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Carotenoid Color Wheel of HealthCarotenoid Color Wheel of Health

Sandy Almendarez

March 15, 2010

18 Min Read
Carotenoid Color Wheel of Health

Flowers are blooming, the sun is shinning and birds are singing. Yes, its that lovely time of the year called spring. Part of what makes spring so nice is the many different colors nature has to offer. Besides the myriad flower color choices, trees are showing off their deep greens and edible produce from berries to bell peppers are in season.

Many of the plants we eat can thank carotenoids for their hue. Carotenoids are the pigments that create those beautiful colors. Tomatoes are red because of lycopene, the yellow in corn comes from zeaxanthin, and beta-carotene tints carrots orange.

Carotenoids are divided into two groups: xanthophylls, which contain oxygen; and carotenes, which contain hydrocarbons, but no oxygen. Lutein, zeaxanthin and astaxanthin are xanthophylls; while carotenes include beta-carotene, lycopene and alpha-carotene.

The more than 600 different caroteniods support the process of photosynthesis along with chlorophyll, and are made by plants to protect themselves from environmental stress. This includes absorbing blue light to protect against sun damage. Considered antioxidants, carotenoids neutralize reactive oxygen species known as free radicals.

While most consumers eat carotenoids in their food and supplement with them in their multivitamins, the term may be outside of their awareness. Consumers may be more aware of specific carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene due to publicity by some of our industrys leading companies, said Bob Capelli, vice president sales and marketing, Cyanotech Corp.

Gracey Matlosz, marketing analyst, DSM Nutritional Products Inc., noted, The gap in awareness between the term carotenoid and the individual carotenoids may be attributed to both consumer media coverage of specific carotenoids and their benefits, as well as physicians recommendations. More physicians specifically advise their patients to take an individual carotenoid such as beta-carotene, lutein or lycopene rather than suggest increasing their intake of carotenoids in general.

This lack of understanding leaves room for the industry to educate. Theres much continued work to be done to ensure the mass consumer understands carotenoids in the way they understand their parent group, antioxidants, said Matt Phillips, president, Cyvex Nutrition. This provides an opportunity to educate the general consumer concerned about diet and health. At Cyvex, we have enjoyed thinking creatively, and believe one message that can work is to tie carotenoids into color-benefit values. Simple, compelling and potentially highly effective in cementing the message and thus, increasing carotenoid consumption.

Health Benefits

And the science behind carotenoids health benefits is strong. For starters, four carotenoids (beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, gamma-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin) are vitamin A precursors, providing a safe way to increase the bodys level of the fat-soluble vitamin. The fact that many carotenoids are also sources of pro-vitamin A is a major benefit, said Lars B. Rasmussen, sales and marketing manager, Allied Biotech Corp. Where prolonged high doses of vitamin A pose a risk of overdosification, this is not the case with carotenoids. This makes carotenoids a safe source of vitamin A and allows for the declaration of vitamin A in products, where one would typically not include it, i.e., in beverages.

The first in the list of pro vitamin A carotenoids, beta-carotene contributes to the orange color of many different fruits and vegetables, such as mangoes, papayas, carrots and yams. A lot of research has focused on its role in skin health. A meta-analysis conducted in 2008 included seven studies evaluating the effectiveness of beta-carotene in protection against sunburn.1 The analysis showed beta-carotene supplementation for a minimum of 10 weeks protects against sunburn. Additionally, a mouse study found dietary beta-carotene accumulates in the skin and acts as a protective agent against ultraviolet-A (UVA)-induced oxidative damage, by quenching the singlet molecular oxygen.2 Beta-carotenes interaction with UVA radiation in the cell showed protective properties against photoaging-associated mitochondrial DNA mutation in a German study.3 However, other studies have shown beta-carotene supplementation exhibited no beneficial effects on the rates of skin cancer,4 and did not modify the severity of photodamage in normal individuals to a clinically meaningful degree.5

