As we look to the ocean increasingly for nutrition, we face concerns not only of profitability and market size, but also of sustainability and stewardship. Over the past two years two important studies have been released—the Pew Oceans Commission Final Report and the Congress’ Oceans Commissions Report. These two reports send an urgent message to our marine harvesting and coastal development industries, summed up by Dr. Wallace “J.” Nichols, Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences: “Too much is being dumped into the oceans, too much is being taken out, and the ocean’s coastline habitats are quickly being destroyed.”
According to Communications Officer Jeanette Lam of Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans, “several factors are affecting marine populations: rising water temperatures, illegal and over-fishing, bycatch, pollution, and food chain imbalances.”
These combined factors are increasingly problematic to an environmentally-conscious nutraceutical industry seeking to sustain supply, keep costs down and sell healthy products. Furthermore, with increased governmental and media focus on these issues, nutraceutical companies must adapt to increasingly environmentally-focused consumers. These issues challenge ocean nutraceutical companies to search for environmentally-sustainable sources of marine nutrition.
The issue of toxicity is tantamount within our oceans today. Marine life studies are showing higher levels of mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), petroleum, E. Coli, and other bacteria from waste run-off are also bio-accumulating up the food chain. A new dangerous toxin identified recently is plastic—at levels surprising many ocean experts. As plastics break down into smaller particles they are absorbed by filtering marine life and passed up the food chain. Three studies done by Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation found an astounding ten-to-one ratio of plastic particles-to-plankton in some areas. Requiring some 500 years to breakdown, plastics are known to disrupt hormones and accumulate hydrocarbons.(1,2)
Many major fisheries around the world are in trouble and many fish species are in decline or risking extinction. While fish farms seemed a viable alternative, ocean experts like Dr. Nichols are worried about the uncirculated contaminant levels of these farms and the risk of viruses and genetic manipulation releasing into the wild. Bycatch issues are also critical concerns for scientists, with sharks, porpoises, turtles and other beautiful species being endangered by accidental netting. “The problem is worse than being reported,” says Dr. Nichols, who is also the director of Ocean Revolution. “Many fishing regions around the world have little or no system for reporting their catches.”
According to SPINS data, 2004 U.S. fish oil sales grew over 54% in the natural foods market and over 31% in the conventional market over the previous year.(3) The thirst for fish oils has been fueled by studies showing docosahexaenoic acid’s (DHA) various health benefits. Meanwhile micro-encapsulation techniques have attracted new entries from various supplement and nutraceutical manufacturers. The pressure on the raw fish oil and fish supply is increasing with this growth. Independent projections indicate a critical fish oil shortage between 2010 and 2015. If consumption levels continue to increase, this shortage may arrive sooner. Crude fish oil costs are reflecting this, as industrial crude fish oil prices have increased 175%-225% over the past five years. This trend is anticipated to continue as fish stocks come under further pressure and the cost of purification to reduce toxin levels rises.
Surprisingly, fish do not produce DHA. Fish obtain DHA by eating algae or eating fish that eat algae. Marine nutraceutical companies like Martek Biosciences Corporation have located high-content DHA-producing microalgae and are harvesting DHA oil from toxin-free algal-fermentation tanks. Two of highest DHA-producing microorganisms are Crypthecodinium cohnii, and Schizochytrium spp. Martek and its contracted producers now grow these two species, and have had increasing success in both the supplement and food formulation markets. Neuromins®, for example, from C. cohnii, received FDA GRAS review and approval for infant formulas in the 90s, and is now used in a number of DHA supplements. As for Schizochytrium spp., supply contracts with multiple food manufacturers like Kelloggs® and a proven track record in supplements reveal a bright future for this ‘golden’ algal DHA. Later this year, Martek is launching a powdered oil form for use in dry formulation and food application.
The twenty-two-carbon chain, six-double-bond arrangement of DHA is either stored or converted to twenty-carbon, five-double-bond eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in fish. Typical crude fish oil will supply approximately 18% EPA and 12% DHA, subject to seasonal and species differences while algal DHA like Martek’s will supply a standardized 35% DHA. “EPA is short-lived within the body while DHA remains longer. DHA is either stored or used by needed cells, while easily converting to EPA as needed,” according to Martek food scientist Ruben Abril, PhD. Sustainability doesn’t seem to be an issue for algal DHA, as capacity can be added with demand. Although pound-for-pound current pricing for algal DHA oil is higher than fish oil, calculated as DHA level, algal DHA is competitively-priced with molecular-distilled, micro-encapsulated fish oil, according to Beth Schimel Parker of Martek.
