The growth of the astaxanthin market has overshadowed what officials at AstaReal, a subsidiary of Japanese company Fuji Chemical Industries, have said is a growing concern in the market, namely all astaxanthin ingredients are not created equal. The company has embarked on a plan to develop and build out a closed loop, multi-tank production process that yields an ingredient that they maintain is demonstrably superior to competitors’ products on various chemical measures and has been willing to do so even though there is as yet no clear way to differentiate top shelf astaxanthin from more generic products at the retail level.
Early supply pinch
The astaxanthin market got a huge boost during the heyday of the so-called “Dr. Oz Effect,” before the good doctor’s uncomfortable appearance before a Congressional committee dampened his influence somewhat. Health products promoter Dr. Joseph Mercola touted the ingredient’s antioxidant benefits during a segment of the show in 2011, and demand for the carotenoid shot through the roof, but supply was slow to follow. Unlike some other Dr Oz beneficiaries like raspberry ketones or green coffee bean extract that like Icarus rose and then crashed, the demand for astaxanthin has remained robust. Making more astaxanthin is more complicated than simply planting additional fields to meet rising demand as might be the case for some botanical ingredients.
AstaReal chose to address the supply issue by building a state-of-the-art plant in Moses Lake, WA. The plant is based on technology pioneered by Swedish company AstaReal AB at a smaller facility near Stockholm before it was acquired by Fuji. The company was attracted to the technology because it married well with Fuji’s pharmaceutical wellsprings. Fuji, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, brought to market one of the early OTC antacid ingredients, a product that is still on the market. During a plant visit at the Moses Lake facility, AstaReal CEO Arun Nair PhD stressed the point that he believes the process the company has in place features the tightest process controls in the industry and yields an ingredient with the most rigorous specifications.
“When we say we are the finest and purest, what do we mean? We think there is a huge difference in quality and purity,” Nair said.
Purity built into process
AstaReal built a facility at Moses Lake to put that purity message into practice. Unlike some other companies that manufacture astaxanthin via the cultivation of the Haematococcus pluvialis algal species out of doors in ponds or tube photobioreactor systems, AstaReal eschewed the open pond concept. Proponents of that approach claim that the open ponds are low cost and easily cleaned, and they tend to be located in relatively pristine environments with low loads of endemic potential contaminants such as wild algal strains, fungi and industrial pollution deposition (those parameters would apply to Moses Lake, too). Still, critics such as AstaReal say that anything could make its way into those ponds and even proponents of the method will say that they are growing a ‘culture’ which is engineered in such a way that the target species predominates. And out of doors photobioreactors are still more susceptible to contamination than a closed indoor system, the company maintains.
Nair said AstaReal, following on Fuji’s pharmaceutical background, focused on a process that grows Haematococcus and nothing else. That growth is fostered via a stepped tank process, in which the algae are grown in a series of ever larger tanks under artificial light and are transferred from one to the next via closed piping with no exposure to the atmosphere. Visitors to the plant follow pharmaceutical protocols, too, including full gowns (not lab coats), booties bathed at intervals throughout the tour in antiseptic foot baths, gloves smeared with antibacterial foam and so forth.
The end stage of the process are the largest tanks where the algae are stressed by being bombarded with ultra high light levels while simultaneously being starved of nutrients. It is at this stage that the cells produce astaxanthin, which in the freshwater species’ natural life cycle helps preserve the cells in this cyst like state while they wait out bad times. The biomass then goes through a dewatering and drying process and then a grinding process using beads that is common in the pharmaceutical industry to crush the cell walls to prepare for extraction. The result is a very dark red, slightly oily powder that is vacuum bagged and refrigerated in preparation to be sent to a production partner for extraction using only CO2 into an oleoresin, the form of astaxanthin that predominates in the North American market.
“We are the only manufacturer producing completely indoors under controlled conditions,” Nair said.
A question of power
Those controlled conditions, the chilling of water to the proper temperature and in particular the provision of copious amounts of artificial lighting, require a lot of energy. Nair said this was the big attraction with Moses Lake, as clean and relatively cheap hydropower is available in the region supplied by the Grand Coulee Dam. And Nair said that producing in the US, while potentially more expensive in some ways, offers a quality advantage because of all the regulations a company like AstaReal must comply with to do business here. Things have gone so well with the ramp up of production at the plant that Nair said plans are already well under way for a significant expansion.
“We are currently working on expansion plans but that depends on how we see the market. The current statistics show the astaxanthin market is growing about 7% to 8%. We have grown considerably in the past three years, much more than that,” he said.
Nair said that the company’s underlying pharmaceutical mindset has also helped it to stay the course of investment into the development of the ingredient. AstaReal has sponsored numerous studies into the ingredient, and Nair said it can be difficult to sit still when other companies freely cite that literature.
“There are more than 400 studies on astaxanthin in the public realm About 100 of those use our ingredient and 50 of those are our own clinical studies sponsored by AstaReal. We have spent considerable time and resources on that research and then some of our competitors have tried to link these studies to their own brands,” he said.
“As a as a pharmaceutical company we were definitely looking at an evidence-based and science-backed ingredient. We knew the path was we had to build clinical studies and we knew it would take time to bring it to market,” he said.
Natural vs synthetic
Fuji was one of the founders of the Natural Algae Astaxanthin Association (NAXA) along with Hawaii-based Cyanotech and Algatech of Israel. The association’s primary goal has been to convey to customers and consumers the difference between the natural forms and synthetic forms (long used as colorants in fish feed) of the ingredient, and to emphasize the message that because of the sterioisomer differences between the two sources, the science backing the health effects of the ingredient apply only to the natural forms. That mission has to some degree been accomplished, and Nair said AstaReal chose to withdraw from the organization because having all of the suppliers under one roof, including newer entrants from China, implied that all of the natural ingredients were of the same quality.
“We believe that what we have is the best in the world and we stand by what we say. The regulations you have to comply with to have a US facility makes for a high quality operation. Facilities operating in some other countries can perhaps get around some of these regulations. Our ingredient is free of some of the impurities like solvent residues that can be found in other ingredients. At the moment the industry as a whole is not as severe about some of these impurities as we are,” Nair said.