Beta-carotene in combination with other carotenoids has fared better in studies. For instance, a 2007 German study found beta-carotene and lycopene used in combination for 10 to 12 weeks prevented UV-induced erythema, a redness of the skin that occurs with skin injury, infection or inflammation.6 Lycopene, as noted before, is a bright red carotene found in tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables, such as watermelons and papayas. A different set of German researchers found several carotenoids, including lycopene, improved skin health, while the placebo group saw no changes.7 In the study, 39 volunteers with healthy, normal skin were divided into three groups (n=13) and supplemented for a period of 12 weeks. Group 1 received a mixture of lycopene (3 mg/d), lutein (3 mg/d), beta-carotene (4.8 mg/d), alpha-tocopherol (10 mg/d) and selenium (75 mcg/d). Group 2 was supplemented with a mixture of lycopene (6 mg/d), beta-carotene (4.8 mg/d), alpha-tocopherol (10 mg/d) and selenium (75 mcg/d). Group 3 was the placebo control. Upon supplementation, serum levels of selected carotenoids increased; and roughness, scaling and wrinkling of the skin were significantly reduced in both carotenoid groups.

Alone, lycopene also demonstrated protection against UV-induced erythma.8 And, results from a study focused on lycopene concentration in the furrowed and wrinkled foreheads of 20 subjects between 40 and 50 years old demonstrated high levels of antioxidants in the skin may be correlated to lower levels of skin roughness.9

Lycopene has also been touted for its cancer-preventive properties. One study from Taiwan noted the tomato carotenoid has been shown to inhibit proliferation of several types of cancer cells through arrest of tumor cell-cycle progression, IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1) signaling transduction, and further found it inhibited PDGF-BB (platelet-derived growth factor-BB)-induced signaling and cell migration in human cultured skin fibroblasts through a novel mechanism of action, i.e., by directly binding to PDGF-BB.10 Trapping of PDGF by lycopene also reduced melanoma-induced fibroblast migration and signaling transduction in fibroblasts simulated by melanoma-derived conditioned medium. This suggests the trapping activity of lycopene on PDGF may act as an inhibitor on stromal cells, tumor cells and their interactions, which may contribute to its anti-tumor activity. Interaction between stromal cells and tumor cells is known to play a major role in cancer growth and progression.

While not deadly like cancer, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a degenerative disease that causes progressive loss of central vision. Lutein and zeaxanthin accumulate in the retina and are particularly dense in the macula, a small area of the retina responsible for central vision and high-visual acuity; they are the only carotenoids reported to be present in eye lens. The lutein antioxidant supplementation trial (LAST) found visual function is improved with lutein alone or lutein together with other nutrients.11 The study was a prospective, 12-month, randomized, double-masked, placebo controlled trial of 90 patients with atrophic AMD conducted from August 1999 to May 2001. Patients supplemented with 10 mg/d of lutein experienced a 36-percent increase in macular pigment optical density (MPOD). Other parameters measured, including visual acuity and visual function, also improved in those receiving lutein supplementation. Other studies have also shown individuals with the highest dietary intake of lutein and zeaxanthin had a reduced risk of AMD compared with those with the lowest intakes.12,13

The POLA Study (Pathologies Oculaires Liées à lAge) found subjects with high plasma zeaxanthin (G0.09 KM) had a 93-percent reduced risk of age-related maculopathy (ARM) (P=0.005), and high plasma levels of lutein (G0.41KM) also showed a 69-percent reduction in risk of ARM (P=0.04).14 Subjects with high total plasma lutein and zeaxanthin (G0.56KM) had a 79-percent reduced risk of ARM (P=0.01) compared with subjects with low total plasma value (<0.25KM).

Lutein has been associated with eye health for good reasons, but recent studies show it can benefit the skin as well. Eye health benefits is what FloraGLO has been traditionally known for, but a 2007 landmark study showed daily supplementation of FloraGLO increased skin hydration by 38 percent and provided other skin health benefits, said Heather Richardson, North America product manager for FloraGLO brand lutein, supplied by Kemin Health. The two organs that are most exposed to the outdoor environment and pollutants are the eyes and the skin, so there must be a reason why lutein and zeaxanthin are heavily deposited in the macula of our eyes and in throughout our skin tissue.

