“There are two main objectives for the association. One is obviously to increase consumer awareness of astaxanthin and its benefits. But secondarily we really want to differentiate between synthetic astaxanthin and natural astaxanthin,” Bob Capelli, vice president of sales of Cyanotech told NutraIngredients-USA.
A key bone of contention in recent years in the astaxanthin sector has been the appearance of synthetic forms of the ingredient on the market. The three companies that have formed the association take issue with this development on several fronts. All three have filed New Dietary Ingredient notifications on their ingredients. To date no manufacturer of a synthetic form has done so. The natural producers see this as unfair (and not in compliance with the law) and raise questions about the safety data backing those ingredients.
DSM is one of the companies that has brought a synthetic form to market. In that case the company has said that an NDI notification is not necessary because the safety information on the ingredient is covered by a food additive petition in which the synthetic astaxanthin was approved for use as an additive for feed fed to farmed salmonid fish, giving the flesh the red color that mimics that of wild caught salmon. From DSM’s point of view, this means that the company’s synthetic astaxanthin is ending up in the human diet and has been deemed by the authorities as safe for that purpose.
What does “nature-identical” really mean?
Linked to the question of safety is the issue of efficacy, which hinges on how “nature-identical” the synthetic forms really are. From the point of view of the natural producers the answer is “not very.” The natural producers say these ingredients might have the same chemical formula—C40H52O4—but structural differences of the synthetic forms that are derived from petrochemicals means that the molecules behave quite differently from the naturally-derived molecule. In other words, there are 96 players on the field in both cases, but if they are standing in different formations, are they playing the same game?
To back up that point of view Cyanotech sponsored a study accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrafoods looking at the performance of the synthetic form of astaxanthin against Cyanotech’s ingredient, BioAstin. Not surprisingly, the synthetic form was found to have significant differences from the natural form.
“The synthetic form of astaxanthin is being marketed as being nature-identical but it certainly is not,” said Gerald Cysewski, PhD, founder and chief science officer of Cyanotech and one of the authors of the paper (along with Capelli and independent researcher Debasis Bagchi of the University of Houston College of Pharmacy).
“Natural asaxanthin in algae is present primarily as monoesters. The molecule is shaped differently. The stereoisomers are different in the algal astaxanthin than in the synthetic. And research has shown that the antioxidant potential of natural astaxanthin is greater because of these differences,” he said.
Different performance in tests
The paper shows results of tests performed on the competing ingredients at Creighton University and by Brunswick Labs, which offers a more detailed look at antioxidant performance than the more rudimentary ORAC tests of the past. Among the results of the Brunswick tests quoted in the paper for natural astaxanthin (designated as N-AX) were:
• N-AX is approximately 55 times stronger than S-AX in singlet oxygen elimination.
• N-AX is approximately 20 times stronger than S-AX in free radical elimination.
• N-AX is approximately 14 times stronger than S-AX in the suite of antioxidant tests known as ORAC.
The paper concludes that “ultimately, should S-AX prove safe for direct human consumption, dosage levels roughly 20–30 times greater than N-AX should be used as a result of the extreme difference in antioxidant activity between the two forms.”
Open information for consumers
Cysewski said among the nascent organization’s first activities will be to sponsor a forum at the Expo West trade show in March in Anaheim, CA to talk about the synthetic vs natural debate for astaxanthin and other nutraceutical ingredients on the market.
“We are seeing a trend that synthetics just don’t perform the same. It just seems unfair. It’s occluding from the consumer as to what they are getting,” Cysewski said.
“We will be sponsoring more research on the natural astaxanthin. We think the future for natural astaxanthin will be great.”