In 2015, vision health emerged as “the third most dynamic health and wellness positioning platform globally, behind energy boosting and food intolerance,” said Simone Baroke, contributing analyst for market research provider, Euromonitor International.
As far as functional vision health ingredients go, both vitamin D and astaxanthin, in particular, are expected to show real growth provided they continue to be supported by solid scientific research, Baroke noted. While the vision health category seemed to stall in 2010, strong sales and category expansion marked the 2011-2015 period, with the strongest growth, of 5 percent, in 2015 alone, added Baroke.
That being said, vision health is still the smallest of 14 categories tracked by Euromonitor. With global sales of vision-health-packaged foods and beverages reaching $10 million in 2015, this figure still pales compared to market monsters, such as brain health and beauty from within, which racked up global sales of $271 and $299 million in 2015, respectively.
This does not take into account eye health dietary supplements, however, which saw global product sales of $1.128 billion in 2015.
Baroke said that vision health-focused consumers seek out colorful fruits and veggies “since there is a growing body of evidence that […] carotenoid-rich produce, if consumed over long periods of time, prevents conditions” that cause eye health problems, such as age-related macular degeneration (ARMD).
Regarding age, there are currently more than 40 million people age 65 and older in the United States, and that number is expected to double by 2050. As people age, their risk for eye diseases and conditions increases, such as for ARMD, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, dry eye, glaucoma and low vision.
Evidence of aging’s influence on vision and eye disease is mounting, notes the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Vision Health Initiative (VHI), which links risk factors that consumers can modify (i.e., smoking, ultraviolet light exposure, avoidable trauma, etc.) and the leading eye diseases affecting older Americans.
Even the CDC now admits that diets rich in antioxidants support vision health. Broad consumer awareness of these risks has helped fuel the rise in vision-health supplements and packaged products. In fact, according to the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) 2015 Spectrums of Healthy Aging in America Consumer Report, a whopping 35 percent of seniors, Baby Boomers and Generation Xers consider vision problems to be among their biggest fears of aging.
Of the more than 700 carotenoids found in nature, only 13 to 15 are found in the bloodstream as a result of dietary intake, and only two of these, namely lutein and zeaxanthin, are found in the human retina. “These two [carotenoids] are found in the retina at substantially higher concentrations (more than 1,000 times) than they are found in the human bloodstream,” said Richard Roberts, PhD, principal manager, scientific affairs & technical services for Kemin Human Nutrition and Health.
With thanks to Bugs Bunny—and to major carotenoid research published since 2001—everybody has now heard of beta-carotene for vision health. But what specific advantages do beta-carotene’s carotenoid brethren offer manufacturers and consumers?
Although it “seems counterintuitive that beta-carotene should have been included in the original Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS)”—the first really big nutrition and vision study—there were no commercial sources of lutein or zeaxanthin available in 1989 when the plan for the AREDS study was mapped out. “FloraGLO Lutein, Kemin’s brand of lutein, was the first commercial source of lutein source available in the vitamin and dietary supplement market and was commercially available a couple of years later,” explained Kemin’s Roberts. “The only other carotenoid present in the retina of the eye, namely meso-zeaxanthin, has been found to be derived from a transformation of lutein.”
“Lutein, zeaxanthin and meso-zeaxanthin form the macular pigment that filters light that has passed through the lens and is focused upon the macula of the eye where the highest amount of photoreceptors in the eye exist,” Roberts added. “This filtering capacity helps protect the retina from overexposure to the shortest wavelengths of light, the blue wavelengths of light that can damage sensitive retinal tissues—additionally, these carotenoids exhibit significant antioxidant properties to help neutralize oxidative reactions that can occur in the retina as a result of light exposure.”
These properties, Roberts said, together with the significant concentration of lutein and zeaxanthin in the retina, “were found to be important enough for compel the U.S. National Eye Institute (NEI, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health) to initiate the AREDS2 study in which the efficacy of lutein and zeaxanthin in age-related macular degeneration (AMD) was demonstrated.”
In addition to the benefits of lutein and zeaxanthin in ARMD, lutein has also been found to help reduce inflammation, which may prove helpful in other vision conditions including uveitis, diabetic retinopathy and retinal ischemia.
“The ability of lutein and zeaxanthin to filter the blue wavelengths of light not only helps protect the human eye from light-induced damage, but this property has also been shown to have effects upon visual capabilities,” observed Roberts.
