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Jennifer Grebow is editor-in-chief of Nutritional Outlook.
Suppliers are now looking forward with a focus on new research, new applications, and even new algae strains.
According to natural-astaxanthin suppliers at SupplySide West, the industry’s struggles to meet rising demand with supply are long past. Suppliers are now looking forward with a focus on new research, new applications, and even new algae strains.
First off, companies reassure that the days when natural-astaxanthin suppliers couldn’t meet skyrocketing demand (back in around 2010–2011) are far behind. “The supply gap was short-lived. It’s almost ancient history,” said Joe Kuncewitch, national sales manager, AstaReal (Burlington, NJ). “Since then, folks like AstaReal have taken the care to do the right thing, and that is ramp up supply.”
In 2014, AstaReal opened a facility in Moses Lake, WA, where the company uses photobioreactors to produce AstaReal natural astaxanthin. Kuncewitch added that the firm also tripled capacity at its Gustavsberg, Sweden, facility, adding more indoor photobioreactor tanks to grow algae using UV light. “It’s a modular system, so we can just add more reactors and grow more algae,” he said, noting that expansion may not be so easy for astaxanthin suppliers engaged in autotrophic growing requiring open ponds.
Ed Hofland, chairman of Algatechnologies (Kibbutz Ketura, Israel), also said supply is back. “There was obviously a shortage in astaxanthin supply up to about a year, year-and-a-half ago,” he said. “What happens normally then, everybody’s expanding, so the new supply came to the market at one time. Also, some additional players came into the market, and our feeling is that we’re getting close to a balance again between supply and demand.” Algatechnologies also uses photobioreactor systems to grow its AstaPure natural astaxanthin.
Producing algae isn’t always easy, as Haematococcus pluvialis, the source of most natural astaxanthin on the market today, requires mild growing conditions. “It’s the Goldilocks of algae,” Kuncewitch said. “It doesn’t like it too hot; it doesn’t like it too cold. It’s very finicky. You can’t grow it just anywhere. It needs the right nutrients, the right light, the right heat, the right temperature.”
“Not many folks can do it,” he added. “Some folks try; they fail.”
Focus on Sports Nutrition
Astaxanthin’s claim to fame are its wide-reaching antioxidant benefits. Studies show that by improving mitochondrial function, natural astaxanthin can benefit many aspects of human health, from eye health to skin health to heart health. Sports nutrition is a big focus area for many natural-astaxanthin suppliers these days, and sports nutrition marketers are interested in kind. In 2011, for instance, the Gatorade Sports Science Institute performed a small, one-month study1 on a low dose of 4 mg/day of AstaReal astaxanthin in 14 cyclists. Researchers found that AstaReal group significantly reduced cycling times by 5% and increased power output by 15% following supplementation.
“We’re starting to see sports nutrition be a huge area,” said Kuncewitch, noting that not only athletes but “everyday folks, even the weekend warriors,” can increase athletic performance with AstaReal supplementation.
During SupplySide West, BGG (Irvine, CA) shared results of a new, unpublished sports study on its AstaZine natural astaxanthin. Steven Sisskind, MD, CEO of supplements brand RealDose Nutrition, who was not involved with the study but presented the data on BGG’s behalf, spoke about natural astaxanthin’s sports benefits, such as reducing muscle damage, improving fat utilization, and enhancing performance.
During the eight-week, double-blind, parallel-group study, 28 subjects took either 12 mg/day of AstaZine or a placebo. Subjects ran on a treadmill and underwent VO2 max testing to measure oxygen uptake, and also engaged in a cycling test to measure power output and oxygen metabolism.
According to Sisskind, subjects did not see improvements in maximal oxygen uptake or maximal power output, but the researchers did uncover an interesting potential benefit-that is, significantly lowered heart rate by 10% in anaerobic subjects (those performing “regular” endurance exercise, such as running a marathon, as opposed to subjects engaging in maximal-output activities such as sprinting). According to Sisskind, this suggests astaxanthin can help support heart rate in subjects engaging in sub-maximal endurance sports, such as long-distance running.
