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Astaxanthin (pronounced as-tuh-zan'-thin) is a carotenoid. It belongs to a larger class of phytochemicals known as terpenes. It is classified as a xanthophyll, which means "yellow leaves". Like many carotenoids, it is a colorful, fat/oil-soluble pigment. Astaxanthin can be found in microalgae, yeast, salmon, trout, krill, shrimp, crayfish, crustaceans, and the feathers of some birds.  Professor Basil Weedon was the first to map the structures of astaxanthin.
Astaxanthin, unlike some carotenoids, does not convert to Vitamin A (retinol) in the human body. Too much Vitamin A is toxic for a human, but astaxanthin is not. However, it is a powerful antioxidant; it is 10 times more capable than other carotenoids.
While astaxanthin is a natural nutritional component, it can be found as a food supplement. The supplement is intended for human, animal, and aquaculture consumption. The commercial production of astaxanthin comes from both natural and synthetic sources.
The FDA approved astaxanthin (See: Regulations below) as a food coloring (or color additive) for specific uses in animal and fish foods[3a]. The European Union (actually European Commission) considers it food dye within the E number system, E161j[3b].
Additional recommended knowledge
The following sources are being used for the commercial production of astaxanthin.
As a natural source, the following can be found in nature (or a production facility) with the approximate concentrations listed.
With that, each source has its own production issues.
Currently, the primary natural source for astaxanthin is haematococcus pluvialis (microalge). It seems to accumulate the highest levels of astaxanthin in nature[4a]; commercially more than 40 g of astaxanthin per kilo of dry biomass. It has the advantage of the population doubling every week, which means scaling up is not an issue; simply open another plant. However, it does require some expertise among the personnel and that might be its downfall.
For Xanthophyllomyces dendrorhous (yeast), interestingly enough it has similar advantages, but requires refrigeration once harvested (above freexing, <6 degrees Celsius/43 degrees Fahrenheit). It also has the problem of being low in nutritional value, unlike krill or shrimp. Since it is not ocean-based, it has the issue of not carrying those ocean-like traits. Since its chief advantage is price, it will certainly be available for the cost-conscious consumer.
For Euphausia superba (krill), this report from aquafeed.com points to some of the issues:
The Krill fishing operation is complex. It is done in Antarctic waters, under extreme weather conditions and far away from ports with substantial operational complexities. Krill's fishing location and the difficult weather conditions in the main fishing area, together with the costs involved in the operation, have contributed to a slow development of the industry. Krill fishing is by far different to any other fishing operation today known. The knowledge to work with it belongs to very few people in the world.
Nonetheless as the article points out, producers still venture out. They include the Japanese, the Polish, the Russians, and Ukrainians. Lastly, krill will always have environmental issues, but being lower on the food chain allows it to reproduce more, and faster than larger ocean creatures—at least we hope.
Pandalus Borealis (shrimp) might be seen as "shrimp meat" from the grocery store, or in a shrimp cocktail, or shrimp salad. Nutritious, tasty, and in danger of overfishing. Nonetheless, just the head and shell are used. That leads to this source having limitations one way or another.
The sources of synthetic astaxanthin are not available. It's definitely not in the literature, and the only information available is third-party. There are patents. There is one report of it being made from petrochemicals or petroleum. That said here is this:
Today, essentially all commercial astaxanthin for aquaculture is produced synthetically from petrochemical sources, with an annual turnover of over $200 million, and a selling price of ~$2000 per kilo of pure astaxanthin. 
In 1948, Nobel prizewinner George Wald surmized, "This could lead to an important new use of astaxanthin as a drug delivery for medicines that are insoluble in water, and give designers of new food colourants or dyestuffs an interesting new capability."
Astaxanthin is used as a feed supplement for salmon, crabs, shrimp, chickens and egg production[4b]. Regardless of the source, astaxanthin provides some important benefits beyond coloration. It also has been found to be essential for proper growth and survival.
For seafood and animals
The primary use of synthetic astaxanthin today is as an animal feed additive to impart coloration, this includes farm-raised salmon and egg yolks. In that, synthetic carotenoid (i.e., coloured yellow, red or orange) pigments represent about 15-25% of the cost of production of commercial salmon feed.[4c] Today, essentially all commercial astaxanthin for aquaculture is produced synthetically from petrochemical sources, with an annual turnover of over $200 million, and a selling price of ~$2000 per kilo of pure astaxanthin. 
Currently, the primary use for humans is as a food supplement. Research shows that due to astaxanthin's potent antioxidant activity, it may be beneficial in cardiovascular, immune, inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases. Research supports the assumption that it protects body tissues from oxidative damage. It also crosses the blood-brain barrier, which makes it available to the eye, brain and central nervous system to alleviate oxidative stress that contributes to ocular, and neurodegenerative diseases such as glaucoma and Alzheimer's.
Caution! Beta-carotene has been shown (in at least one study) to promote (rather than protect against) lung cancer IN SMOKERS. There is a possibility that astaxanthin might act similarly. In nature, e.g., in carrots and marigolds (added to some chickenfeeds), MIXED carotenoids usually are present, i.e., alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, gamma-carotene, etc. Therefore, for smokers at least, there is potentially some risk in taking (on any regular basis) any isolated non-complexed carotenoid.
The farm-raised salmon lawsuit
The class action lawsuits were filed against some major grocery store chains for not clearly labeling the salmon "color added". The chains follow up quickly by labeling all such salmon as "color added". "However, Smith & Lowney persisted with the suit for damages, but a Seattle judge dismissed (...)(the case) , ruling that enforcement of the applicable food laws was up to government and not individuals."
Astaxanthin in the food chain
It's been speculated that gulls are "flushed" pink when molting, especially in areas with farm-raised salmon. To say the least, this is intriguing. However, they quite readily admit they don't know why. Even so, the bottom line is that not enough is known about the relationship between astaxanthin and plumage - they admit this as well.
More research is need, as proposed by all.
FDA Title 21: Sec. 73.35 Astaxanthin
FDA Title 21: Sec. 73.185 Haematococcus algae meal
FDA Note 1.
[pdf] FOOD ADDITIVE STATUS LIST 2005
FDA ledger on applications for
Note: Must align numbers.
Note: astaxanthin.org, astafactor.com, aquasearch.com and MeraPharma.com (Mera Pharmaceuticals Inc.) are related.
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Astaxanthin". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|