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The growing concern to lead a healthy life and the curiosity to try new natural products are changing the way of seeing new marine foods and consumption habits are changing towards organic products, detox juices, alkaline diets or dietary and nutritional supplements.
These new consumption trends are opening new markets, becoming an opportunity for new aquaculture companies to launch into the production of microalgae and their derivatives.
Within this line of healthy products derived from microalgae is Astaxanthin. Let us see, in an introductory way, what is its role in nature.
WHAT IS ASTAXANTINE
Astaxanthin is a natural pinkish or reddish pigment that belongs to the great family of carotenoids. Carotenoids are nutrients known to be powerful antioxidants capable of protecting our cells against attacks by certain free radicals.
Astaxanthin is a molecule made by unicellular algae or microalgae (Ranga, Sarada, Baskaran and Ravishankar, 2009).
Microalgae can be defined -in a very simple way- as microscopic vegetables that are grown in water (fresh or salty) and that develop the photosynthesis process, that is, they use sunlight to synthesize their food, which is delivered through specific fertilizers (Amos, 2005).
One of the microalgae with the greatest potential is Haematococcus Pluvialis, which is freshwater, and which has been shown to be the most important microalgae in the production of Astaxanthin, since the percentage it contains (5% dry weight) is much higher to that of other microalgae, being the preferred one when it comes to cultivating this powerful antioxidant.
ROLE OF ASTAXANTINE IN NATURE
Astaxanthin has a very clear, defined and indispensable function (Ranga et al., 2009): it serves to protect these microalgae when they are subjected to destructive stress associated with the degradation of their habitat (insufficient water, excessive radiation from the sun, temperature inadequate …).
Initially green in color, when environmental conditions are favorable, when they are subjected to stress and extreme conditions, these microalgae spontaneously turn red, generating a reddish pigment (Astaxanthin) as a natural self-defense mechanism that it acts as a shield to protect them (Camacho, González and Klotz, 2013).
If this Astaxanthin is the one that allows the microalgae to live for decades in deficit conditions (even without water), let’s imagine what it can do in our body to protect it from oxidation and adverse environmental conditions (aging, contamination, radical free, degraded cells, etc.), aspects that we will be developing in subsequent articles, in order to detail the scope of its important benefits. Natural astaxanthin.
Once Astaxanthin has been generated spontaneously as a natural protection against hostile and unfavorable circumstances, it will continue its path in the food chain through the zooplankton that feed on these microalgae (Amos, 2005) and, subsequently, ingested by the largest consumers of this zooplankton: pink flamingos, salmon, prawns or shrimp, which consume so much Astaxanthin that the most visible effect of this is to provide them with the typical pink color.
But the contribution of Astaxanthin does not end here. In fact, this nutrient plays a preponderant and global role in strengthening the organism of the species that are the largest consumers of it.
THE CASE OF SALMONS
The best example is undoubtedly that of wild salmon. Salmons are anadromous, which means that they are born in fresh water, in rivers, and then migrate to the sea, where they live until adulthood. When they reach sexual maturity, they return to their place of birth following the scent cues they have memorized.
It is there where they will reproduce, since the water of the rivers is essential for the salmon fry.
Its ability to climb rivers is not unique to fish, other species do, such as the yellow sturgeon and sturgeon in Europe. But wild salmon are endowed with exceptional power and endurance.
To find their birthplace, they go upstream for more than a week, making this migration one of the most unheard of feats in the animal world (Christiansen, Lie and Torrissen, 2005).
The comparison with the human being
Natural astaxanthin If we compare this unusual effort on a human scale, this aquatic marathon carried out by the salmon, swimming against the current for a week, would be equivalent to the effort that a healthy male should take, measuring 1.80 m. high, swimming a week without rest, against the current, having to travel approximately 160 km, and overcoming waves of more than 10 meters high.
Something that would be practically impossible, realistically. And this phenomenon has had scientists around the world amazed, without finding any other explanation than the one corresponding to the consumption of Astaxanthin.
Several scientists have studied this phenomenon and hypothesized that the out-of-standard concentration of Astaxanthin contained in the muscles of wild salmon would partly explain its extraordinary resistance. Wild salmon have the ability to selectively accumulate Astaxanthin from their diet and store it in their muscles (Alam, Xu, and Wang, 2020).
