Dr. Mercola explains what you need to know about natural versus synthetic astaxanthin

[Global] Astaxanthin is one of the most powerful and beneficial antioxidants that we know of. But is it possible that some forms are better than others?

Dr. Gerald Cysewski, who has a doctorate in chemical engineering and served as an assistant professor at the Department of Chemical Engineering at UC Santa Barbara, is recognized as a leading authority on the microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis, from which astaxanthin is produced.

Back in 1996, Cyanotech ventured into astaxanthin production to provide a natural alternative to synthetic astaxanthin, primarily for the fish feed market. Synthetic astaxanthin, produced from petrochemicals, is commonly used in the salmon industry to give farm-raised salmon its traditional pinkish-red color. Without astaxanthin in the diet, the flesh of farm-raised salmon is a grayish white.

In the years following, the company began investigating the health benefits of natural astaxanthin, which led to the development of a human-grade astaxanthin supplement, and the sponsoring of clinical research.

“Now we no longer produce any feed-grade astaxanthin. All of our natural astaxanthin goes into the human supplement market,” Dr. Cysewski says.

The Differences Between Synthetic and Natural Astaxanthin

Synthetic astaxanthin is produced from petrochemicals, whereas natural astaxanthin is derived from microalgae. That may be a significant difference between the two products. As Dr. Cysewski explains:

“Natural astaxanthin from microalgae, first, is present in a carotenoid cocktail. Not only is there astaxanthin present, but there are other carotenoids like beta-carotene, lutein, and canthaxanthin.

Secondly, the astaxanthin in natural algal astaxanthin is a therophyte. It’s either connected to one or two fatty acids. The primary form in the natural algal astaxanthin is diesters and monoesters. Synthetic astaxanthin is just free astaxanthin.”

The advantage of being bound in an ester form is that it’s more stable, providing it with greater shelf life. The esters may also help with the bioavailability of astaxanthin in your body.

Components of natural astaxanthin.
Components of natural astaxanthin.

Synthetic astaxanthin is not in the ester form, and does not have the associated “cocktail” of antioxidants. The astaxanthin molecule is also shaped differently, which may reduce its bioavailability.

Astaxanthin is somewhat of a large, complex molecule, and can have three different shapes depending on the way the ends are arranged. If you studied stereochemistry you will understand that it can be an SS form, an RS form, or an RR form. These are simply names for the molecule’s spatial orientation. Naturally occurring astaxanthin in algae is in the SS form, which is what your body recognizes and knows how to utilize.

Astaxanthin in its RS, RR, and SS forms.
Astaxanthin in its RS, RR, and SS forms.

These forms or shapes can be viewed much as a lock and key. You may have correctly shaped “teeth” on your key, but if they’re pointing in the wrong direction, the key will not unlock the lock. In the same way, a molecule will not function in your body the way it’s designed to if its orientation is incorrect. Synthetic astaxanthin comes in all three forms (RR, RS, and SS), and only 25 percent of it is the bioavailable SS form.

Is Synthetic Astaxanthin Safe for Human Consumption?

Synthetic astaxanthin has not been specifically approved for direct human consumption, but it is legal to use in salmon feed. And when you eat that salmon, you inevitably end up getting some of that synthetic astaxanthin. While certainly not the only one, this is one of the reasons why I recommend avoiding farmed salmon.

Interestingly, according to Dr. Cysewski, one company has announced it will bring a synthetic astaxanthin supplement to market for human use. Their argument for its legality is that it’s already approved as a color additive in food (salmon).

This may be a legal loophole that could potentially bring this far inferior supplement onto health food store shelves sometime in the future. The question that remains to be answered is whether or not synthetic astaxanthin is safe for direct human consumption.

While more than 30 studies have been done on the safety of natural astaxanthin for direct human consumption, not a single one has been done using direct consumption of synthetic astaxanthin. (The efficacy of natural astaxanthin has also been proven in over 100 studies.) Could synthetic astaxanthin be dangerous? We don’t yet know, but history tells us that synthetic nutrients tend to have a detrimental effect, compared to the natural nutrient.

For example, back in the 1990s, synthetic canthaxanthin was used as an internal self-tanning supplement. Canthaxanthin is very closely related to astaxanthin. Both of them are members of the xanthophyll family of carotenoids. Synthetic canthaxanthin, which is also sourced from petrochemicals, turned out to cause users to develop canthaxanthin crystals in the retina of their eyes, which led to visual disturbances. When they stopped taking the canthaxanthin, the crystals disappeared, but in some people, it took over 20 years for those crystals to completely vanish…

Natural Astaxanthin Has a Superior Safety Profile

When it comes to the safety of natural astaxanthin, well over 100 studies demonstrate its exceptional safety, even at mega-doses as high as 500 milligrams (mg) per day! At high doses, some people may develop a slight coloration of the skin.

“There have been some studies coming out of Japan [that shows] it can actually make the skin look better. There have been four studies showing that it increases skin elasticity, reduces fine wrinkles, and improves the moisture level in the skin,” Dr. Cysewski says.

As mentioned, there have been no studies on the safety or efficacy of synthetic astaxanthin, but there have been some in vitro antioxidant studies performed, in which synthetic astaxanthin was compared with natural astaxanthin. One study done at Creighton University showed that natural astaxanthin was 20 times stronger than synthetic astaxanthin at eliminating free radicals. Tests performed at the Brunswick Laboratories also showed that natural astaxanthin was up to 65 times stronger than synthetic astaxanthin.



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