Antioxidants: A Most Fruitful Category

One of the largest segments of the dietary supplement market, antioxidants are entering a new phase of development.

Lisa Schofield
Contributing Editor

Choices are appreciated, and choices are what make America great. The Sherman Antitrust Act of July 2, 1890 was passed to prevent any one company or entity from monopolizing a market—giving Americans the benefit of choice, and companies the benefit of free market enterprise.

However, sometimes, it can be argued, there is too much to choose from, causing mass confusion. A plethora of product can overwhelm and dilute the intent and viability of a product category. And this is precisely what’s happening to the antioxidant category today.

Antioxidants have entered a new phase. Consistently, a new antioxidant compound is discovered in some exotic locale, studied for its ability to scavenge an assortment of free radicals, and then launched into an already crowded market.

The message of antioxidant value is simple and compelling: sufficient intake can help consumers age healthily, sustain vitality as they age and diminish risk of age-related diseases. Antioxidants are the new “fountain of youth” and consumers understand that. They know antioxidants are found abundantly in fruits and vegetables, yet, most Americans know they don’t eat enough of nature’s bounty. “Antioxidants provide the cornerstone of our industry,” stated Christine Peggau, marketing manager, Cognis Nutrition & Health, La Grange, IL. “The premise of healthy aging starts here with the fundamental point that antioxidants protect against free radicals.”

One would think it’s a slam-dunk category, but confusion remains and more education and scientific support is needed to help this category evolve into its next phase of development.

Profiling the Antioxidant Consumer

According to The Natural Marketing Institute’s (NMI) 2006 Health and Wellness Trends Database, last year 16% of consumers indicated they used antioxidants. The top three benefits that consumers associate with antioxidants are cancer prevention, immune support and heart health. With the profusion of antioxidants available—one wonders why the remaining 84% aren’t buying.

It appears that the ever-growing category is so cluttered, yet the majority of consumers are not beyond the basic awareness that “they’re good for you.” Jeff Hilton, co-founder and president of IMG Branding Group in Salt Lake City, UT, recently completed a three-city focus group to determine exactly how consumers perceive antioxidants. “We found that consumers are familiar with antioxidants, but when it came down to telling us what an antioxidant is, they couldn’t. They did know antioxidants are found primarily in fruits and vegetables and they have positive health benefits. They know the value in a broad sense.”

Charles DePrince, president, Fuji Health Science, Mt. Laurel, NJ, expanded on this perception. “It is the rare consumer who understands what an antioxidant does, the mechanism of action and why it is so important for their overall health,” he said.

Still, this may be a good start. According to Dr. Chris Meletis, director of science and research for Trace Minerals Research, Ogden, UT, there are three types of consumers: “perpetual learners and scholars” (25% who really get it); “trend followers” (40% who are impressed with the latest science), and “feel goods” (35% who are smart, yet advertising, friends and sound bytes are sufficient for them to see if this new product makes them feel better).

In the viewpoint of Hartley Pond, technical sales manager for VDF/ Futureceuticals, Momence, IL, consumer understanding of antioxidants has grown dramatically over the last few years, but in particular, he points out, “Consumers want proof that antioxidants work, that they are bioavailable and bioactive. They want to understand how they work in vivo.” In the coming years, he said this will be a critical factor in creating antioxidant formulations.

According to Paul Dijkstra, executive vice president, InterHealth Nutraceuticals Inc., Benicia, CA, one significant challenge for consumers is that antioxidants cover a plethora of health conditions and there is a multitude of antioxidants available on the market, making it difficult for them to identify with any particular one.

For the consumer, the recognizable attraction to antioxidants is that free radicals (reactive oxygen species) are known to accelerate age-related diseases and body breakdown. Wayne Geilman, PhD, senior research scientist for Pure Fruit Technologies, Provo, UT, believes this knowledge, combined with the increase in the median age—the percent of the population over 65 years old is expected to double in the next 10 years—continues to fuel interest in antioxidants. “Although consumers may not be able to interpret the scientific jargon about how antioxidants work, they have the sense that they do work, are generally safe, and can be part of a proper diet,” he commented.

Despite this general knowledge, however, there is no immediate, noticeable effect that is obvious to the consumer, so it’s more difficult to sustain sales on antioxidants, observes Cecilia McCollum, executive vice president of Blue California, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA. “Dietary supplements that offer immediate or tangible results like chondroitin/glucosamine formulas, for example, are easier for the consumer to assess and continue purchasing based on personal experience,” she explained.

Jeff Wuagneux, co-president and CEO of RFI Ingredients, Blauvelt, NY, agrees that prevention may be a hard sell. “But this too is difficult to prove over the long run,” he said, adding, “This creates an inherent problem for suppliers and marketers of antioxidants.”

