Growing demand for red-hot antioxidant

By Dominique Patton in Tel Aviv

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Antioxidant, Marketing

Israel-based Algatechnologies says the little-known carotenoid
astaxanthin is set for rapid growth in coming years, with strong
interest from Japan prompting it to boost both capacity and
marketing activities this year.

It recently announced that it will increase its capacity by 120 per cent this year to reach 1.4 metric tons from April. But speaking at the plant in Israel's Arava desert, chairman Ed Hofland said that further expansion is anticipated.

"I expect that in a year we will do the next doubling of the factory. We're already making plans regarding the site and getting the financials in place,"​ he told NutraIngredients.com.

Marketing manager Efrat Kat says that some significant contracts have been signed in Japan where it is used in supplements, drinks and cosmetics.

Hofland added: "The signs from Japan are very positive. And as Japan is often one to three years ahead of Europe, where we're starting to see the first good signs too, we're expecting a 30, 40 or 50 per cent growth rate."

Astaxanthin, the nutrient that gives salmon its pink colour, has been found to be a potent antioxidant, with tests suggesting that it may have a free radical fighting capacity worth 500 times that of vitamin E.

While other natural compounds from the same carotenoid family are already marketed as antioxidant supplements in much greater quantities - lycopene and beta-carotene - those seeking to build a similar market for astaxanthin say it could have an advantage over other carotenoids because of its molecular make-up.

The astaxanthin molecule can cross the blood brain barrier - unlike lycopene or beta-carotene - giving it the potential to positively impact the central nervous system and vision.

Research on animals and some human clinical trials have suggested that the carotenoid may help protect against cataracts and UVA damage to the skin, as well as a number of other serious conditions such as stroke.

As a result, a small handful of companies are producing the ingredient, mainly from algae in a complex process, to offer supplement and food makers.

The ingredient is still expensive at between $10,000 - 15,000 per kg from Algatechnologies. But the company, the most recent entrant to the market, has an exclusive license to a patented process that it claims gives it significant cost advantages over its biggest rival in astaxanthin for supplements.

Using 170km of transparent tubing to enclose the Haematococcus pluvialis​ algae cultures, it exploits a natural energy source - the year-round sunlight in Israel - for its process. Intense light puts the algae - initially a greenish colour when healthy - under stress so that they produce the bright red pigment astaxanthin in defence.

This red biomass is then delicately dried and shipped to the US in flakes where supercritical carbon dioxide extraction draws out the pure astaxanthin.

While it is already looking for better, more productive strains of algae, Algatechnologies is also seeking to grow awareness of the market and plans to do more marketing of its product this year, particularly at trade shows.

It will add two new forms of the ingredient to its AstaPure range, including a 2.3 per cent vegetarian beadlet, expected to be available by the end of January, appealing to a wider range of consumers.

It is also looking at the food market and a new form using nano sized molecules will allow for delivery into beverages.

"We intend to develop and regulate the product for other markets like food products and animal health," said Kat.

In Europe, food fortified with astaxanthin may take some time coming and Algatechnologies is not rushing to start the regulatory process, content with growing a good supplement business in Italy and seeking new distributors elsewhere.

But a bigger supplement market is likely to prompt interest from the major carotenoid suppliers as well as create downward pressure on prices, both factors that could be key to the development of the food category.

Related topics: Suppliers, Antioxidants/carotenoids

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