Antioxidants: Nature's Defense

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In the ongoing war that is waged inside our bodies, antioxidants represent our front line of defense against major health conditions such as heart disease, cancer and macular degeneration. Today these conditions are very prevalent amongst consumers and organizations such as the American Heart Association (AHA), Dallas, TX, and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Bethesda, MD, suggest that more people will continue to be affected by such diseases in years to come.

At the molecular and cellular levels, antioxidants serve to deactivate free radicals, which usually come in the form of O2, the oxygen molecule, according to Katie Ferren, director of botanical extracts, BI Nutraceuticals, Long Beach, CA, makers of rosemary products RoseOx™ and Rossentia™. “Free radicals are the natural byproducts of many processes within and among cells,” she said. “They can also be created by exposure to various environmental factors and can cause damage to cell walls, certain cell structures and genetic material within the cells. Such damage can become irreversible and lead to disease. This is where antioxidants come into play. Put simply, antioxidants play the housekeeper’s role in ‘mopping up’ free radicals before they get a chance to do harm in the body.”

Market Size
According to a recent survey conducted by Mango Logic, Martinsville, NJ, 85% of U.S. consumers have heard of antioxidants. However, while the level of antioxidant awareness gives reason to be optimistic, market figures reflect a different story. According to SPINS, San Francisco, CA, the antioxidant category, as broken down into vitamin C, vitamin E, CoQ10, carotenoids/antioxidant formulas and polyphenols, grew 9.7% in the natural channel from $93 million in December 2001 to $102 million in December 2002 (see Figure 1). However, antioxidant sales decreased 5% in the mainstream channel from $454 million in December 2001 to $431 million in December 2002 (see Figure 2).

Figure 1
Figure 2
Total market 52 weeks ending 11/30/02=$102 million Total market 52 weeks ending 11/30/02=$431 million

Despite a slowdown in sales in the mainstream many industry insiders feel confident that the market is ripe for growth. Steve Anderson, vice president, Dry Creek Nutrition, Modesto, CA, suppliers of Activin® grape seed extract, said that as a supplement category antioxidants are seeing a revival in public interest. One reason is that antioxidants play well into the aging baby boomer drive to extend and improve life. “Scientific studies continue to demonstrate the importance of antioxidants in long term health and these studies are getting increasing public exposure in magazines, radio and television. In addition, food companies are increasingly promoting the health benefits of antioxidants contained in fruits and vegetables,” he said.

Antioxidant Trends
The antioxidant market is a hard market to define due to the overwhelming variety of ingredients considered to have antioxidant capabilities. As a result, David Eckert, business director, North America, Cognis Nutrition and Health, Cincinnati, OH, makers of Coviox®, Covitol® and Xangold® antioxidant products said, “The consumer is being challenged to understand the value of each product. This, combined with negative media coverage about the vitamin market overall, has created consumer confusion and distrust.” He continued, “On the other hand, you have a cover story in Newsweek magazine on alternative medicine in which it reported that ‘nearly half of all U.S. adults now go outside the healthcare system for some of their care.’ Because of this, the mainstream market is feeling empowered to take charge of their healthcare and has entered a world that includes antioxidant supplements.”

Commenting on the category’s expansion was Bill Downs, director of technical services, InterHealth Nutraceuticals, Benicia, CA, suppliers of OptiBerry™, which is a multiple berry extract blend. “At one time, it was unknown to what extent free radical-induced oxidative damage to cell membranes impaired health, but their extensive damaging effects have now been verified and documented,” he said. “As a result, the research and marketing of potent antioxidants derived from herbs and botanicals has evolved.”

In the same vein, Dominique Rhodes, purchasing manager, Biolandes, Inc., Secaucus, NJ, which produces oak and grape extract (made by combining French oak wood and grape seeds), said, “The trend has been to investigate a variety of plants as new potential sources of antioxidants. The challenge we now face is being able to compare all of these antioxidants.”

Ram Chaudhari, senior executive vice president of research and development for premix supplier Fortitech, Schenectady, NY, said more people are asking about exotic antioxidants, such as pine bark extract and grape seed extract. The reason for this, he said, is that some negative publicity in the past about traditional antioxidants such as vitamins C and E has influenced consumers to seek alternative sources.

Also discussing the interest in plant extracts was Michael Bloeser, sales director, Plantextrakt, Vestenbergsgreuth, Germany, which supplies a range of extracts from plant material such as blackberry leaves, raspberry leaves and rosehip. “Besides vitamins, a defined range of herbal extracts represents the most potential in the antioxidant market,” he said. “There are plenty of opportunities in the market to place these extracts because they are natural ingredients that have a positive reputation due to the use of herbals as traditional products. In addition to their effectiveness, they are applicable at a reasonable price.”

Brien Quirk, technical manager of herbal supplier Draco Natural Products, San Jose, CA, feels there has been a shift toward identifying major antioxidant groups in foods in order to make some type of claim. “With functional foods there is an objective to capitalize on claims and either supplement the food with a higher concentration of phytocompounds or add them to foods that do not normally contain them,” he commented.