Shellfish are getting increased environmental attention these days. As Chris LaRock, Emergency Response Officer from Environment Canada puts it, “Chronic non-point source pollution from urbanization is increasingly endangering marine stocks, as bottom-feeders accumulate these toxins.” Filtering eaters such as shrimp, scallops, clams, oysters, and mussels are increasingly toxic as a result. In addition, many shellfish species are now restricted for harvest because of low populations and bycatch problems. According to Dr. Nichols, most of us aren’t aware of shellfish trawling techniques: “These shellfish are being caught by literally scraping huge areas of the ocean floor, damaging or killing coral, sea turtles, sponges, rays, and other sea life. 50-90% of the shrimp hauls are accidental bycatch. It’s like clear-cutting a forest to gather a few mushrooms,” he says.
Shellfish aquaculture is another environmental concern, according to scientists and government officials like Dr. Nichols and Mr. LaRock. Traditional shellfish aquaculture is installed in coastal areas by clearing the seafloor of important plants like mangroves and fish habitats to isolate the shellfish. According to ocean experts, this practice is severely endangering precious coastal habitats.
Meanwhile, glucosamine sulfate derived from shellfish has seen sales soften over the past year, falling some 6% in the US.(3) This could be related to continued debate regarding marine-obtained glucosamine sulfate’s efficacy. A recent study showed little increase in blood glucosamine after sulfate ingestion.(4) An alternative to shellfish-derived glucosamine is glucosamine hydrochloride derived from the fungi Aspergillus niger.(5) Since it is not bound to potassium, the HCL version apparently has 83% active glucosamine versus 50.7% for sulfate. Meanwhile, research has shown glucosamine HCL to be readily assimilable.(6) This news, combined with a recent report about labeling problems in 70% of 10 leading glucosamine sulfate brands, may prompt further focus on the alternative, more sustainable HCL supply.(7)
Sea mussels have been increasingly threatened from over-harvesting, prompting some regulatory bodies to restrict both wild-craft mussel harvesting and aquaculture—which draws its seeds from wild mussel stocks. New Maine state regulations, for example, limit blue mussel seed removal to four “seed mussel conservation areas,” because of depletion fears.(8) Aquacultured mussels have been plagued with other difficulties over the years, including seasonal die-offs, attachment issues, and shipping problems. Meanwhile, wild-harvested stocks have been damaged by toxicity and PSP—red tide toxin—resulting in a number of reported illnesses.(9,10)
Clinical research on the green-lipped mussel from New Zealand has shown effectiveness in relieving symptoms of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. However, there have also been conflicting studies showing little or no benefit. Studies have also pointed out nausea, skin rashes, flatulence, gout and of course shellfish allergies as side effects of green mussel ingestion.(11,12,13,14) Alternative botanical agents such as bromelain, MSM, turmeric and ginger have shown impressive arthritic results with little of these side-effects.
As mentioned above, worldwide shark populations are increasingly under pressure. Luckily, shark cartilage sales continue to lose ground, losing some 18% in sales over last year with under a million in US sales outside of Wal-mart.(3) Additional research is showing lack of significant benefit to cancer patients.(16) The title to a recent Health News article sums it up: “Shark cartilage cancer treatments are pseudoscience.”(17) While shark cartilage’s chondroitin sulfate has shown limited usefulness in osteoarthritis research, its large molecular structure limits its absorption across the intestinal wall.(18) With absorption rates at less than 15% and only partial absorption of that amount into joints, synthetic versions of lower-molecular weight chondoitin appear to be the future for this controversial nutraceutical.(19) In addition, there have been a few reports of possible hair loss and GI problems during chondroitin use.(20) Perhaps the lack of confirmed shark cartilage cancer benefit and low chondoitin absorption may benefit the shark species. And who said cancer didn’t kill sharks?
