The Trending Antioxidant King: Astaxanthin Supplements

by Cassandra R. December 07, 2015

Flamingos feed on a steady diet of plankton, who in turn feed on algae containing the astaxanthin nutrient, giving the birds' feathers their signature pinkish hue.As the latest in antioxidant trends, astaxanthin supplements are finding their place in the world of health and nutrition. The global astaxanthin market alone was estimated to be around $447 million in 2014 and is expected to increase to over $1 billion by 2020, according to ReportLinker. Used in a number of applications, including cosmetics, fortified foods, and beverages, companies are advertising this super nutrient at the forefront. Due to its clean label supplement profile, and consumer perceptions of it being all natural, its possibilities for supplementation are fast becoming numerous.

Sources of Astaxanthin

Known as the "king of carotenoids", astaxanthin is an antioxidant carotenoid in the xanthophyll category. It is mainly found in seafood such as lobsters, salmon, and shrimp, and even land-based animals such as flamingos, who feed on astaxanthin-producing organisms for their diet. The reddish or pinkish hue in these creatures is due to the presence of this nutrient. However, according to the American Botanical Council, the most commercially and readily available source of astaxanthin is algae. The Haematococcus pluvialis species is an especially rich source of natural astaxanthin, which is used in a number of finished products, from supplements to food additives.

The unique structure of astaxanthin makes it particularly useful as an antioxidant supplement. Antioxidants have always been lauded for their ability to reduce inflammation and oxidation. As an antioxidant, astaxanthin can span the biological membranes of cells to better reduce free-radical damage and stabilize cells for optimal health. Astaxanthin's molecular shape allows it to insert itself in both the water-soluble and fat-soluble parts of the cell. Thus, it protects the entire cell, proving advantageous over single-type antioxidants such as the water-soluble nutrient, vitamin C, or the fat-soluble beta-carotene.

Studies conducted on astaxanthin—including a review by scientist, Higuera Ciapara—have shown that it is extremely potent compared to other antioxidants and can even provide numerous benefits to cardiovascular health, the immune system, and joint health. According to the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) value, a method for measuring antioxidant capacities, astaxanthin has the highest out of all other carotenoids.

Astaxanthin: Making a Global Impact

As a potent antioxidant, astaxanthin has shown promise in providing additional eye support, along with other carotenoids, lutein and zeaxanthin.As the benefits of astaxanthin become more widespread, consumers and manufacturers are seeking more ways to integrate this carotenoid supplement into a number of finished products. Already, astaxanthin is used in both skin care and anti-aging cosmetics. It is also present in the functional food sphere. In the Japanese market, astaxanthin has found its niche in yogurt drinks, energy tonics, and teas, while in the US and European markets, it has been included in chocolates and candies. For cosmeceuticals, China is in the lead for astaxanthin products, specifically for anti-aging where astaxanthin shows strength in topical and dietary supplements. This claim is not without merit. A 2002 study conducted in Japan on 40-year-old women noted how daily oral supplementation of 6 mg astaxanthin, combined with topical treatment over the course of eight weeks, resulted in improvements in skin tone and elasticity. Because of astaxanthin's antioxidant nature, its protective effect on skin cells has made it a favorable ingredient in both cosmetics and nutraceuticals, aiding in the beauty-from-within supplement trend.

Astaxanthin has also shown promise for eye support, which typically appeals to consumers over the age of 70 in many parts of the world. Because astaxanthin can cross through both the blood-brain and blood-retinal barriers, the ingredient can reach the macula in the eye, helping protect the retinal cell membranes from damage. A double-blind study, also conducted in Japan, tested the effects of administering 5 mg of astaxanthin per day over four weeks of supplementation. At the end of the study, 46% of subjects reported reductions in eye strain. The test subjects also experienced improvements in other areas such as visual focus.

As a dietary supplement, astaxanthin softgels are the optimal delivery method for enhanced bioavailabilty due to astaxanthin's oil-based structure and the ability of softgel shells to protect the contents from oxidation.

Synthetic vs. Natural

Astaxanthin can also be produced synthetically, which is where the debate of natural versus synthetic versions comes into play. Suppliers that work with natural astaxanthin grow H. pluvialis algae in controlled environments, carefully monitoring light, temperature, and pH levels of these microalgae. Natural astaxanthin can also be sourced from the red yeast, Phaffia rhodozyma, as well as various shellfish such as krill. According to many natural supporters, when compared to the synthetic version, natural astaxanthin has more studies detailing its positive effects for human consumption than synthetic astaxanthin.

Astaxanthin is a fast growing ingredient in the health market, particularly for the natural version that appeals to both consumers and manufacturers alike.The recent trend towards more natural ingredients within the food and supplements industry is another deciding factor. Due to natural astaxanthin's strength in both potency and safety, consumers perceive natural products and ingredients as a healthier alternative over synthetic. Regarding potency, an independent study conducted at Creighton University demonstrated that algae-based astaxanthin was approximately 20–50 times more effective than the synthetic version.

There are, however, some downsides to harvesting natural astaxanthin. It is an expensive process that requires labor-intensive methods, and the current supply of natural astaxanthin cannot meet the demands of the mass market. Prices for natural astaxanthin are also higher compared to the synthetic version. Despite this, the market for natural astaxanthin has been the fastest-growing in the global astaxanthin market and is expected to rise from $180 million in 2014 to $828 million in 2020, with an estimated CAGR of 29%. Consumer awareness about natural astaxanthin is credited as the reason for such a significant surge. Many health food sectors around the world have also approved natural astaxanthin for human consumption, but not the synthetic version.

Synthetic astaxanthin production currently dominates the current global market, although most of it is reserved for animal feed instead of human consumption. Chemical synthesis of this compound consumes less energy and resources than the natural version. It is also produced from petrochemicals instead of algae, and has been shown through research to have less efficacy than natural astaxanthin.

Yet, synthetic astaxanthin is the more cost-effective of the two choices, and allows for mass production while natural astaxanthin does not. Proponents for synthetic astaxanthin also stress that these carefully created carotenoids have nature-identical properties, and highlight the bias of natural astaxanthin studies. Ultimately, it is up to the astaxantin supplement manufacturers and distributors to determine which version of the ingredient is best for their formulations and customers.

Takeaways for Astaxanthin Market Growth

Astaxanthin softgels are the most popular delivery method, both in appearance and potency. Astaxanthin softgel manufacturers can have a great advantage when utilizing this ingredient.Certain issues can arise if natural astaxanthin is desired, as many nature-identical astaxanthin ingredients do not need to be labeled as synthetic on nutrition labels, mostly so in the United States. Keeping careful watch of the supply chain is crucial, and quality control is highly emphasized concerning astaxanthin ingredient suppliers and manufacturers. A certification program created by the Natural Algae Astaxanthin Association (NAXA) will soon be implemented to assess the processes, cGMP standards, and validity of the finished product to ensure that they indeed contain the natural form. Named the Natural Astaxanthin Verification Program (NAVP), suppliers can emphasize their quality methods and trustworthiness to companies and consumers.

The creation of such a program indicates the growing popularity of the market. Consumers are becoming better educated regarding astaxanthin's impressive list of benefits, which includes eye, brain, joint, skin, and cardiovascular health. Containing both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, it has wide appeal for numerous demographics, from preventative care to cosmeceuticals to sports nutrition. Taking into account the supply chain towards getting a natural astaxanthin ingredient can be well worth the effort for supplement marketing purposes.

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