Also weighing in on market trends was Rudi van Mol, vice president, Nutrinova Nutrition Specialists & Food Ingredients GmbH, Frankfurt, Germany, makers of Caromax™, a dietary fiber produced from the pulp of the carob fruit. “Antioxidants have a broad medicinal appeal because they have been linked to disease prevention and health maintenance characteristics for a number of conditions,” he said, adding, “Consumers and consumer groups of today are highly fragmented in their buying behaviors, and because of this, sound science as the starting platform of a marketing strategy is important to assure sustainable trust for a product in target groups. Furthermore, communicators are an essential asset when positioning and differentiating products.”

Discussing the issue of natural versus synthetic antioxidants in light of food preservation was Anna Zielonka, director of sales and marketing, Barrington Nutritionals, a division of Barrington Chemical Corporation, Harrison, NY, suppliers of Origanox™ oregano herb extract. “There is a strong trend toward the use of healthier foods containing less synthetic chemicals, which are perceived as being unhealthy and toxic over time,” she said. “This has led to an increased use of natural antioxidants for food preservation versus synthetic antioxidants.”

Discussing the natural vitamin E versus synthetic vitamin E situation was Steve O’Brien, director of business development, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Decatur, IL, who just recently introduced its Vitamin E 230 Clear. “Synthetic vitamin E is still the predominant product out there, but the gap is narrowing. Natural vitamin E right now is selling close to where synthetic vitamin E was four or five years ago. If you look at the numbers, natural has been gaining ground pretty steadily over the past couple of years,” he said. “This trend will continue as long as the natural industry is able to supply the demand and is able to avoid a short fall.”

Consumer Awareness
Educating consumers about antioxidants has not been easy. While over 80% of consumers say they have heard of antioxidants, most experts agree it is still on a very general level. Consumers are just not sophisticated enough yet to differentiate one antioxidant from another in such a crowded marketplace. Ellen Schutt, director of marketing, RFI Ingredients, Blauvelt, NY, suppliers of OxyPhyte® brand antioxidants, discussed this issue. “Antioxidants have been around for a while, but the industry has not done a good job of educating consumers about them,” she said. “Consumers understand antioxidants are good for you and that’s all they know. They don’t really know which antioxidants to take because they have no frame of reference to compare one antioxidant to another.”

Karen Todd, senior marketing manager of new products for antioxidant supplier Roche Vitamins, Parsippany, NJ, said although consumers are aware of antioxidants, the tremendous influx of products has left them confused. “There are new antioxidant products appearing all the time. This proliferation is both positive and negative to the market,” she said. “It is positive in the sense that consumer awareness has increased over the years, however, it is negative in the sense that consumers are becoming confused over the number of new products on the market and the vast amount of available information, which is sometimes conflicting.”

Barry Kaufman, senior product manager, BASF, Mount Olive, NJ, supplier of a variety of antioxidants, concurred. He said, “Consumer awareness of antioxidants is quite high, but many consumers are confused over each ingredient’s antioxidant properties.” Also, he said, there has been some conflicting research on antioxidants and the nutrition industry has done a poor job of explaining these studies.

Despite negative news about some antioxidants, Hemmi Bhagavan, clinical nutritionist, Tishcon Corporation, Westbury, NY, suppliers of Q-Gel®, a hydrosoluble CoQ10, said, “Health conscious consumers are very much aware of the importance of antioxidant nutrients in maintaining good health and reducing the risk for several chronic diseases. Furthermore, well informed consumers are not easily swayed by the occasional negative reports of questionable merit associated with media hype.”

Understanding antioxidants requires complex knowledge, according to Gregory Drew, marketing manager, Regal Trade & Consult, Hoboken, NJ, which supplies a line of berry oils and fruit extracts. “There are so many antioxidant-related products and the science is generally young. Understanding antioxidants requires an extremely complex knowledge that is not very easy to grasp beyond ‘they protect against free radicals,’” Mr. Drew commented. “Consumer awareness is primarily advertising driven and the most successful campaigns target condition-specific benefits directly to the consumer.”

Consumer awareness has been helped by positive research and large companies willing to tout specific antioxidant ingredients on their product labels. Commenting on this was Yousry Naguib, manager of new product development, Soft Gel Technolgies, Los Angeles, CA, who ssaid, “Consumers look at antioxidants for both general and specific health conditions. This can be seen in their awareness of well known antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, and selenium, along with the newer ones, such as lutein, lycopene, tocotrienols and flavonoids,” he said.

“Their interest in these antioxidants stems from the publicity and positive outcomes of clinical trials, and the willingness of giant pharmaceutical companies, such as American Home Products, to incorporate these new antioxidants into their existing line of products.”

Where/How should Consumers get their Antioxidants?
According to Joanna Wozniak, communications manager at selenium supplier Institut Rosell, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, people should ideally obtain the antioxidants our bodies require from our diet. However, she said, with soils depleted by years of aggressive farming practices, in addition to today’s over processing of food, it’s possible to be nutrient deficient without ever going hungry. That is why, she said, consumers must supplement the diet with natural and reliable sources of antioxidants.