Notably, most nutrients from the ocean’s plant kingdom do not come with the same overharvesting and bycatch baggage. Most are either cultivated or sustainably-wildcrafted—with stationary seasonal blooms forcing self-regulation. Because they rely upon photosynthesis rather than filtering, algae do not ingest toxins as feeders do, limiting toxicity concerns. Along with DHA-algae there are a number of new and developing algal nutraceuticals showing a variety of health benefits. The some 70,000 known algae are typically divided into three general types: Chlorophyta or green algae, Phaeophyta or brown algae and Rhodophyta, the red marine algae. These range from single-celled microalgae to giant broad-leafed kelps. In terms of environmental economics, sea vegetables trump all other food sources. While an acre of beef production yields about 20 pounds of useable protein and an acre of soybeans yields about 400 pounds, typical seaweeds like nori can yield 800 pounds per acre of tidal zone, and spirulina can yield a whopping 21,000 lbs of useable protein per acre of cultivation.(21)
Commercial microalgae products are produced from well-known species such as Spirulina, Blue-Green Algae from Klamath Lake and Chlorella. The market for these algae has been flourishing for 30 years, with a number of successful, even public companies leading the ranks. The two largest spirulina producers are Cyanotech, Corporation and Earthrise Nutritionals, Inc. Cyanotech is a publicly-held company founded in 1983, which cultivates spirulina in fifty-eight 600x50 foot ponds on the sunny side of the big island of Hawaii. Earthrise cultivates an undisclosed pondage in sunny Southern California. Although the spirulina market is somewhat mature, Cyanotech’s spirulina sales have maintained consistent growth with 2-5% yearly increases. With a wealth of research behind it, spirulina is increasingly being used as a nutraceutical ingredient in products from supplements and nutrition bars. Last year spirulina received GRAS status for use as a good source of carotenoids, vitamins and minerals; supporting healthy eyes and immune function. That approval, according to Cyanotech CEO Gerry Cysewski, PhD, has sparked renewed interest in spirulina as a nutraceutical ingredient. Spirulina nutritional content is impressive, with all the essential and most non-essential aminos (55-65% protein by weight), a number of vitamins including B12 and phytonutrients such as zeaxanthin, myxoxanthophyll and lutein. “Several clinical studies have showed rather profound results in the reduction of inflammation, reduced brain damage from stroke, reduced allergy and detailed biochemical description of the anti-cancer apoptic mechanism,” says Ronald Henson, a Vice President at Earthrise.
Chlorella pyrensoidosa, or simply chlorella, is a true blue-green microalgae. Like spirulina it is also cultured in outdoor ponds. With over 800 published studies verifying its safety and efficacy for a number of health issues, chlorella enjoys a strong consumer-base among mass markets and professionals. Chlorella’s ability to detoxify heavy metals and other toxins make it a favorite of health professionals. According to Bob McCauley, author and President of leading independent chlorella importer Watershed Wellness Center, “Chlorella is a unique source of dietary fiber which binds to heavy metals and other toxins, efficiently carrying them from the body.” Phytonutrients C.G.F. (Chlorella Growth Factor), beta carotene, various vitamins, and the fact that it is a complete protein (40%-60%+ by weight) also make chlorella a popular nutraceutical. Clinical studies have shown that chlorella contributes to increased cell growth, stimulates T-cell and B-cell activities, and increased macrophage function, contributing to improvement in fibromyalgia, hypertension, and ulcerative colitis.(22) Its cell-wall is fairly tough, but most producers have developed ways of pulverizing or crushing the cell-wall allowing assimilation of its nutrients. Apparently the polysaccharides and fiber from its broken cell walls give chlorella its unique ability to bind to toxins in the body.(23)
Aphanizomenon flos-aquae or simply ‘AFA,’ grows on the pristine volcanic waters of the Klamath Lake of Oregon. Commercial harvesting began in the early 1980s. Although contamination has been a concern, today companies like AFA, Inc. are micro-filtering for potential contaminants, and more nutraceutical companies are including AFA in their formulations. “AFA is one of the most bio-available sources of nutrients due to its soft cell wall,” says Scott Springer, veteran AFA harvester and CEO of AFA, Inc. “Due to the lake’s environment and volcanic lakebed, it has all of the essential amino acids (also around 60% by weight), is packed with beta-carotene and many vitamins, has 58 minerals at ppm levels and has one of the highest chlorophyll levels,” he says.
