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A Rainbow of NutritionA Rainbow of Nutrition

Carotenoids offer both colorful and healthful benefits

November 13, 2007

15 Min Read
A Rainbow of Nutrition


In the world around us, carotenoids help give various fruits and vegetables their colorful hues. Tomatoes, for example, get their red coloration from lycopene, while carrots obtain their orange from beta-carotene. Because of their inherent functions in nature, these nutrients have been popular in the food and beverage industry as food colorants. More recently, however, carotenoids have been recognized for their antioxidant and health-promoting properties, leading formulators to find ways to incorporate them into a wider range of applications.

Color Me Healthy

Carotenoids possess strong antioxidant properties, which are frequently cited for their effects on health and wellness. Some of the conditions carotenoids are believed to protect against include age-related macular degeneration (AMD), sun-induced skin damage, arthritis, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and even certain types of cancers.

Lutein is already widely recognized for its ability to improve visual health. Zeaxanthin, on the other hand, is not as mainstream, but works with lutein to stave off AMD. According to findings published in September 2007 from the Age-Related Eye Disease Study, individuals who consumed the most dietary lutein and zeaxanthin were least likely to have AMD.1 The exact role of lutein/zeaxanthin in preventing AMD is still being investigated, according to French researchers.2 However, they noted, these main components of macular pigment are known to resist free radical damage.

A clinical trial published in 2007 showed adults with early-stage AMD who took daily antioxidant supplements, including lutein (as Xangold®, from Cognis Nutrition & Health) and zeaxanthin, experienced significant increases in macular pigment density.3 This led researchers to conclude lutein/zeaxanthin supplementation may delay or prevent AMD.

Not only can lutein/zeaxanthin protect the eyes from degenerative disease, but they may also protect the skin from premature aging and even cancer, according to animal research published in August 2007.4 In another 2007 clinical trial, both oral and topical applications of lutein (as FloraGLO®, from Kemin Health) and zeaxanthin, as well as combination therapies, were shown to protect skin against UV damage that can cause premature aging.5

Alpha- and beta-carotene are also touted for skin-protective effects. Animal research published in 1994 showed oral palm mixed carotenoids (as Caromin®, from Carotech) were able to limit UV damage to the skin.6

Palm mixed carotenoids (as Caromin) have also been shown to inhibit certain kinds of cancer, including ovarian and breast cancers.7,8,9 A different combination of carotenes—lycopene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin—was also cited as being able to reduce the risk of breast cancer, according to a 2007 Chinese clinical trial.10 And, on its own, lycopene was lauded in another 2007 Chinese clinical trial for reducing the risk of prostate cancer.11

The carotenes may also protect against heart disease, according to Japanese research.12 Of 3,000 subjects, those with the highest levels of alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and lycopene in their blood were the least likely to die from heart disease over a 12-year follow-up period. Similarly, animal research has shown astaxanthin (as AstaReal®, from Fuji Health Science) not only reduced certain parameters of hypertension,13 but had positive effects against stroke and vascular dementia.14

Balancing the Formula

The countless healthy effects of carotenoid consumption have brought these pigments into the limelight, making them more desirable in the functional food and beverage market. You can’t get something for nothing, though: Using carotenoids does present certain formulation challenges, including solubility, oxidation, and flavor and sensory characteristics.

“When adding carotenoids into functional foods, formulators should be aware of compatibility and solubility with the food matrix,” said Carol Locey, product director for ZeaGold™ Zeaxanthin at Kalsec. “The stability of the carotenoid pigment is also a primary consideration, as is the flavor and color impact the carotenoid adds to functional foods or beverages.”

To ensure carotenoids remain incorporated in formula, suppliers have invented certain technologies. DSM’s Actilease™ beadlet technology helps maintain dispersal in solution and prevents “ringing” at the surface of clear containers, according to Diane Hnat, senior technical marketing manager. “Since carotenoids are oil-soluble ingredients, the market forms for beverages, for example, must be as water-dispersible powders or beadlets so they would appear to be in solution,” she explained. “In the case of an oil-based food such as margarine, the ‘stock solution’ is prepared in oil and care must be taken to warm the crystals of beta-carotene uniformly in the suspension before use.”

OmniActive’s Lutemax™ vegetarian beadlets also ensure nutrient dispersal in formula, among other things. “Supplement and food makers are looking for solutions addressing these issues of stability, safety or ease of handling while dealing with standardized forms of free lutein or lutein esters available in the market,” said Abhijit Bhattacharya, chief operating officer at OmniActive. “[We have] focused on offering standard solutions as cold-water dispersible powders and liquids, which can be used across virtually every international market and customized solutions to address market-specific problems.”

One of the inherent problems of working with carotenoids is their antioxidant properties, according to Charles De Prince, Fuji Health Science Inc., supplier of AstaReal® Astaxanthin. “Carotenoids tend to be unstable for the same reason they are so active as antioxidants,” he said. “The components and matrix of a food system, as well as packaging, will be factors in the functional food arena.”

