The science behind astaxanthin

[Global] The health-promoting properties of astaxanthin, the red, fat-soluble pigment found in freshwater microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis, continue to intrigue health-savvy consumers worldwide. According to a 2015 report from Research and Markets, the global market for synthetic and naturally derived astaxanthin is projected to reach $1.1 billion by 2020. With applications in the antiaging, nutraceutical, cosmetics, and food and beverage sectors, astaxanthin has cast a wide net on the natural ingredient market.

Astaxanthin’s Biological Potential

It turns out that the commotion created around astaxanthin is fueled by an increasing number of research studies looking at its in vitro and in vivo effects. Until now, astaxanthin has been attributed a range of biological activities, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory effects, as well as anti-diabetic, anticancer, and cardioprotective properties.1 In fact, it is considered one of the most potent natural antioxidants.

“Natural astaxanthin is 20–90 times stronger than all other antioxidants,” says Traci Kantowski, communications director at the Natural Algae Astaxanthin Association (NAXA). “For example, it is 794 times stronger than CoQ10 and 36 times stronger than beta-carotene.”

Kantowski further notes that a 2007 study in Carotenoid Science found that, overall, astaxanthin exhibited the most potent singlet oxygen–quenching activity among other well-known antioxidants, including lutein, quercetin, resveratrol, CoQ10, ascorbic acid, and α-tocopherol.2

In addition to its impressive antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action, Kantowski emphasizes that astaxanthin has been shown to be beneficial to brain, eye, and skin health, as well as muscle endurance and sports vision.

A recent review published in Food & Function confirmed the existence of solid in vitro and in vivo evidence for astaxanthin’s antioxidant effects, but also pointed to a need for additional research on astaxanthin in human subjects with pre-existing atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease (CVD).3 With inflammation implicated in the pathogenesis of CVD, the anti-inflammatory action of astaxanthin is a current focus area for both astaxanthin suppliers and consumers.

Deeper into Science

The rising consumer demand for astaxanthin-derived products has served as an incentive for astaxanthin suppliers to allocate more time and money to the research aimed at uncovering the potential health benefits, and filling in any existing knowledge gaps, about this promising ingredient.

“There seem to be new scientific studies published every couple of months on the potential health benefits of astaxanthin, adding to an already large base of scientific evidence,” says Gerald R. Cysewski, PhD, founder, president, and CEO of Cyanotech (Kailua-Kona, HI). His company sponsored a study at the University of South Florida to test the bioavailability of six different astaxanthin formulations, including the standard astaxanthin/oil softgels, enteric-coated softgels, water-soluble astaxanthin emulsion, water-dispersible astaxanthin, and liposomal astaxanthin.

“We were expecting to see a two- to three-times-higher bioavailability of astaxanthin in formulations using new technology for water-soluble/dispersible and liposomal astaxanthin; however, the results were not very exciting,” says Cysewski. The study found “relatively little difference in the bioavailability of astaxanthin between the six formulations, as long as astaxanthin is consumed with a meal that contains some fat.” Cysewski further notes that it was reassuring to see that the company’s standard astaxanthin oil softgel is very bioavailable.

AstaReal Inc. (Burlington, NJ), manufacturer of astaxanthin for the dietary supplement, food, and beverage industries, is focusing its research efforts on AstaReal, the company’s premier astaxanthin product. With 133 studies completed thus far, AstaReal is spearheading the research on astaxanthin. “AstaReal astaxanthin has been researched clinically for applications in skin health, vision support, and sports nutrition,” says Joe Kuncewitch, national sales manager at AstaReal. The latest study, published in the Journal of Clinical Therapeutics & Medicines, found AstaReal astaxanthin to exert beneficial effects against both mental and physical fatigue.4

Study subjects in this double-blind, placebo-controlled study consumed AstaReal astaxanthin twice daily for eight weeks (12 mg/day). “Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) analysis showed that AstaReal astaxanthin significantly reduced perceived symptoms of mental and physical fatigue compared to the placebo,” says Kuncewitch. “These included improvements in cognitive acuity, concentration, motivation, and mood. Irritation and feeling of body heaviness were noticeably reduced,” he explains. In the same study, supplementation with astaxanthin significantly reduced salivary cortisol levels, a biomarker of stress.

AlgaeHealth (Irvine, CA), a division of BGG, is also keeping up with the research trends on astaxanthin. “Our latest research, which will be published in June of this year, shows an excellent cardio-respiratory result in trail runners,” says Bob Capelli, executive vice president, global marketing, at AlgaeHealth. “These were not highly trained athletes, but everyday people working out for a half marathon,” he adds.

According to Shawn Talbott, PhD, of EQQIL, an independent research and development company that conducted and supervised the study on behalf of AlgaeHealth, the significance of this research is “that we found a very novel effect of natural astaxanthin to improve overall cardiovascular function.” He further notes that “the subjects in this study were able to perform the same amount of ‘work’—but at a lower cardiovascular ‘strain’ after supplementing with astaxanthin.” The study’s abstract will be presented at the upcoming 2017 American College of Sports Medicine’s Annual Meeting in Denver.

The Future Looks Bright 

With the astaxanthin product market getting more competitive by the day, it’s important to understand which types of astaxanthin formulations can provide a competitive advantage. According to NAXA’s Kantowski, astaxanthin softgels continue to be in high demand.

“We’ve seen an increase in demand for astaxanthin products with higher single dosage levels—i.e., 12-mg single softgels,” she says. Furthermore, she notes that the market is demanding additional third-party verification. Along these lines, NAXA has launched the NAXA Verification Program (NAVP), which ensures that each astaxanthin product submitted for verification is derived exclusively from its natural source, H. pluvialis; that it is third-party independently tested; and that it has been grown following good manufacturing practices.

To gain a competitive edge, astaxanthin suppliers are also getting creative with consumer product applications. “For example, AstaReal has developed a method for incorporating astaxanthin oleoresin directly into baked goods,” says Kuncewitch. The company also has in place a spray-drying process that produces water-dispersible astaxanthin powder, P2AF, suitable for instant-beverage applications. According to Kuncewitch, “the powder can be applied directly to liquid and mixed mechanically or can be made into an effervescent tablet and added to the drink.” AstaReal also has a water-soluble product, Clear100, for beverages requiring high clarity.

Consumer education remains the driving force behind the continued interest in astaxanthin products. “Cyanotech is very active with educating our consumers,” says Cysewski. “We conduct demos in retail stores where our products are sold, as well as train store employees on the benefits of astaxanthin.”

AlgaeHealth is also active in consumer education and “works closely with its branded customers to help them educate consumers on the diverse, clinically validated benefits of natural astaxanthin,” says Capelli. The company has a series of white papers which examine these health benefits in detail, as well as “a 500-plus-page abstract list so our customers can quickly and easily review the various health benefits and see the depth and quality of research in each area.”

Cysewski believes that astaxanthin demand will continue to grow in areas where people can feel a real difference from its consumption. “These areas include joint health, faster recovery from strenuous exercise, maintaining good skin health under exposure to UV radiation, and eye health,” he says. Capelli predicts significant growth for astaxanthin in the antiaging industry in the coming years. “As people get older, they become concerned with their eyes and brain, their energy levels and strength diminish, their skin starts to sag, they get aches and pains, and their hearts become weaker,” he says. “Fortunately, in one supplement they can get support for all of these issues and more. It’s really the ultimate antiaging supplement,” he concludes.

 

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