All in the Family

June 8, 2006

Riding high on a 19% increase in dollar-volume sales over last year, antioxidants are poised to enter the mainstream. AC Nielsen (Schaumburg, IL) predicts that antioxidants will be one of the fastest-growing consumer health segments in 2006, with so-called “health activists” spending more on the category than any other market segment. In 2005, products that contained antioxidants saw a 31% gain in dollar sales among health activists and a 52% increase among “health neglectors” who aren’t overly concerned about nutrition.

 

Riding high on a 19% increase in dollar-volume sales over last year, antioxidants are poised to enter the mainstream. AC Nielsen (Schaumburg, IL) predicts that antioxidants will be one of the fastest-growing consumer health segments in 2006, with so-called “health activists” spending more on the category than any other market segment. In 2005, products that contained antioxidants saw a 31% gain in dollar sales among health activists and a 52% increase among “health neglectors” who aren’t overly concerned about nutrition.

While in the past, multivitamins were the most popular source of antioxidants for consumers, foods and supplements have been making strong gains, with products containing members of the carotenoid family among the rising stars. Consumers are paying particularly close attention to the latest research on carotenoids, as new clinical studies continue to suggest that the antioxidant-rich nutrients may offer benefits that extend beyond general wellness and address specific health concerns.

“The market for carotenoids has been shifting from the general use concept to more condition-specific applications,” says Charles DePrince, president of Fuji Health Sciences Inc. (Mount Laurel, NJ), which produces AstaReal astaxanthin harvested from the algae Haematococcus pluvialis. “This change has created more overall awareness of perceived benefit and increased sales. The trend is continuing to build as additional science comes to light and new carotenoids such as astaxanthin receive greater exposure.”

Examples of the new data include studies that link lycopene to cardiovascular health, lutein to eye health, and astaxanthin to relief from inflammation. In addition, market research strongly suggests that consumers are paying attention to the latest research findings. “Consumers are becoming more aware of the role that certain foods or food components may have in promoting health and reducing the risk of disease,” according to Susan Borra, RD, president of the International Food Information Council (IFIC; Washington, DC), which found during a recent survey that a majority of consumers were aware of research tying lycopene to a reduction in the risk of certain cancers. While lycopene and lutein make up the vanguard of the next wave of antioxidants to go mainstream, adds Elizabeth Sloan, president of Sloan Trends & Solutions (Escondido, CA), other members of the carotenoid family are just moving beyond the specialty and health food channels.

LYCOPENE’S MAGIC NUMBER

IFIC found in its latest consumer survey that 57 is a magic number, not just for tomato product manufacturer H. J. Heinz (Pittsburgh), but also for the nutrient lycopene. In the survey, 57% of respondents reported that lycopene may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. While most consumers may believe in lycopene’s potential benefits, FDA is not completely convinced. Last year the agency declined two petitions for health claims linking lycopene consumption to a reduction in cancer risk, opting instead for a health claim with wording that referred to tomato products in general. According to Lori Danzig, senior management adviser to LycoRed Ltd. (Beer Sheva, Israel), FDA’s decision suggests that there may be other nutrients in addition to lycopene that are responsible for the beneficial effects of tomatoes.

“FDA scientists did a very careful evaluation of the science,” explains Danzig. “The studies that were of the highest quality and had significant results involved study subjects who ingested whole tomato products. Based upon this fact, FDA could conclude that the mixture of phytonutrients found naturally in tomato reduced risk of prostate cancer, but FDA could not conclude that any single phytonutrient acting alone would produce the same effect.”

While the jury may still be out on lycopene and prostate cancer, researchers also have been looking into other possible applications for tomato carotenoids. For instance, Japanese researchers reported in the February issue of the American Journal of Physiology: Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology that feeding tomato juice to mice prevented them from developing cigarette smoke–induced emphysema. The researchers theorized that the tomato juice counteracted apoptosis and increased tissue levels of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which is released when cells don’t produce enough oxygen.

Kuniaki Seyama, the study’s project leader and a researcher at Juntendo University School of Medicine (Tokyo), added that the findings may not apply to people. “We can’t simply accept that these results go beyond the mouse model,” wrote the researchers. “They are not so smoothly applied to human beings.” The authors also echoed FDA’s reasoning by noting that lycopene alone may not be responsible for the results. “Since the mice were given tomato juice instead of pure lycopene preparation,” the scientists wrote, “we cannot exclude the possibility that other ingredients contained in tomato juice affected the results.”

