How much antioxidant activity does astaxanthin have? It's hard to ignore its in vitro ROS-scavenging capacity. It has been shown to have up to 6,000 times the antioxidant power of vitamin C, 800 times that of CoQ10, and 550 times that of vitamin E, according to laboratory testing (1). As is the case with any antioxidant, no one can say for sure what effect it has outside the test tube, as measuring antioxidant activity inside the human body is not possible.
What is the ORAC value of pure astaxanthin? Be careful, as we see many online sources claim numbers without any reference as to where they're coming from. Or they do, but the cite the value for 1 gram and then compare it to the ORAC for 100 grams of blueberries, for example. In order to publish an ORAC value on Superfoodly, we require seeing the actual test report and/or literature thoroughly documenting it in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. In the case of this compound, we reached out directly to AstaReal, Inc., which is a division within the Japanese company Fuji. They are the world's largest producer of natural astaxanthin and provided us with the actual Certificate of Analysis from Brunswick Laboratories. The ORAC for their product is reflected above.
It's important to remember that this ORAC is reflective of 100 grams worth, which is about 3.5 ounces. Obviously, a dosage of a couple capsules would weigh a tiny fraction of that. Please remember that when comparing it to ORAC values for foods, where you might very well eat 3.5 ounces (or more) in one serving.
Potential problems with food sources
Contrary to popular belief, fish and other seafood do not produce astaxanthin themselves. Rather, they obtain this phytonutrient from certain species of microalgae they eat (or from the smaller fish and marine life they eat, who eat that microalgae). It's similar to how fish obtain EPA and DHA, as those too are nutrients they do not produce. The original source of all omega 3 EPA and DHA is vegan, as it comes from algae.
However unlike EPA and DHA, astaxanthin is a much more rare occurrence in nature. There are very few natural astaxanthin food sources. In order to get the 12 mg per day, which is what many supplement manufacturers recommend as a dosage, you would need to consume about 4 servings of nature's most potent source; wild sockeye salmon.
However, eating that much salmon might be potentially dangerous. Whether it's farmed or wild caught, many experts and governmental bodies advise that pregnant women should not eat more than 6 ounces of salmon per week due to their potential heavy metal content (2). That would only provide about 6.4 mg of astaxanthin per week.
The reason fish are such a problematic source of heavy metals is because in layman's terms, when you eat a fish you are also eating all the fish it ate over its lifetime. This is because once mercury gets inside of a body - whether fish or human - it identifies it as a beneficial compound rather than a toxin which should be expelled. This is why mercury poisoning is so problematic.
Choosing a supplement
We prefer not to promote specific brands over others on Superfoodly, but the fact is that for some nutrients and products with efficacy and safety concerns, we feel obligated to make recommendations.
In the case astaxanthin, there are both natural and artificial forms being sold today. Unfortunately, supplement marketers don't always disclose exactly which you are getting on the label and there is a big difference between them.
The natural form is derived direct from the source, the microalgae species Haematococcus pluvialis. Unlike spirulina which is sometimes grown in outdoor ponds or harvested directly from the ocean, the largest manufacturers of natural astaxanthin grow the algae in climate controlled tanks and using other sophisticated operations to ensure safety, purity, and consistency.
The synthetic may be derived at least in part from petroleum based chemicals. Not everything derived from petrochemicals is bad, however in the case of astaxanthin, research has suggested it is inferior: "In vitro studies conducted at Creighton University and Brunswick Laboratories showed N-AX to be over 50 times stronger than S-AX in singlet oxygen quenching and approximately 20 times stronger in free radical elimination." (3) You won't just find artificial astaxanthin in supplements either, as it is often added to fish to give them that bright red color. Many sources of salmon we eat do not even have microalgae in their diet which produce this phytonutrient and therefore, some contain none naturally.
Less efficacy may not be the worst thing though, as the neurotoxin beta-methylamino-L-alanine or BMAA is produced by other types of marine cyanobacteria. Some spirulina supplements have tested positive for BMAA due to this contamination.
We are unaware of similar testings being done for ocean-derived astaxanthin brands, or even if this concern is being brought up by the public (at least not yet). Therefore to be clear, we have no evidence that there are contaminated suppliers/brands on the market. Though to veer on the side of caution, we have concerns over using wild-harvested microalgae for the production of astaxanthin due to this reason if stringent safety protocols aren't taken.
There are Chinese manufacturers of astaxanthin supplements and we have little knowledge as to their production methods and countermeasures in place to ensure purity and safety. That is not to say they don't have good standards in place, but without knowing how their operations work, we prefer to stick with the natural astaxanthin suppliers whose production methods we have evaluated and trust:
- Fuji Health Science: AstaReal (whose ORAC value is reflected above)
- Cyanotech: Nutrex Hawaii, BioAstin, MD Formulas
- Algatech: AstaPure
With the exception of Cyanotech, who mostly focuses on selling their own branded Nutrex Hawaii and BioAstin products, the other two focus on selling their ingredient to supplement companies, who in turn use it in their products. To find out if the brand you use contains AstaReal or AstaPure, it should be stated on the bottle's label. To reiterate, we are not saying other suppliers are poor quality in any way, but rather have not vetted them and therefore cannot attest to their standards.
Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't: Brunswick Laboratories Test Report for Fuji Health Sciences, Inc., Batch No. B-10267b - 2010