‘Longevity vitamin’ spurs human trials, preps for market growth

By Asia Sherman

- Last updated on GMT

© EmirMemedovski / Getty Images
© EmirMemedovski / Getty Images

Related tags Ergothioneine healthy aging mushrooms Conagen Cognitive health Immune health

After years of slowly building hype about its essential micronutrient function in the human body, ergothioneine may finally be ready for its moment – with just a little more research.

“The global ergothioneine market is growing rapidly and steadily, with analysts projecting a CAGR of 36.2% over 2022-2029,” said Linda May-Zhang, Ph.D., VP of Innovation at Blue California. “Strong drivers of this growth include the large body of research and emerging human studies to support multiple roles of ergothioneine in human health and aging.” 

Blue California, the first to produce L-ergothioneine via fermentation, launched its ErgoActive ingredient in 2015​ as an alternative to chemical synthesis and mushroom extraction.

An underrecognized dietary micronutrient?

In a recent review published in the British Journal of Nutrition​, food scientists at the University of Leeds explored whether ergothioneine is attracting enough attention as a dietary micronutrient for healthy aging. 

“An increasing body of evidence suggests ergothioneine may be an important dietary nutrient for the prevention of a variety of inflammatory and cardiometabolic diseases; and ergothioneine has alternately been suggested as a vitamin, ‘longevity vitamin’​ and nutraceutical,” they wrote.

Discovered in 1909 in the ergot fungus by French chemist Charles Tanret, ergothioneine is a sulfur-based amino acid found at its highest levels in mushrooms and fermented foods. Exclusively biosynthesized by fungi and mycobacteria, it is captured by plants through their roots and only available to humans through diet. In 2005, Dirk Gründemann and his colleagues at the University of Cologne found that humans have a powerful and highly specific transporter​ for the uptake of ergothioneine – sparking a scientific stir around its potential as essential micronutrient. 

“The expression of a highly specific transporter for ergothioneine in many human body cells (intestinal, liver, kidney, blood, skin cells and more) and the fact that knocking out this receptor in multiple organisms lead to increased oxidative stress and damage makes ergothioneine fascinating,” May-Zhang told NutraIngredients-USA. 

Preclinical and epidemiological research to date supports its function as a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory with additional metal chelation properties. High plasma ergothioneine levels have been associated with​ significantly reduced cardiovascular and overall mortality risks in humans, while low levels have been linked to poorer cognitive health in older populations. 

“Although a confluence of data suggests that ergothioneine acts as a powerful, pleiotropic cytoprotectant agent, and supplemental ergothioneine is already marketed direct to consumers for its anti-aging and anti-inflammatory effects, controlled human intervention trials are just beginning to directly investigate the effects of ergothioneine supplementation in humans,” the researchers in Leeds wrote.

Growing the science for healthy aging 

With the number of people over 60 expected to double by 2050, Blue California says that this population will be actively seeking solutions to the onset of cognitive, cardiovascular and immune health challenges.

“As a longevity vitamin, ergothioneine fits into these proactive interests to expand health and life spans,” May-Zhang said. “Since the body is prone to oxidative stress and inflammation with age, ergothioneine may be considered conditionally essential to healthy aging.”

Blue California continues to pursue its own research​ into effects of ergothioneine on cognitive health and immune function in older adults. These clinical trials build on an in vitro ​study published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements​ showing that ErgoActive inhibits shortening of telomeres (the caps on chromosomes) typically associated with oxidative stress and a biomarker of aging. The company filed patents on these findings and on the therapeutic uses of ergothioneine for chronic conditions associated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer and viral illness including Covid-19. 

In its review, the University of Leeds team previewed its upcoming ergothioneine trial on the effects of supplementation in middle-aged adults with metabolic syndrome, and researchers at Penn State University recently linked​ no-till agriculture to higher ergothioneine content in crops.

Scaling up commercialization

As the body of research continues to grow, so does the interest in commercializing ergothioneine as a nutraceutical additive in food and beverages, for cosmetic and personal care applications and in pharmaceutical products.

“Blue California has scaled up its brand ErgoActive ergothioneine as more research studies, particularly human studies, are ongoing or published,” May-Zhang said. “Ergothioneine has been suggested to be a longevity vitamin or conditionally essential nutrient, and we are beginning to understand its importance in supporting human health and function.”

Skye Chilton, chief operating officer at Nammex, told NutraIngredients-USA that the mushroom-extract company is working on an affordable solution that includes all of the other dense nutrients and benefits of eating the whole mushroom.

“Nammex is currently developing an extract from a mushroom species that naturally produces high levels of ergothioneine,” he said. “We believe that ergothioneine will not only be offered as a standalone vitamin type product, but will also be included in new, innovative foods and beverages. Because it comes from a food source, namely a mushroom, it is primed and ready to be utilized in many ways.”

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