And while numerous studies have shown that supplementation with lutein and zeaxanthin increase contrast sensitivity in older adults, this effect, Roberts said, it has even been shown to improve visual performance in young, healthy adults. Studies in young adults have demonstrated that lutein and zeaxanthin supplementation helps improve tolerance to glaring light, increase contrast sensitivity, improve chromatic contrast and reduce photostress recovery times.
Golan Raz, senior vice president and head, Global Health Division at New Jersey-based Lycored, agreed as to the importance of lutein, “One of the most important findings in regard to carotenoids and eye health is the relationship between lutein and lycopene.”
“Epidemiological data show that people who suffers from ARMD […] also seems to have lower levels of lycopene in their blood compared to the average population,” noted Lycored’s Raz.
“This finding triggered additional research that [concluded] with the understanding that lycopene protects lutein from oxidation so that the lutein will reach the eye and be absorbed in the target organ in the macula—so Lycored’s R&D teams developed a combination formula, Lyc-O-Lutein, that includes both lutein and lycopene that were shown to be synergistic in pre-clinical and clinical studies,” Raz added.
Lutein and zeaxanthin (sometimes called the macular carotenoids) are the only known carotenoids found in the macula, the area of the eye which provides the highest visual acuity and color contrast in order to support vision and protect against UV damage.
In fact, New Jersey-based OmniActive Health Technologies has a special research and product development focus on both lutein and zeaxanthin. “Through our Lutein For Every Age campaign, OmniActive has taken a leadership position in promoting the importance of the macular carotenoids by demonstrating their benefits through our robust and ongoing clinical program in a variety of categories and age groups,” said Lynda M. Doyle, senior vice president, global marketing, OmniActive Health Technologies.
“We’ve not only differentiated our Lutemax 2020 with novel science but also with our formula,” Doyle pointed out. “Most macular carotenoid formulas typically provide lutein and only one of the zeaxanthin isomers: RR-zeaxanthin; however, RS (meso)-zeaxanthin—a potent antioxidant that protects the center of the macula, which is most susceptible to photo-oxidative damage—is also a necessary component for complete visual health. Lutemax 2020 is a convenient and cost-effective approach to supply all three macular carotenoids at significant levels for a complete formula.”
Some manufacturers, such as New Jersey’s AstaReal, Inc., focus on astaxanthin, carrot’s reddish cousin. “Natural astaxanthin is nature’s most powerful antioxidant,” said Joe Kuncewitch, national sales manager of AstaReal. “This red carotenoid is the reason behind salmon, lobster and shrimp coloration—when compared to other popular antioxidants, natural astaxanthin was shown to be far superior.”
“The reason lies in its unique chemical structure that allows it to span the entire lipid bilayer of the cell membrane including the mitochondrial membrane, thus providing the ultimate protection from the inside out,” Kuncewitch added. “Carotenoids, including beta-carotene, have a tendency to burn out and initiate a chain reaction, which can create more free radicals—natural astaxanthin is the purest antioxidant, with bare minimum pro-oxidant activity.”
However, since astaxanthin is virtually insoluble in gastric and intestinal fluids, it has poor bioavailability—even in solubilized formulas, it quickly precipitates out once saturation is reached, making it hard for the body to absorb and utilize.
“Maypro’s MicroActive Astaxanthin was developed to address this issue through a micronized, sustained-release technology that allows for better absorption and retention,” said Dan Lifton, president of New York-based Maypro’s Proprietary Branded Ingredients Group. “MicroActive Astaxanthin is micronized, meaning the particles have been reduced to a small particle size (about 10 microns), allowing for greater transit through veins and capillaries—in addition, the special mix of polymers in MicroActive Astaxanthin slows the rate at which the astaxanthin is released, so it stays in the bloodstream longer.”
“We believe that there is an increase in demand for supplements that support vision and eye health; especially with the regular use of digital screens, vision may become compromised,” concluded AstaReal’s Kuncewitch. “In fact, a relatively new condition has been coined, ‘Computer Vision Syndrome’—it encompasses eyestrain as well as dry eyes—and now that children are growing up from toddlerhood viewing flat-screens, there is a huge opportunity here for natural astaxanthin and its distinctive antioxidant and anti-inflammatory power.” NIE