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Special edition: Antioxidants and Carotenoids

Pterostilbene and ergothioneine: A rich man-poor man story of antioxidant marketing

By Hank Schultz , 15-Mar-2013

With antioxidants that are relatively new to the market, strong scientific evidence backing benefits and modes of action is crucial to constructing a coherent ingredient story, experts say.  The tale of two antioxidants, ergothioneine and pterostilbene, illustrates the point.

Ergothioneine is a sulfur containing amino acid that functions as an antioxidant. Mushrooms are a primary source of ergothioneine in nature; commercial quantities of this ingredient are synthesized chemically.   Pterostilbene is in the family of chemicals—stilbenoids—that also includes resveratrol. Small quantities of this compound can be found in blueberries and grapes and other plant sources, and, like ergothioneine, it can be synthesized chemically.

The similarities between the two ingredients end there, at least as far as their respective market histories go.

With ingredients like these two, with no real history of use to fall back upon to tell a story of what the ingredient’s strengths might be, scientific results are paramount.  The trouble with ergothioneine, experts say, is that no one can say for sure what those strengths are.

“The primary reason why ergothioneine hasn’t taken off is there are no obvious health effects that people have identified,” said Jung Suh, PhD, associate staff scientist of the nutrition science group at the Children’s Hospital of Oakland in California.

“There is no obvious detriment of its deficiency and no obvious benefit of its supplementation that has been proven clinically,” Suh told NutraIngredients-USA.

Mode of action unclear

Ergothioneine has been known for a long time.  It was first identified in 1911, and researchers have discovered that there are large amounts of ergothioneine present in some tissues of the body and the body has developed mechanisms for its retention. By putting all these factors together researchers concluded that the compound must be there for a reason, and the reason seemed pretty important.  But, unfortunately for potential marketers of the ingredient, that’s where the trail grew cold.

“We have a lot of antioxidants to begin with and they are dynamically regulating the cellular environment.  And the question is, how does ergothioneine fit into this overall network? To date there is no demonstration for how it functions as an antioxidant in a physiological setting,” Suh said.

Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, of Penn State University, is among the few researchers who have studied the substance.  She helped conduct a study on ergothioneine administered in a mushroom powder that concluded that the ingredient is bioavailable.  Interestingly, the study also observed a post-prandial triglyceride blunting effect.  But much more research is needed, she said.

“There’s not a lot of research on it.  I think it takes research to bring an ingredient to the forefront.  People just haven’t heard about it. It does have antioxidant activity, but what does that mean?” she said.

Market entry difficult sans story

One company, Oxis International, sought to bring ergothioneine to the forefront and sponsored the first (and to date only) World Congress on Ergothioneine at UCLA in July, 2011.  Oxis’ attempt to market an ingredient that contained ergothioneine seems to be in limbo.

Another company pushing a pure ergothioneine ingredient is Romainville, France-based Tetrahedron. The company and its principal, Jean Claude Yedan, are said to have developed a more cost-effective method for synthesizing the ingredient.  But even with that advantage, the picture is cloudy.  The company’s website lists a number of studies listing positive actions of the substance, some of which date from the 1950s.  But while tantalizing, they don’t add up to a coherent picture.

Despite numerous studies, the in vivo role of L-ergothioneine remains unknown today,” the website states.

Rich man: pterostilbene

The picture is quite different for pterostilbene.  The ingredient has been pushed by ChromaDex, a company with the scientific, financial and marketing wherewithal to drive the development of its synthetic, bio-identical form of pterostilbene branded as pTeroPure. (Competitor Sabinsa Corp. also has a nature-derived pterostilbene ingredient.)

Frank Jaksch, co-founder and CEO of ChromaDex, said pterostilbene’s chemical similarity to resveratrol helped it get its first leg up in the marketplace.

“Resveratrol has been continuing to grow in the market.  When we came in with pterostilbene, we came in with an alternative, sort of superior version sort of a story.

But we have really been trying to avoid drawing a parallel to resveratrol because we really want pterostilbene to stand on its own,” Jaksch said.

Science underpins story

ChromaDex has investing heavily in science backing the ingredient, including a 2012 study showing positive effects on blood pressure.  It’s part of a coordinated strategy for the development of the ingredient that included the launch of a direct-to-consumer dietary supplement line called BluScience that was recently sold to Canadian supplement marketing firm NeutriSci International.  But Jaksch said ChromaDex retained the rights to the ingredient, and will continue to develop the science behind its benefits to further strengthen its position in the marketplace.

“Chromadex has really been driving the ship on that,” Jaksch said.  Bottom line, when people think about pterostilbene, they think about ChromaDex first.

“We announced self affirmation of GRAS for the compound, and that’s a necessary evil from a regulatory aspect,” Jaksch said.

“We are going to continue to do studies.  ChromaDex is prepared to make the investments necessary to take these things to the clinic.  We are going to continue to publish that data,” he said.

Downplaying antioxidant aspect

Even though the ingredient is a powerful antioxidant, Jaksch said, you’re not going to hear much about it from him.  He said ChromaDex wants the story to be about proven health benefits, not numbers.

“We’ve never talked about ORAC and you are never going to hear us talk about ORAC.  As far as I’m concerned it’s a biochemically derived number that has no real relation to human efficacy. We are going to do human studies.  We want an ingredient supported by human data, not a phantom ORAC number,” he said.

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