Compounding the consumer conundrum says Cognis’ Ms. Peggau is what she calls the roller-coaster couple of years for some antioxidants due to media coverage. In the case of vitamin E, Cognis is just beginning to see the landscape stabilize. “After a rash of misleading headlines, positive reports are evolving that look at the totality of evidence behind vitamin E and beta-carotene, which are powerful agents for healthy aging. For example, research shows that natural beta-carotene has greater antioxidant activity compared to synthetic forms as a result of differences in their chemical structures.”

Similarly, in the viewpoint of Weng-Hong (WH) Leong, founder and CEO of Carotech, Edison, NJ, consumers are completely baffled about types of vitamins, including E, A and C, and which one is better, or best. For example, consumers are not fully aware of the existence of water-soluble antioxidants (e.g., C) and fat-soluble antioxidants (e.g., E, carotene), he claims. Nor do they know the additional benefits/potency of one form of carotene over another form of carotene. “An example is the higher antioxidant potency of alpha-carotene over the regular beta-carotene,” he explained. “Even though beta-carotene has a higher IU of vitamin A activity (in the prevention of night blindness—vitamin E deficiency), alpha-carotene exhibits higher biological activity (i.e., antioxidant activity) in neutralizing free radical-mediated peroxidative damage to cell membranes.”

Ms. Peggau, whose company is also a recognized supplier of natural vitamin E, asserts that consumers are flocking to the more natural version of almost anything these days. “Consumers are increasingly buying all-natural products with health or wellness claims. So, correspondingly, we are seeing greater interest in natural antioxidant ingredients,” she said. “With vitamin E, natural-source is officially recognized by the National Academy of Sciences as being twice as biologically active as its synthetic counterpart.”

With the profusion of foods and beverages now marketed as containing antioxidants in general, consumers have become less likely to buy such products because they are looking for products with more specificity. Bob Capelli, vice president of sales and marketing, Cyanotech, Kailua-Kona, HI, ran into this problem several years ago with its product, BioAstin. “Cyanotech first positioned its BioAstin natural astaxanthin as the world’s strongest natural antioxidant when it was launched about six years ago, but the reception wasn’t that great because consumers were pretty much ‘over it’ with antioxidants already,” he offered. “Although it is indeed an antioxidant, four years ago we decided to reposition BioAstin as an anti-inflammatory, at which point it was much better received by the industry, as well as consumers.”

Speaking of consumers, Cyanotech is currently running full page ads in four leading weekly magazines: Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report and Sports Illustrated in select markets in order to better reach them. This program is designed to educate consumers on the benefits of BioAstin natural astaxanthin and features the logos of 13 of Cyanotech’s BioAstin customers. “We’ve been promoting BioAstin through an aggressive PR campaign for the last year, but we also want to teach consumers what BioAstin can do for them through advertising,” said Gerald Cysewski, PhD, Cyanotech’s CEO and Founder. “This program allows us to advertise in leading publications in specific markets in order to keep within our budget. As we see success, we can move into additional markets. We’re very happy to get the word out about BioAstin and to get our customers’ logos in front of consumers. We’ve found that if we can get people to try BioAstin once, we retain a very high percentage as regular users,” he said.

Mission Clarification

Considering antioxidant re-engineering to lessen consumer confusion is crucial for the survival of the antioxidant category. IMG’s Mr. Hilton points out that as more antioxidants are discovered, researched and added to the mix on shelves, differentiation, product stories and targeting conditions are components in the recipe for antioxidant longevity in the market.

“I think the more companies expand their antioxidant stories—getting specific about the antioxidants and what they do—consumers will be much more motivated for purchase,” he said. His client, Pure Fruit Technologies, for example, touts having the highest concentration of xanthones in its liquid mangosteen supplement, and its marketing focuses on xanthones. The company also offers a gac fruit supplement with naturally occurring lycopene and beta-carotene, presented as a supplement that supports cardiovascular and vision health. “The point is that marketers should look at carving out a specific niche for their antioxidant products that they can own and stand behind. It’s classic market segmentation strategy,” Mr. Hilton said. “Companies must communicate persuasively and consistently to the consumer; this is the challenge to being successful in a larger and increasingly commoditized category.”

A lot of companies are also headed toward condition-specific marketing in the antioxidant category. Matt Phillips, vice president of marketing and sales, BI Nutraceuticals, Long Beach, CA, claims it is crucial to get consumers to connect certain antioxidants with certain health issues. “The industry has to focus more on correlating specific antioxidants to condition-specific benefits,” he commented. “By focusing on the condition, the consumer can relate to a specific benefit. This is an easier way to present products rather than under a broad umbrella of antioxidants.”

