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Eye health benefits help drive booming astaxanthin demand

By Hank Schultz

22-May-2014
Last updated on 22-May-2014 at 17:10 GMT

The eye health benefits of astaxanthin will steadily increase demand for this already red-hot ingredient, says Rudi Moerck, PhD, CEO of Valensa, one of the major suppliers.  This benefit is tied into an aging demographic; few younger consumers think about prophylatic eye care.

“The eye health market is typically consumers who are over age 70,” Moerck told NutraIngredients-USA.  The steady growth of this demographic bodes well for the future.

And astaxanthin has a unique story to tell in this regard, Moerck said.  The other carotenoids often mentioned for their eye health benefits—lutein and zeaxanthin—are available in the diet, so outright deficiencies are rare, making supplementation a precautionary measure. Astaxanthin, for the most part, cannot be found in food. Trace amounts are present in the flesh of wild salmon and other seafood, and are present in farmed salmon, too, depending on what they have been fed.  But a therapeutic dose is not achievable via this avenue.

And as far as a therapeutic dose is concerned, there is disagreement.  Valensa’s competitor Cyanotech recommends as much as 12 mg of astaxanthin per day.  Moerck said Valensa recommends a much smaller dose.

“We recommend 2 mg of astaxanthin daily; 4 mg if you are formulating for a sports performance product.  And we’d recommend 10 mg of lutein in an eye health product,” Moerck said.

“Carotenoids do bioaccumulate,” Moerck said.  He said evidence shows that the body accumulates a certain amount of astaxanthin in tissues and increased dosages don’t move that level much after that.  “I think 12 mg a day is wasteful.”

But equally wasteful, Moerck said, is the trend toward riding the wave of popularity for individual ingredients with standalone products.  And in the eye health game, some of those aging consumers’ daily pill tolerance will more than likely already be devoted to phamaceuticals.

“It’s our job as an industry to work to reduce people’s pill counts,” Moerck said. “I’m totally against single component supplements.  At 7 to 8 pills a day is where most people hit the wall.”

Formulation concerns

Moerck said studies show that different carotenoids function differently in the eye.  The CARMIS (Carotenoids and Antioxidant in Age Related Maculopathy Italian Study) that was reported in Ophthalmology in 2008 showed that subjects treated over a 2 year period with a supplement consisting of 10mg of lutein, 1mg of zeaxathin and 4mg of asxtaxanthin were “more likely to show 

The evidence is still mounting, but it appears different carotenoids function very differently in the eye, something that has been debated vigorously by those in the carotenoids business.

"The CARMIS study that employed astaxanthin as a key component suggests that it is an excellent addition to eye healthcare supplements that already contain lutein and zeaxanthin,” Moerck said.

“Lutein is known to accumulate in the outer region of the macula, where light impingement is relatively low in comparison to the central macular region (also known as the fovea), where the highest light impingement always occurs and where maximum antioxidant protection is required. Astaxanthin can be considered the first line of defense and should, in fact, allow the other ingredients to function more effectively,” he said.

But Moerck said it’s important to keep the eyes on the prize in the supplement sphere, which is to promote overall health as opposed to pushing the benefits of a single ingredient.

“I want to emphasize that Valensa is a human health company. I want people to wear sunglasses.  I think it’s important that they get enough EPA and DHA. And from a public health perspective, I would rather have 99% of the people taking a smaller, effective dose of astaxanthin rather than 1% taking bucketfuls,” Moerck said.

Supply picture

Astaxanthin is sourced from the haematococcus pluvias aglae species, which can be grown in a variety of ways, either in open ponds or closed bioreactors. It is an ingredient that has proved to be somewhat inelastic in its supply parameters.  It simply takes time to ramp up capabilities, and it’s not an easy organism to cultivate. A number of companies with experience in other algal ingredients or who have tried to make the switch from agale biofuels production have reportedly failied in their h. pluvialis cultivaiton efforts.

Demand for astaxanthin spiked after a Dr Oz Show segment in early 2012 quoted Dr Joseph Mercola (a Valensa customer) on the many benefits of astaxanthin, eye health among them.  Some suppliers, such as Cyanotech, reported market demand had increased as much as ten times in the months following the segment, and has shown no sign of cooling off.  The major suppliers in the sphere: Valensa, via its parent company Parry Nutraceuticals, Cyanotech, Algatechnologies and Fuji via its Swedish subsidiary AstraReal, have struggled to meet this demand.  

All have made major investments in either expanded algae production or increased processing capabilities. While those efforts are close to bearing fruit, suppliers of synthetic astaxanthin have stepped in to fill the breach.  First to market was DSM with its AstaZana ingredient, and some synthetic ingredients are availaible from Chinese comapnies. Next up will be Valensa itself, which is close to market with its own synthetic ingredient.

Three algae astaxanthin producers (Algatech, Cyanotech and Fuji) have responded by forming the Natural Astaxanthin Association (NAXA), which purports to emphasize the differences between the natural forms and the synthetic ones.  The natural producers say that the evidence of benefits pertains to the natural forms which have been used in human studies, and also say they have proven the safety of their ingredients via New Dietary Ingredient notifications. DSM, for its part, says the safety of its ingredient has been proven via a food additive petition, which the company says holds an ingredient to a higher level of safety than does a NDI submission.

 

Patent litigation

If it seems this is a view of the astaxathin for eye health picture with only one eye open, the reason is this:  A court battle hangs over the sector, with longtime players Cyanotech and Valensa locked in a lawsuit that has now stretched over several years.  The litigation covers several aspects of supply, but also pertains to an eye health patent. Valensa holds the rights to a patent (US 5527533) first awarded to Mark Tso, PhD, of the University of Illinois, who was the first to prove that astaxanthin crossed the blood-brain-retina barrier.  Via direct measurement of retinal astaxanthin concentrations, he demonstrated protection of photo-receptors, ganglion and neuronal cell damage, according to the patent.  With the litigation in progress, other players in the astaxanthin sphere were reluctant to weigh in on the subject.

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