Another exciting green microalgae is Haematococcus pluvialis, the highest known natural source of astaxanthin. It is an “exciting new product for the nutrition industry, obtaining a growing base of scientific studies showing its health benefits,” according to Dr. Cysewski. Cyanotech also happens to be the world’s leading producer of astaxanthin from microalgae. Astaxathin is an oxygenated carotenoid with high antioxidant properties, “some 500 times the antioxidant value of vitamin E,” says Laurence Sombardier, Vice President and General Manager of Mera Pharmaceuticals, Inc., another leading natural astaxanthin producer. Recent studies have shown astaxanthin to be effective for reducing inflammation and stimulating the immune system. In vitro and in vivo studies have also shown anti-tumor effects, as well as effectiveness in preventing and treating retinal oxidative damage and macular degeneration.(24) The anti-oxidant and cancer inhibitory action of astaxanthin has been shown to be greater than beta-carotene. “We’ve had reports from marathoners and tri-athletes that it increases their exercise recovery rates,” says Miguel Olaizola PhD, Director of Research for Mera. Astaxanthin is now an ingredient in multi-vitamins, specific-issue formulas, single ingredient supplements and cosmeceuticals such as sunscreens and lip balms. The growth potential is reflected in Cyanotech’s 120% increase in astaxanthin sales over the past two years. Meanwhile Mera has refocused its industrial attention from the fish-farming market to a growing nutraceutical market. Dr. Olaizola suggests dosages of 5mg per day for a typical person and 10-15mg for athletes or those with inflammation. Mera studied 30 people for 28 days and found up to 20mg a safe dose, according to Dr. Olaizola. “We are certainly interested in seeing astaxanthin obtaining GRAS review,” says Dr. Cysewski.
There are about 1,500 species of sea vegetables, many of which flourish in the cold waters of the North Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Well known sea vegetables include nori, wakame, dulse, kombu, Irish moss, sea palm, and several species of laminaria. Though not particularly correct, most sea vegetables are commonly referred to as kelps. Wild sea veggies are harvested periodically and regrowth is managed carefully—easy to do since the kelp beds are stationary. Out of necessity kelp farmers have sustainable supply, and some areas have more than enough to supply market growth. According to Bill Wolf, CEO of Thorvin Kelp, Inc., the world’s largest organic kelp supplier, “we have enough kelp in our fjord (bay) in Iceland to easily supply several times the 1,000 metric tons per year we’re at now.” Thorvin’s harvesters “will GPS-map bloom locations and carefully cut each bed 4-7 years apart, allowing it to regrow between harvests,” says Mr. Wolf.
These sea vegetables have an impressive array of vitamins, more than most land-based vegetables, with A, B1, B2, B5, B12, C, B6, B3, folic acid, E, K and a steroid vitamin D precursor. Nori and dulse have beta-carotene levels as high as 50,000 IU per 100 grams, for example. Bill Wolf says his certified organic kelps are showing 60 minerals at ppm levels. They are also good sources of calcium and magnesium. The brown algae also contain all the essential aminos and are high in protein by weight, with nori as high as 30% and most average about 9%. Laminaria also produce the sugar substitute mannitol.(23)
Although the GRAS standards refer to kelp as a good source of iodine (one reason for kelps being overlooked, say kelp producers), their nutritional muscle makes them versatile nutraceuticals, now used in skin-care formulation, supplements, salt-substitutes (salty flavor is mostly potassium), and various food formulations. Sea veggies also contain a number of beneficial polysaccharides and polyphenols. One such sulfated polysaccharide, fucoidan, has been shown to have anti-tumor, anticoagulant and anti-angiogenic properties. Studies show it also down-regulates Th2—inhibiting allergic response, inhibits beta-amyloid formation (potential cause of Alzheimer’s), inhibits proteinuria in Heymann nephritis, and decreases artery platelet deposits in vivo.(25,26,27)
Red marine algae have become exciting nutraceuticals with confirmed health benefits. Attracting prominent interest is Dumontiae, a larger-leaf Rhodaphyte typically harvested in colder oceans either by wildcrafting or rope-farming. “Rope-farming is highly-sustainable,” says Bob “Desert” Nichols. Mr. Nichols practically single-handedly developed the first commercial market for red marine algae under the Pure Planet® label, a nutraceutical brand he founded in the mid 1990s. Dumontiae and other Rhodophytes have been confirmed in vivo and in vitro to inhibit growth of several viruses, notably herpes simplex I and II, and HIV. Most studies have pointed to their heparin-like sulfated polysaccharide content for antiviral effects, blocking both DNA and retroviral replication. “We worked a lot with AIDS groups,” says Mr. Nichols. “Word of mouth got out and we were able to help many AIDS and HIV sufferers.” Pure Planet® is now owned and produced by Organic By Nature, Inc., a well-known supplier and contract-packer of various green-food nutraceuticals. Organic By Nature’s CEO and nutraceutical veteran Dave Sandoval says that red marine algae is one of the company’s largest revenue producers. “Just about all our distribution outlets carry our red marine algae because of its dedicated consumer base. We buy the algae in bulk leaf form, pulverize, screen and test it in-house for standardization,” he says.