Additionally, Mr. Phillips says, it is far easier for suppliers and manufacturers to invest in research to support a direct health benefit than it would be to just list a product as an antioxidant. Simply, if it works for the claimed benefit, then consumers will continue to buy.

NMI’s 2006 Health and Wellness Trends Database indicates that in 2006 44% of consumers indicated that they used condition-specific supplements. The top three reasons consumers started to use condition-specific supplements included: treat/manage specific health issues, prevent a specific health issue from occurring, and to promote overall health.

Virtually all respondents point favorably to marketing antioxidants for a condition-specific purpose, especially when the science and story support its action and function in a particular system or organ. Lutein for vision, lycopene for prostate and heart health, sulforaphane for protection against carcinogenesis, and vitamin C for immune system support, are just some examples.

The overall antioxidant category has seen some exciting new entries during the past few years. These include those derived from tropical fruits, such as açai and mangosteen, observes Futureceuticals’ Mr. Pond, which have attracted significant interest from consumers and researchers. Grown under intense tropical sunshine, these fruits produce high levels of reactive oxygen species during photosynthesis and concurrently produce strong antioxidant protection. “I believe there is an intrinsic romance to fruits from tropical, far off regions, and that consumers enjoy learning about newly available foods and products that offer the promise of nutritional profiles not found in our standard diet,” he said.

Cyanotech’s Mr. Capelli agreed, saying, “Today, a new antioxidant just won’t sell that well if it is marketed strictly as an antioxidant. It has to have some other benefits in order to gain acceptance and in order to get consumers to pull the purchase trigger.”

Consumers have access to a great deal of information about all antioxidants; the question is whether the data are sufficient enough for them to make the most informed choices, according to Emile Henein, industry manager, dietary supplements, BASF Corp., Florham Park, NJ. “I believe there are three levels of information that should be viewed together—the specific health benefits, the supporting data and the bioavailability of particular formulations.”

Sid Hulse, vice president of marketing and sales for Valensa International, Eustis, FL, feels condition-specific approaches for antioxidants are just part of the solution. “We need to address issues of performance and quality that must be grounded in good science,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have often engaged in the ‘flavor of the month’ approach as a method of gaining short term sales. In the longer term, this will probably hurt the industry overall.”

Clarifying the sphere of antioxidants for consumers is another major challenge, but there are other issues that have hampered consumer understanding and thus higher sales.

Vladimir Badmaev, MD, PhD, director of scientific affairs for Sabinsa, Piscataway, NJ, said the industry needs to start talking more about clinical effectiveness of antioxidants rather than their “wished-for” efficacy based on in vitro antioxidant potency. He and others (i.e., consumers) want to know: Can a specific antioxidant prevent, alleviate or treat a specific health problem or problems? “This is the type of question that should be asked more often now that we have available on the nutritional supplement market such a variety of natural and synthetic antioxidants,” he stated.

As an example, Mr. Badmaev refers to several compelling studies of curcuminoids in cases of Alzheimer’s dementia, showing apparent and specific benefit. He opines that the examples of curcuminoids being tested in such specific clinical conditions should serve as a model in testing and validating antioxidants for supplementation. He urges the industry to put antioxidants to “real life tests” in order to establish the viability of use for specific health and wellness issues.

Doug Klaiber, general manager of Decas Botanicals, Wareham, MA, shared a similar point of view. “How do we translate antioxidant in vitro measurement methodologies into proven in vivo efficacy? While many products tout high ORAC scores, many may not offer true health benefits,” he explained. “The industry needs more clinically proven evidence.”

Antioxidants in functional foods and beverages need to live up to their promise, observes Eric Anderson, brands manager, PL Thomas, Morristown, NJ, who points to a leading beverage company touting antioxidants in its commercials as a healthy reason to drink its product. But it contains negligible amounts per serving, amounting to what he calls “label paint.” Hopefully, he said, “The industry moves beyond this approach and provides therapeutic amounts of antioxidants in functional foods. For now, only supplement products can support the retail price levels for effective dosage products—delivering the promised benefit is the best way to support consumer confidence.”
ORAC Whacked?

Several years ago, the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scale was introduced and hailed as an evolutionary tool to measure antioxidant strength that would hopefully be embraced by consumers, making them purchase antioxidants in droves. But ORAC has hit a few snags along the way. RFI’s Mr. Wuagneux says in the context of ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity), manufacturers and marketers of antioxidants must make accurate claims about their products and communicate truthfully to consumers. “Unfortunately ORAC claims are often inflated or inaccurately stated, which undermines the credibility of the entire category with consumers,” he said. “This is why marketers and manufacturers must unite to establish reasonable and accurate standards.”