Another potential application for lycopene and other tomato nutrients is in the field of cardiovascular health. At the American Society of Hypertension’s (New York City) 20th Annual Scientific Meeting, held last May in San Francisco, Esther Paran, MD, presented findings from a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial that found that LycoRed’s Lyc-O-Mato tomato extracts could lower blood pressure in patients with moderate hypertension. “The results of this study are particularly important because our subjects had previously been unsuccessful at lowering their blood pressure using one or two drug methods,” according to Paran. “We attribute the reduction in blood pressure to the antioxidant activity of the tomato extract Lyc-O-Mato and the increase in nitric oxide.”

Zohar Nir, PhD, vice president of sales and marketing for LycoRed, which supplied the extracts used in the study, says Paran’s findings verify the results of a similar trial involving LycoRed’s Lyc-O-Mato tomato extracts that appeared in the January 2006 edition of the American Heart Journal. In another recent study, researchers from the University of Milan in Italy reported that Lyc-O-Mato consumption caused a 34% reduction of tumor necrosis factor-a (TNF-a), a cytokine that is involved in inflammation associated with cardiovascular disease. The authors of the study, which was published in the March issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, called for more research to confirm their findings. “Our data indicate that Lyc-O-Mato, specifically the carotenoids it contains, affects the overall antioxidant balance and the reactivity of lymphocytes, in turn directly or indirectly modulating the markers we analyzed,” according to lead author Patrizia Riso. “However, we need to underline that further studies are necessary in order to verify the effect of the extract on other important cytokines before a definitive conclusion can be drawn.”

ASTAXANTHIN GAINING GROUND

A second carotenoid poised to make the jump into mainstream consumer consciousness is astaxanthin, the antioxidant pigment responsible for the pink coloring of some marine animals. Like other antioxidants, astaxanthin once was seen simply as a food supplement that promoted general health and well-being. Preliminary research on the ingredient’s potential applications combined with new marketing campaigns by suppliers and retailers, however, has propelled astaxanthin to greater heights. According to Neil Levin, nutrition education manager for NOW Foods (Bloomingdale, IL), research is the market driver for astaxanthin products.

“In the early stage of astaxanthin marketing, the sale was directed to the industry with a sluggish response at the consumer level,” says Fuji’s DePrince. “Astaxanthin was a new ingredient looking for its mark. With time, the breadth and depth of its science increased and astaxanthin began to command more attention from the industry experts.”

One of the most promising applications for astaxanthin may turn out to be eye health, according to DePrince. Fuji has supplied the astaxanthin used in seven clinical studies that examine the carotenoid’s effects on eye fatigue, and an eighth study currently is in progress. “Weakness or fatigue of the eyes, usually accompanied by headache and dimming of vision, is primarily due to errors of refraction and excessive contraction of the ciliary muscle,” explains DePrince. “Astaxanthin has the ability to reduce inflammation of the ciliary body of the eye, which reduces the fatigue of this small ocular muscle responsible for the continuous adjustment in the lens thickness to focus light on the retina.”

New Organic Spirulina Standards Criticized

 

 

Two leading suppliers of microalgae announced in March that they would halt production of organic spirulina, citing concerns that new standards mandated by USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) could lead to lower-quality products.

Earthrise Nutritionals (Irvine, CA) and Cyanotech Corp. (Kailua Kona, Hawaii) both use a mined, water-soluble form of nitrogen to manufacture spirulina that was previously allowed under an older set of standards but is now disallowed under the new standards. The new standards, which are intended to prevent ground seepage and runoff, went into effect last October.

According to the companies, the use of pond liners and closed-loop systems in aquatic farming operations renders the nitrogen harmless. Moreover, the companies warned that the nitrogen sources allowed under the new standards could make things worse.

Taro Ichimoto, executive vice president and COO of Earthrise, notes that both companies spent years analyzing different nitrogen sources and concluded that switching sources would compromise product safety. “Teams of scientists from both companies concluded that the potential for very high bacterial levels and heavy metals is far too great under the new standard,” Ichimoto says. “Although consumers like to see the word organic on the label, we won’t produce an organic spirulina if it compromises the safety of the product.”