Sisskind also said these early results could have broader implications for overall heart health to support heart function.
Future Directions for Research, Medical Food
Kuncewitch shared some of the new health areas AstaReal’s research is now focusing in on. “Now we’re starting to look at areas [like] sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss; anti-fatigue areas; improvement in metabolic lifestyle-related areas; BMI reduction; and just overall improved function of the antioxidant mechanism of the body,” he said. He added that astaxanthin can “pair nicely” with other antioxidants and ingredients like L-carnitine, fish oil, and skin-health ingredients like resveratrol.
He also pegged medical food as a potential new category for AstaReal. “I think you’re going to see the future of astaxanthin being used in…medical foods and in areas where human nutrition is lacking,” he said. “You’re going to see it being handed out by practitioners and health-nutrition benefactors and practitioners.”
“It’s going to be right up there as one of those essential nutrients that the body requires,” he added, “so stay tuned and see what AstaReal does.”
Exploring New Algae Strains
Another future direction for astaxanthin may be exploring other algae strains other than Haematococcus pluvialis, said Algatechnologies’ Hofland. “In the past two years, our efforts have been on the marketing and creating a pipeline of new microalgae, which we will start turning out with new active ingredients [beginning] three or four months from now,” he said.
Much of the company’s reasons for exploring new algae strains is diversification, he added. “The focus of our company is to be a microalgae-growing company, and from day one, we actually said we wanted more than one microalgae,” Hofland said. “In general, being a one-product company is not a safe way to go.”
He said that Algatechnologies’ R&D department has been working with microalgae scientists at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er-Sheva, Israel, to explore new algae strains, and he thinks more companies are looking at different algae strains, too. “I think they are. I think it’s one of the fields people realize there’s a potential and a lot to be studied and to be learned.”
He continued, “I think that we as an industry, the Haematococcuspluvialis industry, should try and bring other microalgae into the picture. Because the microalgae business in itself is so unexplored and its potential is so huge that in our mind, at least, we’re spending a huge amount of money on making ourselves capable of bringing every year a new ingredient from a new microalgae on the market. That’s our plan. We just hired another three PhDs, biologists, and the focus of the company is very much on growth.”
New Opportunities, New Players
In terms of where astaxanthin demand is growing, according to Hofland there is still a lot of room for astaxanthin awareness to grow in the U.S. and Europe. “It always starts in Japan, then it moves to the United States and, in the end, it ends up in Europe,” he said. “I think we’re right now between Japan and the United States, and we feel there are one or two good markets in Europe-there’s still a lot of unexplored areas over there.”
Kuncewitch added that, already in Japan, there are “quite a lot of food and beverage products” featuring astaxanthin. “Japan is ahead of the curve when it comes to food and beverage,” he said. “They have it in food and drinks, in bathing salts for women. Believe it or not, they put it into some of their alcoholic beverages to ward off hangovers.”
Still, Hofland said, more education is needed to promote the benefits of natural astaxanthin, and he believes this is where an association like the Natural Algae Astaxanthin Association (NAXA) comes in. Both Algatechnologies and BGG are NAXA members. “If you look at the numbers, not enough people know astaxanthin,” Hofland said. “The industry knows what astaxanthin is, and the big mission right now-and I think NAXA has a part to play in that-is to make it more known to the general public.”
“Personally,” he added, “I think we’ve just started. The market can be much, much larger than it is right now.”
More companies are looking to that larger market, and as more and more ingredient players purport to supply astaxanthin, some of the category’s earliest companies state, at least publicly, that there is room for everyone.
“In general, I believe in competition,” Hofland said. “I mean, we’re not afraid of competition, and I think we’re in a very good spot to deal with it. As always, when there’s a shortage in a certain area, there’s going to be competition coming online. I think that’s a good sign. It’s better than everyone withdrawing from the space because it’s not profitable or it’s not working.”
Nutritional Outlook magazine