BASF’s Mr. Henein believes there is no one test that can predict the efficacy of an antioxidant when consumed to deliver some type of positive effect. And ORAC testing, he says, favors the water-soluble antioxidants and is still not a predictor of in-vivo performance—this is seen as an increasingly frustrating bane.

PL Thomas’ Mr. Anderson also fails to see any advantage from ORAC testing. “I believe these in vitro tests have extremely limited benefit and potentially a huge downside,” he commented. “It is a stretch to extrapolate what happens in the test-tube to human benefits. Does a larger ORAC number guarantee a consumer is going to realize the promised benefits? The answer to this question is never given because there is no proven correlation. So for now ORAC is strictly a marketing device.”

Carotech’s Mr. Leong also raised some important issues surrounding ORAC testing. “ORAC value is often misused by many companies that skew the results in favor of their ingredients. I have seen this misinformation in many marketing materials,” he explained. “An example is the ORAC value for water-soluble antioxidants versus the ORAC value for lipid-soluble antioxidants. If we carry out the ORAC test for vitamin C (water soluble) and tocotrienol (lipid soluble) in an aqueous system of ORAC, vitamin C would obviously have a higher ORAC value as the test was carried out in an aqueous system. Does that mean vitamin E is less potent than vitamin C?”

Further, Mr. Leong pointed out, “It is important to understand that each antioxidant has its own unique properties and work best in different parts of the cell. Vitamin C may be most effective in the cytosol of the cell (aqueous part) whereas vitamin E (tocotrienol) is most potent and effective in the membrane bilayer and mitochondria (fat part) of the cell.”

Rest assured, proactive and keen minds are on the case, the goal not to abandon the value of ORAC, but compose other tests to complement it.

Dr. Meletis from Trace Minerals Research suggests forming a commission that helps create a body’s systems categorization program to rank the true bioactive protective capacity. “Certainly a high ORAC rating is wonderful, yet what is the ‘sum total’ benefit from direct and indirect endogenous and exogenous effects on the human body at both the hydrophilic and lipophilic aspects of the 75 trillion cells that comprise the human body?”

RFI, according to Mr. Wuagneux, is investigating other means of defining antioxidants and their potential benefits. He explains that this can be accomplished by further defining the product through phyto-equivalents, standardizing servings by quantifying active ingredients in the antioxidants. RFI is also investigating the relationship between antioxidants and their ability to prevent or diminish damage to cells.

Mr. Henein said one promising test is the “comet assay,” which can measure the relative oxidative state and whether there has been an improvement resulting from the use of certain antioxidant fortification. “Since antioxidants can work through a myriad of potential mechanisms, a simple antioxidant value such as ORAC is not a viable measure of how the antioxidant will affect health once ingested,” he said.

TargeTest, from VDF/Futureceuticals, allows formulators the opportunity to screen antioxidant products for in vivo efficacy. From a regulatory and product-labeling standpoint, this “Rational Design paradigm” provides information regarding a product’s ability to affect enzymes in blood that are associated with important health conditions, without making disease claims. Many biomarkers and enzymes are adversely stimulated or inhibited long before symptoms of disease, such as high LDL or low HDL, actually manifest themselves. “This early area of prevention is at the core of antioxidants’ potential and research going forward,” Mr. Pond said.

Paul Gross, MD, known as The Berry Doctor, is researching what he feels may be the most appropriate manner of disseminating antioxidant “power” for foods and beverages via a ratings system. “This category needs to be provided as a simple guide to the public, perhaps becoming a code on food labels, even if not quantitative,” he commented. Mr. Gross simply suggests a numeric ratings system to correlate with antioxidant food value, which could be stated as: zero (none), 1 (low), 2 (medium) and 3 (high).


In summary, Ms. Lee of Cyvex believes with the abundance of ingredients categorized as antioxidants there must be more education that follows. “If we look at the antioxidant market as an ocean, each new scientific discovery originates waves of new products, sometimes the size of a tsunami,” she offered. “It is hard for the consumer to stay on top and make the right choices. That’s why suppliers must be truthful educators.”

InterHealth’s Mr. Dijkstra agreed. “While there is tremendous general benefit to be gained from antioxidants, these products are more effectively marketed when positioned for a particular use, which requires scientific substantiation and a focused marketing message,” he said.

In the end, the overall mission of the market should be to raise the percentage of NMI’s annual Health & Wellness Trends Database respondents who take antioxidants way above 16%! NW

About the author: Lisa Schofield is a freelance writer based in Freehold, NJ. She can be reached at 908-216-8500 or [email protected].
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