The research these scientists have carried out shows that Astaxanthin plays a protective role in the lipid tissues of wild salmon against peroxidation, a form of oxidative stress that can harm them (Christiansen, Lie and Torrissen, 2005).
Studies confirm that salmon can contain up to 40 mg of Astaxanthin per kilo. This amount of Astaxanthin in natural salmon is 8 times higher than what can be found in farmed salmon. These salmon raised in fish farms are given synthetic Astaxanthin, in order to give it the typical pink color (which makes its meat more appealing and it seems that it is wild salmon), although this synthetic Astaxanthin does not improve its nutritional contribution (Capelli, Bagchi and Cysewski, 2013).
THE TRUE VALUE OF NATURAL ASTAXANTINE
Today, experts alert us to the need for Astaxanthin to be used in fish farms dedicated to salmon farming to be NATURAL and not synthetic, as this market is currently controlled by the large chemical companies that produce it. synthetically, even for organic production (Alam, Xu and Wang, 2020).
Synthetic Astaxanthin is cheaper and more abundant, but it is evident that its results are not the same as those obtained by Astaxanthin grown from Haematococcus Pluvialis, and this should be assumed by the producers of Astaxanthin (Gómez, Menéndez, Álvarez and Flores , 2009).
Avoid the use of synthetic for the benefit of natural, because this carotenoid is much more than just a dye, and because its use in nutraceuticals (using it as dietary supplements) and in cosmetics (using it in beauty products – serums, creams, masks, … – which incorporate Astaxanthin in their formulations, thanks to their magnificent properties) requires the use of the best and most natural Astaxanthin produced under the most demanding growing conditions (Capelli et al., 2013), to prepare products of the highest quality and with the best guarantees that their antioxidant potential is exploited.
In summary, we can say that Astaxanthin, as a pigment resulting from a natural, controlled and ecological cultivation, has an enormous antioxidant power, as it is 65 times more powerful than vitamin C, 54 times more powerful than beta-carotene and 14 times more potent than vitamin E (Martin, Jager, Ruck & Schimdt, 2009).
Likewise, and as demonstrated by various investigations carried out, it is attributed beneficial effects in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, improvement of eye health, photoprotective effects, increase in sports performance, improvement of symptoms in age-related degenerative disorders, and as protection neurological (Gómez et al., 2009; Alam et al., 2020). Without forgetting, of course, the importance of Astaxanthin for the strengthening of the immune system and its beneficial results in the face of lung and respiratory problems, all of which will be dealt with in future articles.
Alam, Md.A., Xu, J.L. and Wang, Z. (Eds.) (2020). Microalgae Biotechnology for Food, Health and High Value Products. New York, NY: Springer Editions.
Amos, R. (2005). Handboook of Microalga. Culture Biotechnology and applied Phycology. India: Blackwell publishing.
Camacho, K.J., González, G. and Klotz, R. (2013). Astaxanthin production in Haematococcus pluvialis under different stress conditions. Nova, 11 (19), 94-104.
Capelli, B., Bagchi, D. and Cysewski, G.R. (2013). Synthetic Astaxanthin is significantly inferior to algal-based Astaxanthin as an antioxidant and may not be suitable as a human nutraceutical supplement. Nutrafoods, 12 (4), 145-152.
Christiansen, R., Lie, O. and Torrissen, O. (2005). Growth and survival of Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar L., fed different dietary levels of astaxanthin. First-feeding fry. Aquaculture Nutrition, 1 (1), 189-198.
Gómez, L., Menéndez, J., Álvarez, I. and Flores, I. (2009). Effect of different application protocols of a magnetic field (0.03T) on the growth, viability and pigment composition of Haematococcus pluvialis Flotow in sufficiency and absence of nitrogen. Plant Biotechnology, 9 (2), 105-117.
Martin, H., Jager, C., Ruck, C. and Schimdt, M. (2009). Anti- and Prooxidant Properties of Carotenoids.J. Prakt. Chem., 341 (3), 302-308.
Ranga, R., Sarada, A., Baskaran, V. and Ravishankar, G. (2009). Identification of Carotenoids from Green Alga Haematococcus Pluvialis by HPLC and LC – MS (APCI) and Their Antioxidant Properties. Journal Microbiol. Biotechnol., 19 (1), 1333-1341.