Proper storage conditions are critical, agreed Kemin’s spokesman, Craig Maltby, although manufacturers have ways to ensure ingredient viability. “Lutein is stable in the FloraGLO oil and dry granule delivery systems,” Maltby said.

In dealing with the issue of stability, it is critical to source ingredients from a company with proven methods, according to Bob Capelli, vice president of sales and marketing at Cyanotech Corp., which supplies BioAstin® Natural Astaxanthin. “Stability is the most critical factor,” he said. “Carotenoids are strong antioxidants, which makes them inherently unstable. For powdered products, companies that protect their ingredients by microencapsulation are the only ones that should be considered.”

Microencapsulation is a useful method for protecting carotenoid ingredients from oxidizing (or breaking down into non-nutritive parts) before they reach the consumer. BASF utilizes a proprietary process that helps protect carotenoid ingredients against air, light and heat, according to Emile Henein, industry manager dietary supplements, North America, BASF Human Nutrition. “Formulated carotenoids most often are designed to protect these nutrients from degradation before and during food and beverage processing,” he said. “The formulated product not only delivers a stabilized product, but also protects the product from nutrient interaction and masks any flavor imparted from the nutrient.”

Flavor, as well as texture, is important to consider in formulating a carotenoid product. These issues can be overcome by working closely with ingredient suppliers, noted Rob Bailey, marketing manager, Cognis Nutrition & Health, supplier of Betatene® natural mixed carotenoids and Xangold natural lutein esters. “Formulators look to their suppliers for guidance on incorporating carotenoids into their products without altering the sensory characteristics,” he said. “This can be especially challenging, as carotenoids can impact the feel and color of a product. Cognis’ partnership with WILD Flavors provides turnkey food formulation expertise, including nutrient, flavoring and color capabilities.”

Color is another aspect of formulation that is an inherent part of using carotenoids, because they are pigments. While flavor and texture may need to be masked, color can either be masked or used to the benefit of the formulator. In fact, some carotenoids already have a history of use as natural colorants. Beta- and alpha-carotene, for example, provide natural yellow or orange coloration.

“Mixed carotene, especially in Europe, has been widely accepted and used as a natural colorant in food and beverages,” said WH Leong, vice president, Carotech Inc., supplier of Caromin and Alphabeads® mixed palm carotenes. “This would allow customers to have an ‘all natural’ claim and at the same time a source of vitamin A in the beverages.”

Natural vs. Synthetic

The natural-versus-synthetic debate has been raging for quite some time in the world of food colorants. Some claim natural colorants are the only way to go, while others steadfastly support the acceptability of “nature-identical” synthetics. Yet others see the value and application of both sides.

“In coloring foods, carotenoids offer an attractive ‘natural’ color and, therefore, [are] characterized to be the more healthy alternative compared to synthetic colors,” BASF’s Heinen said. “Although synthetic betacarotene is also approved for color application in the United States.”

DSM supplies both natural and synthetic carotenoids to allow usage in a range of applications. “It basically comes down to customer preference and the specific application,” said Todd Sitkowski, senior commerical manager, DSM. “DSM provides both natural (CaroCare®) and synthetic forms of our beta-carotene product, as well as a natural source of lutein. DSM synthetic forms have the molecular structure identical to the ones found in nature, so we feel very confident in the bioavailability, functionality, safety and stability of our products and market forms whether they are derived naturally or synthetically.”

Not everyone is so at peace with utilizing both production methods. On the synthetic side of the debate, Lars Bjørn Rasmussen, Allied Biotech Corp., argued natural beta-carotene is produced with the aid of fungus or algae and the result often contains a mixture of carotenoids, including beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin. Contrarily, he said, Allied’s nature-identical beta-carotene is guaranteed to be 100 percent beta-carotene.

“The synthetic process produces a pure product of trans-betacarotene,” he said. “The process is highly controlled and ensures minimal batch variations, which is of utmost importance when the product is used as a colorant.”

Natural carotenoid suppliers argue mixed isomer carotenoids can also be manufactured for high quality and consistency. Cognis’ cis- and trans-isomer beta-carotene product, Betatene, is developed with the aid of algae. “The algae are cultivated in 12 square miles of ponds in south and western Australia, and the sites are managed by Cognis in an environmentally responsible manner,” Bailey explained. “Such process control from raw material to finished product enables Cognis to deliver high-quality and consistent natural-source products.”

Similarly, Parry Nutraceuticals produces a natural beta-carotene with mixed carotenoids from Dunaliella salina. “This natural betacarotene from D. salina is also found with other carotenoids like alphacarotene, lutein, zeaxanthin,” said CP Umasudhan, senior manager of marketing, EID Parry (India) Ltd. - Parry Nutraceuticals. “Since carotenoids work as a team, with synergistic action, this makes the product much more bioavailable and effective.”