The clinical trial Richardson referred to was designed to study the efficacy of lutein and zeaxanthin administered either orally, topically or in combination on skin health.15 The combined oral and topical administration of lutein and zeaxanthin provided the highest degree of antioxidant protection, and oral and topical administration of these antioxidants individually also provides significant activity in the skin via lipid peroxidation, skin lipid levels, skin hydration, skin elasticity and photoprotective activity

Its exciting because lutein is not just for the aging population anymore, Richardson said. Were finding its an essential nutrient that everyone needs every day, whether you get it from  fruits and vegetables, or, if you dont eat like youre supposed to, in combination with supplements or functional foods - just make sure you get at least 10 mg everyday.

Abhijit Bhattacharya, chief operating officer, OmniActive Health Technologies, said it is important to include both zeaxanthin and lutein in eye health products. Currently, a vast majority of lutein products on the market contain very low levels of zeaxanthin, he said. Without a complete source of zeaxanthin, the human eye wont accumulate the proper concentration of both compounds.

Another carotenoid touted for eye and skin health is astaxanthin, found in plants and animals throughout the world, but most prevalent in algae and phytoplankton. Its pinkish color can be seen in sea animals such as salmon, trout and lobster. Many natural ingredients of astaxanthin are derived from the Haematococcus pluvialis microalgae.

Astaxanthin has many health effects. As Charles DePrince, president, Fuji Health Science Inc., noted, The health areas of astaxanthin benefit that have been researched are many; however, the top health benefits of astaxanthin are cardiovascular health, muscle endurance and recovery, eye fatigue reduction (directly related to muscle endurance because it is the fatiguing of the ciliary bodytiny muscle in the eye that causes eye fatigue) and skin health.

Indeed, astaxanthin was shown to have a dose-dependent ocular anti-inflammatory effect by the suppression of nitric oxide (NO), prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha production through directly blocking nitric oxide synthase (NOS) enzyme activity in mice.16 In pigs, astaxanthin was capable of protecting the lens proteins from oxidative stress.17 Human studies have also shown eye health benefits of astaxanthin. A 2005 study found accommodation power and subjective symptoms relating to eye strain were improved by taking 6mg/d of astaxanthin,18 and astaxanthin relieved eye fatigue rapidly in nine healthy volunteers who underwent visual display terminal work.19

There is also a strong case for considering astaxanthin and lutein as co-ingredients in eye health formulationswith the idea of addressing something along the lines of whole eye health, said Rudi E. Moerck, president and CEO, Valensa. Some studies have shown the functionality of lutein in the eye is isolated in the rods in the retina, which are responsible for night and peripheral vision. On the other hand, astaxanthin has been found to reside in the cones of the retina which are responsible for color vision and acuity. By combining these two ingredients, we have the potential to address the whole eye.

Moerck said he also sees competition between lutein and astaxanthin. Because of the studies that are out there today, and the level of protection astaxanthin gives the human body against oxidation resulting from UV radiation, we see this ingredient as both complementary with and a competitor for lutein in eye health. It is important to note  lutein is available in numerous foods that are in our every day diet. Astaxanthin on the other hand, only has wild salmon and shrimp as a natural food source. Thus, astaxanthin in the form of supplements makes a lot more sense in terms of supporting eye health.

Moving to the heart, a randomized, placebo-controlled human study suggested astaxanthin consumption ameliorates triglyceride and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in correlation with increased adiponectin in humans;20 and a landmark study in 2005 found astaxanthin can exert beneficial effects in protection against hypertension and stroke, and in improving memory in vascular dementia.21 That same group of researchers later found the carotenoid can modulate the oxidative condition and may improve vascular elasticity and arterial wall thickness in patients with hypertension.22

Astaxanthin has also been shown to increase endurance during exercise,23 reduce wrinkles in the skin24 and to treat chronic active inflammation in the digestive tract caused by Helicobacter pylori.25

Efficacious Carotenoid Products

With all the health benefits stemming from carotenoids, they have found their way into a variety of delivery forms for consumers. Matteo Zema, U.S. area manager for Vitatene, said its natural carotenoids are available as oil suspension (OS) and as cold water dispersible (CWD) powder. The oil suspension allows a direct use in softgel capsules as well as in fat-based foods (margarine, salad dressings, cooking oils, etc.), he said. The powder form was developed specifically for the application of carotenoids, which are lipophylic molecules, into water-based foods (e.g., beverages). The powder also guarantees a perfect use in tablets where high resistance to compression is needed. It also protects the carotenoid from oxidation.