Now other Rhodophytes are being studied for antiviral effects. Michael Neushul, PhD from UC-Santa Barbara’s Biology Dept. has reported antiviral properties among all of 39 California red marine algae varieties tested. Sulfated polysaccarides such as carrageenan were pointed to as the central antiviral constituents, as well as dextran sulfate and other heparinoids. Retrovirus inhibition as mentioned above and murine leukemia inhibition properties have also been shown in vivo.(28,29,30)
Red algae have a number of food uses as well. Gelatinous polysaccarides agar, carageenan and funoran are now used extensively in the food business as stabilizers. Agar contains calcium, iodine, bromine and other trace minerals. Some red algae also produce sorbitol, used as a sugar substitute. As a result, thousands of tons of various red algae are shipped into the U.S. every year for use in food manufacturing.
A number of companies are developing cultivation for new algal species with various health benefits. Cyanotech, Mera, and Organic By Nature, for example, are each engaged in focused sea vegetable research and development. Although tight-lipped on details, algae in development include nutrient-rich Dunaliella sp., a potent producer of lutein, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin; Porthyridium sp, one of the few Rhodophye microalgae; sea palms; Gigartina and others noted for varied nutraceutical properties. Look for new exciting raw materials from each of these and other innovative nutraceutical suppliers in the near future.
The ocean is the great supplier of minerals. While natural sea salts like Celtic salt and Dead Sea salt have been prized for their higher mineral content, a new but old salt called “crystal salt,” has sparked interest recently. Crystal salt is mined from ancient marine beds. One supplier, Power Organics, Inc. is offering what they call a 250 million year-old sea salt, mined from a lakebed at the base of the Himalayan Mountains. It comes either hand-ground or sold as rock crystals, which can be dissolved in water. Crystal salt apparently has incredible properties. A study of 400 people showed that crystal salts increased blood oxygen levels, balanced blood pressure, “unclumped” blood cells, scavenged free radicals and detoxified the blood, according to Peter Ferreira, co-author of Water and Salt, The Essence of Life. Product literature states that crystal salt has up to 84 trace minerals in negative ion form for increased absorbance. “The original mineral blueprint of life in the ocean is removed and altered by the refining of typical salt to sodium chloride. Natural crystal salt is completely unrefined, with all the minerals in an unrefined state of natural purity,” says Scott Springer of Power Organics. “It’s a cost-effective way of solving our society’s widespread mineral deficiencies,” he says.
Despite the controversial history of coral calcium, interest and consumption of this supplement appears to be steadily growing. With over 70 ionic trace minerals and copious amounts of assimilable calcium carbonate, coral calcium is now a serious marine nutraceutical, and supply appears more sustainable than other marine calcium sources such as oyster shells. The debate now focuses on whether coral calcium is detrimental to living reef systems. Most agree that harvesting live coral is not sustainable, as world coral populations are on the decline. Many also have an issue with dry-land mining of dead coral from islands like Okinawa, which analyses show significantly reduced mineral content with increased heavy metal content. One company, Marine-Bio Co., Ltd., has a unique process of gathering the dead coral sediment from the ocean floor, which the company says provides for healthier-growing live coral. Marine-Bio is apparently the only licensed company able to sell coral calcium in Japan, due to stiff heavy metal regulations. Marine-Bio’s coral calcium powder is 95% calcium carbonate. Their Sango Mineral Powder™ is an odorless, tasteless natural white coral powder with the ideal 2:1 calcium-to-magnesium ratio to add to its generous trace mineral content.
There are a number of new and developing marine nutraceuticals which can offer lower toxicity levels, reduced potential side effects and stronger nutritional and medicinal values. The best part is that these sources provide more sustainability, giving environmentally-conscious consumers and nutraceutical companies alike alternatives to marine resources dwindling under the pressures of human development.
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