Umasudhan Pal., CEO of Eustis, FL-based Valensa International, said the astaxanthin market has enjoyed a durable appeal over the past decade or so. But in speaking with NutraIngredients-USA at the recent SupplySide West trade show in Las Vegas, NV, Pal. said even golden-egg-laying geese can inadvertently be slaughtered.
Boom-bust cycle baked into category at the start
Astaxanthin, a deep red carotenoid with a high degree of antioxidant activity, first shot to widespread consumer awareness and popularity with an appearance of Dr Joseph Mercola on the Doctor Oz Show in 2011 back when the show was more of a market maker in the supplement industry (and in other industries as well).
Mercola’s segment, which aired on Jan. 11, 2011, was billed as “The No. 1 supplement you should be taking that you’ve never heard of.” In the weeks after the segment was broadcast, the demand for astaxanthin shot through the roof, with most of the few suppliers in the market at that time reporting demand up by 10 times or more almost overnight.
Google Trends data verified that interest, judged by web searches using ‘astaxanthin’ as a search term. Such searchers peaked in early 2011 and declined thereafter, settling in at a level about twice that prior to the Dr Oz incident.
Another spike occurred in June, 2020, apparently brought on by a study in the influential journal Nature that found that supplementing with the carotenoid could be beneficial for patients suffering with heart failure.
Riding the wild red horse
Pal. said the astaxanthin market over the past decade has been a wild ride. Fortunes made and squandered in a story familiar to any student of gold rush history.
“Since then it has been a big roller coaster ride,” Pal. said. “You had suppliers with $1 million inventory and they sold it out in a couple of weeks. Then when demand cooled the price of astaxanthin crashed and nobody was making any money,” he said.
“We stayed disciplined and just stuck to our core customers. Our price has been pretty consistent for almost 15 years now,” he added.
Keeping a stable economic foundation is critical for any category, Pal. said. Few things damage consumer confidence faster than quality problems and supply disruptions that led to out of stock situations.
“If good companies are not making enough margin to invest in science and marketing, that category will suffer,” he said.
Beating back the synthetic challenge
Among the threats the category seemed to have weathered was the challenge from synthetic sources of the carotenoid. Several astaxanthin players got together to form the Natural Algae Astaxanthin Association, known as NAXA. Valensa never joined and one of the founding members, AstaReal, withdrew, and another, Algatech of Israel, was acquired, which led to the organization’s visibility diminishing.
But in its fairly brief high visibility phase the group seemed to have successfully made the case that the algae-derived astaxanthin was the higher quality option and the form backed by the science. While consumers still might not understand that differentiation, it seems to have taken hold among business clients.
Plethora of claims
Another challenge to the space still looms, Pal. said. That is that astaxanthin has been and continues to be marketed for almost everything under the sun. In 2016, Valensa’s competitor, Algae Health Sciences, announced that it had secured no less than 239 structure/function claims for its astaxanthin ingredient.
Pal. said in Valensa’s view, the danger is that in trying to be all things to all men the ingredient could end up just confusing consumers, with dire consequences for the market. Potential new clients might be confused about how the ingredient might fit into their product lineups and consumers might be turned off by being disappointed in turning to the ingredient for effects that might not be well substantiated by the science.
“If you see some of the claims out there, it’s just been marketed for everything,” Pal. said. “The consumer is just getting lost.”
In recent years Valensa, which is a division of Indian firm EID Parry, has concentrated its astaxanthin production in Chile at a facility it bought from Bayer. The plan, Pal. said, is to concentrate on quality and market the ingredient for what it’s best known for.
“We are not just an ingredients supplier. We are a formulation company concentrating on health support platforms. What are the pain points for consumers? What problems are they trying to solve? For astaxanthin we concentrate on inflammation and joint health,” he said.