Another benefit of using a natural, mixed carotenoid product is the ability to utilize less colorant in food and drink than synthetic products, according to Carotech’s Leong. “Application trials have shown palm mixed carotenoid, when used as a natural colorant in food and drink, required less natural carotene than synthetic betacarotene to achieve the same color intensity,” he said. “As such, a lower dosage may be required for the same application when palm mixed carotenoid is used.”

In the case of astaxanthin, the argument is moot for the time being, since only the natural form of the carotenoid is currently approved for human nutrition, while the synthetic may be used only in animal products, according to Cyanotech’s Capelli. Still, he stated, the natural form has higher nutritive value.

“There have been many studies demonstrating that natural astaxanthin is far superior in improving immunity and stress resistance, as well survival rates in several animal species,” Capelli said. “But the most dramatic study demonstrating the difference was done at Creighton University, where natural and synthetic astaxanthin were measured as free radical scavenging antioxidants. The results showed natural astaxanthin was more than 20 times more powerful as an antioxidant than synthetic.”

Natural and synthetic carotenoids are indeed unequal, according to OmniActive’s Bhattacharya, but it is as yet unproven which is the better product. “Natural forms of carotenoids are typically made with unique profiles and isomer combinations, which are not exactly matched by synthetic forms of the same carotenoids,” he stated. “Further, there is just not enough objective evidence to show whether a synthetic form of a particular carotenoid is more or less effective than a comparable natural form, under the same set of circumstances. Synthetic forms are preferred by many formulators because of their perceived lower cost. Consumers naturally would tend to pick a natural form of a carotenoid given the choice, and keeping in mind cost consideration.”

Despite the arguments for natural and for synthetic, consumer interest is moving more toward the natural side, according to Kalsec’s Locey. “[T]he natural ingredient label is preferred to the synthetic ingredient labeling as the market demand for natural increases,” she said.

A Bright Future

When considering the functional application of carotenoids as colorants, their use in the functional food and beverage arena is already widespread. Add to that the health benefits that have become more recognized, and formulators are given the rare opportunity to utilize ingredients that are both functional and healthy.

Current carotenoid applications include juice, nutritional beverages and bars, smoothies, snack foods, cheese and yogurt, confectionery, bakery mixes and breadings. The most popular of these are the nutritional and juice-based beverages, according to Omni’s Bhattacharya, because consumers perceive them as the “most acceptable medium” for carotenoid fortification. However, he added, due to the nature of the ingredients, the evolution of the category is a certainty.

“Given the natural affinity of xanthophyll esters to lipid-based mediums, and evidence of high bioavailability of such nutrients in the presence of oils, we anticipate that a number of table spreads, mayonnaises, salad oils and dressings will constitute the next level of products using carotenoids in the form of lutein esters as well as other forms,” he said. “With newer technologies to enhance stability and promote effective delivery of carotenoids, a wider range of food- and beverage-based applications should soon become available.”

The category’s growth is assured through technology, but the consumer driver will be the health benefits, according to Phil Gowaski, sales and marketing manager at Chrysantis Inc., which manufactures EZeyes® Lutein and Zeaxanthin. “Consumer interest in carotenoids is growing due to their antioxidant properties,” he noted. “There is a general understanding and appreciation of what antioxidants do and that they are good for your health.”

Umasudhan agreed with the assessment, and added: “There has been a growing awareness among consumers of the importance of a good diet and a correction of lifestyle. Increasing health care costs are pushing consumers to think about preventive health care and lifestyle changes. Consumers definitely are inclined to dietary supplements and functional foods enriched with natural nutrients like carotenoids.”

According to DSM’s Sitkowski, carotenoid-fortified beverages are the most popular application, currently, “especially those with a health and wellness platform.” Sitkowski predicted this trend will continue, with the growth leaders including products that target specific health conditions, such as lycopene for heart and prostate health, and betacarotene, lutein and zeaxanthin for eye health.

“Eye health is a top concern among aging baby boomers and, therefore, we are seeing rising consumer interest in carotenoids,” Cognis’ Bailey pointed out. “While they may not understand the mechanism by which lutein can help reduce the risk of AMD, for example, awareness is definitely growing for the overall eye health benefits of lutein.”

Kemin’s Maltby agreed. “For FloraGLO Lutein, our research is showing strong consumer interest in the lutein/eye-health story and in the concept of a branded ingredient contained within a retail product brand,” he said. “Consumers especially want assurances of quality, safety and clinically demonstrated efficacy.”

Widely recognized carotenoids such as lutein are promoting category growth because consumers are more often turning to diet for health and longevity. “In the past decade, a healthy diet has become the consumer’s primary vehicle for delivering optimal health and wellness,” OmniActive’s Bhattacharya said. “Carotenoids, as powerful antioxidants, are widely recognized as the first line of defense in our diet to prevent chronic diseases of aging such as degenerative eye diseases, heart and prostate disease, and even cancer.” 

Kimberly J. Retzlaff is a Denver-based freelance writer and former managing editor for Natural Products INSIDER.


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