Soft Gel Technologies’ Mr. Naguib agreed. He said, “The fact that not even the recommended daily dosage can be attained by a regular diet leads to the need for antioxidant supplementation, especially the antioxidants that are well established to offer an essential health benefit.” Mr. Naguib offered another perspective. “Antioxidants tend to work as a team in synergistic fashion. Some of these antioxidants may not have relevant biological activity on their own and they do not work through identical biochemical mechanisms,” he said. “Together, however, antioxidants constitute an interlinked defense system that protects against disease associated with oxidative stress.”

Discussing both the benefits of antioxidant blends and single ingredients was Larry Line, vice president, U.S. Nutraceuticals, Eustis, FL, suppliers of astaZANTHIN® brand astaxanthin. “There are a number of antioxidants found in the human food supply and our bodies simply need a range of different antioxidants. As a result, blends that augment the natural dietary intake of antioxidants may prove to be highly beneficial to consumers,” he said. “Nevertheless, single ingredient preparations are also useful because they allow the consumer to tailor the supplements taken to their own specific needs.”

BASF’s Mr. Kaufman, spoke about the challenges of fortification. “It is probably easier for consumers to get their antioxidants in foods and beverages, but sometimes the problem is the quantity. You can’t get 400 I.U. of vitamin E, for example, in a food without interfering with the taste and appearance. In some cases consumers may need supplements, while in others, they may be able to get their antioxidants in functional foods and beverages,” he said.

Testing Antioxidant Capacity
In recent years testing antioxidant capacity has become an increasingly popular issue. Companies use various testing methods in order to substantiate product quality and provide a point of differentiation. RFI’s technical director, Ginny Bank, discussed why testing antioxidant capacity is critical. “Measuring antioxidant capacity is absolutely necessary for the consumer, the manufacturer and the supplier. Without some sort of measurement, there would be no way for a consumer to compare products, no way for a supplier to determine a product’s quality and no way for a manufacturer to choose antioxidants for the products they are developing,” she commented.

According Ms. Bank, the most popular, easiest and least expensive of the testing methods available is the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) method, which places antioxidant value on both foods and supplements. “ORAC is a superior method because it measures both the degree to which a sample inhibits the action of an oxidizing agent and how long it takes to do so. It is an automated system that has the ability to measure both lipophilic and hydrophilic antioxidants, and antioxidant potency against various types of free radicals can also be measured,” she explained. “ORAC’s limitation is that it is an in vitro test. In vivo studies, such as measuring oxidative degradation products in the urine, would obviously be superior to ORAC, however, this test is very impractical and very expensive to run regularly.”

Michael Hudnall, director of marketing at bee pollen extract supplier CC Pollen, Phoenix, AZ, talked about the impact ORAC has had on the nutraceutical market. “ORAC testing has made a significant impact on the industry because we now have the ability to quantify antioxidant levels,” he offered. “Previously, the presence of antioxidant activity was more of a quality statement with vague characterizations about the presence of antioxidants.”

Dry Creek’s Mr. Anderson said the Gallic Acid Equivalence (GAE) test is another common method used for testing antioxidant capacity. “While these tests provide a relative measure of antioxidant potential, they cannot substitute for scientific studies that support actual efficacy and health claims,” he said. “Natural antioxidants typically consist of a blend of polyphenolic compounds. Tests such as GAE and ORAC, while suitable for quantifying polyphenol content, may not accurately measure ultimate health benefit.”

W.H. Leong, vice president sales and marketing of tocotrienol supplier Carotech, Edison, NJ, discussed additional issues with testing methods. “There is no one antioxidant testing method that is applicable to all antioxidants. There are two groups of antioxidants—water-soluble and fat-soluble. Both of these groups of antioxidants work in different parts of the cell,” he explained. “It is wrong to compare these two groups of antioxidants and say one is better than the other if the testing method is skewed toward one particular group.”

For the Future
According to BASF’s Mr. Kaufman, the future growth of the antioxidant market is directly dependent upon proper education and scientific research. “The key is taking scientific evidence and presenting it to the consumer in a simple, understandable manner. Another key is not to over promise the benefits of antioxidants. For example, antioxidants do not cure cancer or prevent it, but in some cases may reduce the risk. However, this is only in combination with normal, healthy habits, such as not smoking, exercising and eating properly,” he said, adding, “Antioxidants are here to stay. I can see exciting things in the future as the science comes together. For example, the concept of mixed carotenoids, which mirror the important carotenoids found in fruits and vegetables could be very hot in a few years if we can show some strong scientific evidence.”

In years to come, Cognis’s Mr. Eckert offered, “The body of knowledge regarding antioxidants will continue to increase such that the industry may redefine how antioxidants work in the body. From an end market perspective products must be science-based, safe and affordable for health conscious consumers with busy lifestyles.”

InterHealth’s Mr. Downs said marketing will play the biggest role in the growth of the antioxidant market. “Publicizing the different benefits of antioxidants will expand the market, if properly promoted,” he said. “For example, tag-team claims where antioxidant properties are co-promoted with other collateral benefits (i.e., cardiovascular health, memory, mood stability, etc.), offers the best strategy for market expansion, regardless of the delivery vehicle.”

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