The firm has applied to the UK's Food Standards Agency for an opinion on its Zanthin brand astaxanthin, extracted from the algae Haematococcus pluvialis using super critical carbon dioxide extraction. Algae-derived ingredients usually require a 'novel foods approval' before reaching the European market but US Nutra says its product is similar to another already available in Europe.
The Haematococcus pluvialis microalgae is part of the diet of fish like salmon and lobster and its rich astaxanthin content is responsible for the pink colour in their flesh.
Astaxanthin, a carotenoid, has in the past been manufactured mainly for feeding to farmed salmon to enhance their colour. But recent studies suggesting that astaxanthin is a more powerful antioxidant than the vitamins C and E, and even other carotenoids such as lutein, lycopene and beta-carotene, has spurred new sales to supplement makers.
New applications are particularly welcome after a downturn in Europe's salmon industry during 2001 hit makers of the ingredient hard. While demand for fish is growing again, supplements could offer higher margins for the ingredient.
Frost & Sullivan estimates that astaxanthin is now one of the fastest growing carotenoids in Europe. European carotenoids were worth $348.5 million in 2003, with 17 per cent of this coming from supplements. But currently less than 1 ton of astaxanthin is going into supplements per year, compared to up to 150 tons for the aquaculture industry.
The Israel-based Algatechnologies, which supplies US Nutra with algae for extraction, is trying to grow the market however, aiming to benefit from demand for natural ingredients despite a more costly production process.
"The natural astaxanthin produced from our microalgae is different from the synthetic variety. First, it contains a different isomer composition. Secondly, the pigment is esterified, which means it is more stable than the synthetic version. You also get other lipid soluble components in the algae, which could add to its health benefits," Amir Drory, R&D manager at Algatechnologies told NutraIngredients.com.
Natural products also have the benefits of being closer to those found in nature, safely consumed by salmon and other fish in the animal food chain.
However with significant price differences between synthetic and natural astaxanthin, new producers rely heavily on the health benefits. The synthetic variety costs $2000 per kg but the natural algae biomass is worth three to four times this much, while the CO2 extracted oleoresin, ready for human applications, goes for up to eight times the value of the synthetic ingredient.
"There is some strong evidence of health benefits but not enough human data yet and this means public awareness of benefits is still low. But we have got the wheel turning and are hoping that with new research, astaxanthin will become as well known as beta-carotene and lutein," added Drory.
U.S. Nutra, which operates the only supercritical fluid extraction facility in North America devoted exclusively to production of nutraceutical ingredients, has indicated that its astaxanthin product should be treated as substantially equivalent to a dried meal produced by Swedish company AstaCarotene (owned by Japan-based Fuji Chemical Industries), on the EU market since at least 1995.
'Substantially equivalent' means they are equivalent in regard to their composition, nutritional value, metabolism, intended use, and level of any undesirable substances. If the FSA supports this finding, approval will be a great deal faster and the ingredient could be on the market this year.
US Nutra is also the leading saw palmetto processor worldwide and produces other extracts such as valerian, ginger, and rosemary.
Any comments on this application should be sent to the FSA's ACNFP Secretariat by 6 April and will be passed to the Committee before it finalises its opinion on the food.