As far as what the consumer sees on the shelf, Bill Van Dyke, chairman/CEO of B&D Nutritional Ingredients, said, Supplements remain the most powerful delivery form of these carotenoids; however, with the rapid growth of functional foods, they are now being delivered in beverages, stick packs, shots and functional food bars. Improved delivery mechanisms for dispersible forms are being introduced.

Zema observed carotenoids are also being delivered in breakfast cereals and soups, while Moerck said new delivery systems has allowed for gummy products. Capelli noted cosmetic applications such as beauty-from-within supplement and topical sunscreens are increasing as well.

However, these innovative applications are not without their challenges. The most challenging applications of carotenoids in foods are water-based foods, mostly beverages, Zema said. Thanks to its knowledge in encapsulation technology, Vitatene developed a special Betanat® powder for these applications, which guarantees bright color stability and ringing free beverage, according to our tests.

Capelli noted natural astaxanthin is such a powerful antioxidant that it is inherently unstable; hence, maintaining stability throughout production, formulation and in final packaging is a challenge. There are some frightening things going on in the marketplace, he said. Companies should be sure t[HG1] o deal with a quality manufacturer to make sure their products are delivering to the consumer what theyre paying for so that theyll get the benefits and end results theyre looking for.

Moerck said Valensa uses Valensa uses O2B® Peroxidation Blocker technology to manufacture its carotenoids to ensure they are not oxidized during manufacturing, storage and processing. It also gives the products much longer shelf life. Carotenoids are very sensitive to heat, oxygen, free radicals and moisture and hence, have stability problems in processing and as far as shelf life, he said, adding the company has recently begun adding krill oil to carotenoids to make the lipid-soluble antioxidants more bioavailable.

Carotenoids may be broken down into less effective forms during processing, which would also reduce the amount of nutrients in the end products. If the processing conditions are not carefully monitored and controlled, the primary quality concern is carotenoid oxidation, which would negate their value and natural health benefits, noted Gus Castro, senior technical marketing manger, DSM Nutritional Products Inc. Another concern is that sometimes carotenoids can isomerize during processing to other forms, which have not been studied or found to have a lesser or no efficacy in the body.

Bioavailablity is one thing, but if end products dont taste good, consumers will never get the nutrients absorbed. When formulating with carotenoids, taste can always present a problem in food and beverage applications, said Phillips. Therefore, there are additional application issues that must be considered when using them. For example, you may have to develop a coating to neutralize the taste.

By combating these problems and offering easy, efficacious ways for consumers to gain the health benefits of carotenoids, many in the industry see a bright future. Carotenoids are such wonderful, health-giving compounds that more people will start to take them in supplement and functional-food forms, Capelli said. The amount of research and publicity that is happening lately on carotenoids is sure to increase consumer awareness and increase usage. And nothing is better than word-of-mouth; we get tons of new consumers trying BioAstin every month because their sisters or fathers or friends told them how well it works for them.

Phil Gowaski, sales and marketing manager, Chrysantis Inc., said science is still pouring in on carotenoids, which will help spur sales. The complete health benefits of carotenoids are still not fully understood, he said. More research is necessary. Most carotenoids have not crossed from supplements format to a fortified food and beverages platform. I think you will see them become more mainstream as delivery technologies develop.

Moerck said he sees GRAS statuses in carotenoids futures, which will only add to their growing popularity; and Van Dyke said growth will be spurred by education at a grass-roots level directed at health care providers and consumers.

Indeed, with science, education, health benefits and colors aplenty, carotenoids should soon be taking up space in more consumers supplement cabinets and pantry shelves.

References on the next page...

References for "Carotenoid Color Wheel of Health"


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2.       Bando N, et al. Participation of singlet oxygen in ultraviolet-a-induced lipid peroxidation in mouse skin and its inhibition by dietary beta-carotene: an ex vivo study. Free Radic Biol Med. 2004 Dec 1;37(11):1854-63.

3.       Eicker J, et al. Betacarotene supplementation protects from photoaging-associated mitochondrial DNA mutation. Photochem Photobiol Sci. 2003 Jun;2(6):655-9.