“I can’t speak for NOSB, but I believe that they wanted to standardize the rules for every product,” adds Bob Capelli, vice president of sales at Cyanotech. “By disallowing the use of water-soluble nitrogen sources, they essentially put aquatic-grown species on the exact same playing field as terrestrial-grown species, when in essence they are completely different.”

 

Bob Capelli, vice president of sales for Cyanotech Corp. (Kailua Kona, HI), which supplies BioAstin astaxanthin, adds that other areas of research include inflammation, immunity, strength and endurance, and skin protection. “Results from our recent research indicate that BioAstin reduces C-reactive protein (CRP) by more than 20% in only eight weeks,” Capelli says. “University researchers in both Korea and Japan have also shown that astaxanthin is a wide-spectrum antiinflammatory that works through multiple pathways to reduce inflammation.” In addition, Cyanotech announced in March that it had just completed an eight-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of BioAstin’s effects on tennis elbow. The study, which involved 21 subjects, showed that volunteers who took BioAstin experienced a 93% increase in grip strength without pain. “These findings may lead to greatly improving the standard of living for those who suffer from such muscle tendon disorders,” explains Gerald Cysewski, PhD, Cyanotech’s president and CEO. “They add to our growing body of knowledge about the positive effects and health benefits of BioAstin natural astaxanthin.”

Encouraged by the new research, companies like Fuji and Cyanotech have been boosting their promotional campaigns to educate retailers and consumers. “Recently, a flurry of activity was derived from the voice of Dr. Nicholas Perricone, who has been reporting the benefits of AstaReal astaxanthin as an exceptional carotenoid,” DePrince says. “His appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show and PBS fundraiser has generated more awareness of astaxanthin than anything else to this point.”

“We’ve seen nice increases in demand for BioAstin from many of our existing bulk customers, as well as new customers over the last few years,” adds Capelli, who notes that Cyanotech also signed a distribution agreement in China last year. “The word is getting out about what a great antiinflammatory and antioxidant BioAstin is, and how it has functional properties that people can feel.”

LUTEIN IN THE LAB

Lutein may see some big gains in the years ahead, thanks to a new study being conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s (Bethesda, MD) National Eye Institute (NEI). NEI scientists currently are working on AREDS II, a new phase of the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) that analyzed the effects of antioxidants on the progression of age-related macular degeneration (AMD). While the original AREDS trial focused on antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and zinc, the new research will examine the potential benefits of lutein and its isomer zeaxanthin. The trial results may add to the impact of a study released last fall by the Lewin Group (Falls Church, VA) that predicted that regular use of lutein and zeaxanthin supplements among seniors could save $2.5 billion in healthcare costs over five years.

According to Manuel Pavon, general manager of Chrysantis (West Chicago, IL), which supplies EZ Eyes zeaxanthin, several products that combine lutein and zeaxanthin were launched over the past year. “Macular degeneration is one of the age-related conditions that people are learning to guard against through supplementation,” Pavon says. “The Lewin study correctly points out that when it comes to the prevention of AMD, one should look for products containing both zeaxanthin and lutein.”

Aside from the NEI researchers, other scientists are looking into lutein and zeaxanthin as well. Johanna Seddon, MD, director of epidemiology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (Boston), reported in the April issue of Nutrition that dietary intake of carotenoids and foods rich in lutein and zeaxanthin was associated with lower levels of CRP. Conversely, smoking and increased body mass were linked with higher levels of CRP.

RED HOT

Market research suggests that antioxidants in general-and carotenoids in particular-may be among the hottest nutritional trends of the future. Consumer appetite for these nutrients stems both from publicity linked to research studies and heightened marketing efforts. “There is a growing awareness of the health benefits of plant pigments, including carotenoids,” says NOW’s Levin. “This follows from the research that is often focused on single compounds or groups of related compounds.” Meanwhile, carotenoid suppliers are optimistic that they are about to experience their day in the sun. “I foresee astaxanthin catching up to other better-known carotenoids such as lutein and lycopene in the near future,” predicts Cyanotech’s Capelli.