalare calling for clearer drug labelling for such medicines.

It’s not just vegetarians either who may want to know more about the medicines. Most people are taking greater interest in the ingredients in all the products they consume, whether it is a food or a medicine.

According to the study, doctors only usually consider the API when prescribing a medicine, ignoring the excipients that make up the bulk of a tablet or capsule. However, many drug excipients contain gelatine, particularly urological drugs and generic drugs. The study authors conducted a survey with the aim of finding out how many patients had been inadvertently prescribed medicines containing gelatine.

Five hundred patients were surveyed, of which around 200 were found to be following a restricted diet whether for cultural, religious or personal preferences. Forty nine of these were found to be already taking medicines that contained gelatine.

Many vegetarians will still take medicines that contain animal products if there is no alternative, but the reports says that more should be done to help these people. At the very least, I think that people should be aware of what is in their medicine so that they can make their own decisions.

The UK’s BBC News quotes the study authors as saying that, “every doctor needs to be aware that it is not just the active drug being dispensed but a whole group of other agents which may have relevance to an individual patient’s compliance with treatment when oral treatments are prescribed”.

Vegetarians now have many more food choices than they did ten years ago. For instance, almost every restaurant has one or more vegetarian options on the menu and even traditionally non-vegetarian friendly products, such as gummy sweets, are available in animal derivative-free form. Most vegetarians probably take it for granted that their medicines are also free of animal products. Making vegetarian-friendly products is also not typically a top concern of manufacturers, who must, of course, focus on efficacy and safety.

However, many medicines are vegetarian friendly as there is a growing trend for manufacturers to move away from the use of animal products, but this isn’t possible for all medicines. For those that are free of gelatine and other related ingredients, however, it could represent an important marketing point, particularly for over-the-counter medicines.

According to the BBC News piece, a spokesperson for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry explained that all medicines in the EU are accompanied by a leaflet listing all the ingredients. Unfortunately, many patients do not always bother to read this list. Clear labelling would certainly be a way to enable patients to know more about what they are taking.

Nowadays, many medicines are vegetarian friendly as there is a growing trend for manufacturers to move away from the use of animal products, but this isn’t possible for all medicines. For those that are free of gelatine and other related ingredients, however, it could represent an important marketing point to reach certain patient groups, particularly for over-the-counter medicines.

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