4.       Green A, et al. Daily sunscreen application and betacarotene supplementation in prevention of basal-cell and squamous-cell carcinomas of the skin: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 1999 Aug 28;354(9180):723-9.

5.       Garmyn M, et al. Effect of beta-carotene supplementation on the human sunburn reaction. Exp Dermatol. 1995 Apr;4(2):104-11.

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7.       Heinrich U, et al. Antioxidant supplements improve parameters related to skin structure in humans. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2006;19(4):224-31.

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9.       Darvin M, et al. Cutaneous concentration of lycopene correlates significantly with the roughness of the skin. Eur J Pharm Biopharm. 2008 Aug;69(3):943-7.

10.   Wu WB, et al. Inhibitory effect of lycopene on PDGF-BB-induced signalling and migration in human dermal fibroblasts: a possible target for cancer. Biochem Soc Trans. 2007 Nov;35(Pt 5):1377-8.

11.   Richer S, et al. Double-masked, placebo-controlled, randomized trial of lutein and antioxidant supplementation in the intervention of atrophic age-related macular degeneration: the Veterans LAST study (Lutein Antioxidant Supplementation Trial). Optometry. 2004 Apr;75(4):216-30.

12.   [No authors listed] Antioxidant status and neovascular age-related macular degeneration. Eye Disease Case-Control Study Group. Arch Ophthalmol. 1993 Jan;111(1):104-9.

13.   Seddon JM, et al. Dietary carotenoids, vitamins A, C, and E, and advanced age-related macular degeneration. Eye Disease Case-Control Study Group. JAMA. 1994 Nov 9;272(18):1413-20.

14.   Delcourt C, et al. Plasma lutein and zeaxanthin and other carotenoids as modifiable risk factors for age-related maculopathy and cataract: the POLA Study. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2006 Jun;47(6):2329-35.

15.   Palombo P, et al. Beneficial long-term effects of combined oral/topical antioxidant treatment with the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin on human skin: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2007;20(4):199-210.

16.   Ohgami K,et al. Effects of astaxanthin on lipopolysaccharide-induced inflammation in vitro and in vivo. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2003 Jun;44(6):2694-701.

17.   Wu TH, et al. Astaxanthin protects against oxidative stress and calcium-induced porcine lens protein degradation. J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Mar 22;54(6):2418-23.

18.   Nitta, et al. Effects of astaxanthin on accommodation and asthenopia Dose finding study in healthy volunteers. J. Clin. Therap. Med., 2005; 21(6):637-650.

19.   Takahashi, N; Kajita, M. Effects of astaxanthin on accommodative recovery. J. Clin. Therap. Med.2005; 21(4):431-436.

20.   Yoshida H, et al. Administration of natural astaxanthin increases serum HDL-cholesterol and adiponectin in subjects with mild hyperlipidemia. Atherosclerosis. 2009 Oct 14.

21.   Hussein G, et al. Antihypertensive and neuroprotective effects of astaxanthin in experimental animals Biol Pharm Bull. 2005 Jan;28(1):47-52.

22.   Hussein G, et al. Antihypertensive potential and mechanism of action of astaxanthin: III. Antioxidant and histopathological effects in spontaneously hypertensive rats. Biol Pharm Bull. 2006 Apr;29(4):684-8.

23.   Ikeuchi M, et al. Effects of astaxanthin supplementation on exercise-induced fatigue in mice. Biol Pharm Bull. 2006 Oct;29(10):2106-10.

24.   Seki, T, et al. Effects of astaxanthin from Haematococcus pluvialis on human skin 2001 Fragrance Journal 12:98-103.

25.   Andersen LP, et al. Gastric inflammatory markers and interleukins in patients with functional dyspepsia treated with astaxanthin. FEMS Immunol Med Microbiol. 2007 Jul;50(2):244-8.


About the Author(s)

Sandy Almendarez

editor in chief, Informa

Sandy Almendarez entered the natural products industry in 2009 when she joined Virgo Publishing (now Informa Exhibitions) as an assistant editor. Since then, she's worked her way up to editor in chief where she writes, edits and manages content for INSIDER. Under Sandy’s direction, INSIDER has won editorial awards from Folio: every year since 2014, including B2B Editorial Team of the Year in 2015.

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