Astaxanthin Adulteration in the U.S. Market

November 18, 2013

The market for algal astaxanthin may be full of synthetic and yeast-derived forms.

Flamingos, crabs, and other animals get their red color from dining on Haematococcus microalgae. It’s a primary source of the carotenoid astaxanthin, which consumers are increasingly aware of for its antioxidant potential. But as astaxanthin supplements grow in popularity, many human consumers are presumably and unknowingly purchasing adulterated astaxanthin.

Cyanotech Corp. (Kailua-Kona, HI), a supplier of algae-derived astaxanthin, says it recently conducted tests on raw material of astaxanthin and discovered that much of it is inappropriately labeled as containing natural astaxanthin from microalgae. The samples in question actually contain astaxanthin from petrochemicals or genetically-mutated yeast. The former source does not appear to have approval for consumption in any country, and yeast-derived astaxanthin only has limited approval in select countries. While the United States allows the sale of yeast-derived astaxanthin with a recommended daily dosage of 2 mg, the ingredient is not approved for children.

Gerald Cysewski, PhD, chief science officer and founder of Cyanotech, says the adulteration is sliding into the market because it is difficult to distinguish between natural and synthetic astaxanthin in lab tests.

“If you compare algae-based astaxanthin to the synthetic or yeast-based varieties, you find that they have the same chemical formula, but the molecules are shaped completely differently,” says Cysewski, adding that natural astaxanthin is esterified with fatty acids and naturally occurring with other carotenoids, such as lutein and beta-carotene. “Even though they all have the same chemical formula, the three forms of astaxanthin are totally different products.”

Natural astaxanthin is quite challenging to grow, says Cyanotech. In order to satisfy a demand that is currently outrunning supply, there appears to be mislabeled, illegal, and untested astaxanthin on the local market.

Cyanotech markets Hawaiian-grown BioAstin astaxanthin, blended with safflower oil, in dietary supplement gelcaps.