The Science Behind Astaxanthin

May 1, 2017

The health-promoting properties of astaxanthin, the red, fat-soluble pigment found in freshwater microalgae Haematococcus pluvialis, continue to intrigue health-savvy consumers worldwide. According to a 2015 report from Research and Markets, the global market for synthetic and naturally derived astaxanthin is projected to reach $1.1 billion by 2020. With applications in the antiaging, nutraceutical, cosmetics, and food and beverage sectors, astaxanthin has cast a wide net on the natural ingredient market.


Astaxanthin’s Biological Potential

It turns out that the commotion created around astaxanthin is fueled by an increasing number of research studies looking at its in vitro and in vivo effects. Until now, astaxanthin has been attributed a range of biological activities, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory effects, as well as anti-diabetic, anticancer, and cardioprotective properties.1 In fact, it is considered one of the most potent natural antioxidants.

“Natural astaxanthin is 20–90 times stronger than all other antioxidants,” says Traci Kantowski, communications director at the Natural Algae Astaxanthin Association (NAXA). “For example, it is 794 times stronger than CoQ10 and 36 times stronger than beta-carotene.” 

Kantowski further notes that a 2007 study in Carotenoid Science found that, overall, astaxanthin exhibited the most potent singlet oxygen–quenching activity among other well-known antioxidants, including lutein, quercetin, resveratrol, CoQ10, ascorbic acid, and α-tocopherol.2

In addition to its impressive antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action, Kantowski emphasizes that astaxanthin has been shown to be beneficial to brain, eye, and skin health, as well as muscle endurance and sports vision.

A recent review published in Food & Function confirmed the existence of solid in vitro and in vivo evidence for astaxanthin’s antioxidant effects, but also pointed to a need for additional research on astaxanthin in human subjects with pre-existing atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease (CVD).3 With inflammation implicated in the pathogenesis of CVD, the anti-inflammatory action of astaxanthin is a current focus area for both astaxanthin suppliers and consumers. 


Deeper into Science

The rising consumer demand for astaxanthin-derived products has served as an incentive for astaxanthin suppliers to allocate more time and money to the research aimed at uncovering the potential health benefits, and filling in any existing knowledge gaps, about this promising ingredient. 

“There seem to be new scientific studies published every couple of months on the potential health benefits of astaxanthin, adding to an already large base of scientific evidence,” says Gerald R. Cysewski, PhD, founder, president, and CEO of Cyanotech (Kailua-Kona, HI). His company sponsored a study at the University of South Florida to test the bioavailability of six different astaxanthin formulations, including the standard astaxanthin/oil softgels, enteric-coated softgels, water-soluble astaxanthin emulsion, water-dispersible astaxanthin, and liposomal astaxanthin. 

“We were expecting to see a two- to three-times-higher bioavailability of astaxanthin in formulations using new technology for water-soluble/dispersible and liposomal astaxanthin; however, the results were not very exciting,” says Cysewski. The study found “relatively little difference in the bioavailability of astaxanthin between the six formulations, as long as astaxanthin is consumed with a meal that contains some fat.” Cysewski further notes that it was reassuring to see that the company’s standard astaxanthin oil softgel is very bioavailable.


  1. Ambati RR et al., “Astaxanthin: sources, extraction, stability, biological activities and its commercial applications–a review,” Marine Drugs, vol. 12, no. 1 (January 2014): 128-152 
  2. Nishida Y et al., “Quenching activities of common hydrophilic and lipophilic antioxidants against singlet oxygen using chemiluminescence detection system,” Carotenoid Science, vol. 11 (January 2007): 16-20
  3. Visioli F et al., “Astaxanthin in cardiovascular health and disease: mechanisms of action, therapeutic merits, and knowledge gaps,” Food & Function, vol. 8, no. 1 (January 2017): 39-63
  4. Hongo N et al., “Randomized controlled trial of the anti-fatigue effects of astaxanthin on mental and physical loads simulating daily life,” Journal of Clinical Therapeutics & Medicines, vol. 32, no. 7 (July 2016): 277-291