Antioxidants neutralize free radicals and therefore promise numerous well-documented benefits for human health. With the cold and flu season currently upon us, perhaps one of the most relevant right now is their ability to bolster the immune system. With this in mind, Peter Ahlm investigates the potential of microalgae to deliver a natural and vegan solution with multiple potential uses and scientifically proven benefits for the immune system – and a whole lot more besides.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made consumers around the globe more aware of the importance of a properly functioning immune system. This has also resulted in improved awareness of antioxidants, which can efficiently support the body in preventing and fighting diseases (1). But consumer interest in antioxidants also extends to their other well-known health benefits, such as for eyes, skin beauty and cognitive function.

The body can produce some antioxidants, but it also receives a significant amount from external sources such as vegetables and fruits. Yet not all antioxidant nutrients are easily and adequately accessible through ordinary diets. As a result, more and more consumers are turning to dietary supplements to ensure their bodies are adequately supplied with antioxidants. This is positively impacting the global antioxidant market, which is expected to grow from $4.13 billion in 2021 to $6.05 billion in 2028 at a CAGR of 5.61 percent in the forecast period (2).


One of the most powerful antioxidants known to science is astaxanthin, which is produced in abundance by microalgae. Whilst not strictly botanicals in the true sense of the word (unlike plants, they do not have roots, stems or leaves), microalgae are certainly plant-like. They are photosynthetic microorganisms that can be found in seawater and fresh water, and they act as a food source for many aquatic creatures, including fish and crustaceans.

As a food for humans, microalgae are a protein-rich vegan-friendly ingredient that have been consumed since ancient times: the Aztecs, for example, were fond of eating cake made from Spirulina (3).

Microalgae also contain valuable bioactive compounds suitable for a range of nutraceutical applications. In the early 1990s, AstaReal, a spin-off from Uppsala University in Sweden and one of the first companies to investigate the potentials of microalgae-derived compounds, began pioneering work on Haematococcus pluvialis, nature’s most abundant source of the carotenoid astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is what gives salmon, shrimp, lobster and even flamingos a beautiful reddish-pink colour.

Haematococcus pluvialis accumulates astaxanthin in its lipid vesicles during periods of nutrient deficiency and environmental stress. This way, the alga cell protects its DNA from free radical damage and prevents lipid peroxidation in its mitochondria. This is actually a very unique survival strategy that proves the antioxidant efficiency of astaxanthin in cell protection.

This antioxidant ability can deliver tangible benefits for both human and animal health, and these benefits are becoming more and more widely studied and recognised. For formulators, it is an easy ingredient to add to a variety of different dietary supplement products – from capsules, effervescent tablets and gummies, to beauty powder blends and shots for humans, as well as health-promoting feed and treats for animals.



Boosted by research findings and driven by consumer demand for health and wellness products, astaxanthin is experiencing huge growth in European market as well as in Asia. And it shows no sign of slowing down: In its Global Forecast to 2027 report, Meticulous Research estimates that the Haematococcus pluvialis market will reach a value of $148.1 million by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 13.2 percent between 2020 to 2027 (4).

It is noteworthy that natural astaxanthin has shown about 20-fold higher antioxidant potency than synthetic astaxanthin produced from petrochemicals (5), putting aside limitations of synthetic variant in meeting market demands for natural, plant-based and clean-label products.


As a potent antioxidant, natural astaxanthin has an innate ability to balance and strengthen the immune system, so it is able to defend the body and at the same time help suppress overactive immune responses that create unwanted inflammation (6). But its beneficial effects stretch much further than purely immune support, as has been demonstrated in hundreds of peer-reviewed studies.

For instance, several studies have shown that dietary supplements containing astaxanthin can have a positive impact on the brain. They may help to maintain cognitive functions such as memory and mental agility, and delay the development of dementia (7, 8).

Various clinical studies have also demonstrated that natural astaxanthin can improve eye health, delivering improvements in symptoms linked to Computer Vision Syndrome such as eye fatigue, eye irritation and blurred vision (9). Studies have also shown that astaxanthin seems to help maintain blood flow by preventing oxidants from degrading the nitric oxide involved in vasodilation. As a result, it helps to provide nutrients to the eye and remove toxic waste (10, 11).

A large body of clinical and experimental research has also concluded that natural astaxanthin can contribute to improved cardiovascular health (12). In addition, studies have shown that astaxanthin can support gastric health due to its potential ability to inhibit gastric inflammation, provide protection against stomach ulcers and reduce H. pylori infection (13). Moreover, long-term prophylactic astaxanthin supplementation may inhibit age-related skin deterioration (14, 15).

Natural astaxanthin has benefits for muscle endurance, too. In clinical studies, it has been found to reduce lactic acid build up and decrease fatigue, and to combat the effects of debilitating conditions such as sarcopenia (16, 17). Findings from a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial among those affected by sarcopenia indicated that a formulation containing AstaReal® astaxanthin provides a 40 percent increase in endurance and significantly improves muscle function loss in this population group (18). This means that astaxanthin may have a significant impact on quality of life by promoting a healthier lifespan.


As the popularity of astaxanthin continues to grow, so too is the number of astaxanthin-containing products entering the market. When choosing a supplier, it is therefore important to scrutinize their production methods, the stability and purity of their products, as well as their astaxanthin content.

Astaxanthin’s quality is affected by the environment in which the algae it comes from are cultivated. For example, while Haematococcus pluvialis can be grown outdoors, this exposes the algae to biological and chemical contaminants. AstaReal cultivates its algae indoors under fully controlled conditions in specially designed photobioreactors. This results in a safe, pure and stable product without environmental impurities.

With high performance liquid chromatography, it is possible to analyze how much astaxanthin a product contains and whether it includes intermediates that are developed between the algae’s green (immature) and red (mature) growth phases, like chlorophyll. Chlorophyll, for example, can have a negative impact on the quality and shelf-life of the final formulation. Cultivation techniques that harvest the algae before it has reached optimal maturity generally yield products with higher levels of chlorophyll and thus inferior stability. As AstaReal® astaxanthin is extracted when the algae have reached an extremely high level of maturity, it contains very low levels of chlorophyll. Consistent testing will track and prove that raw ingredients and finished goods contain what they should.