Rollout the red pill

1 October 2020

Natural algae astaxanthin has become one of the most exciting categories in the natural ingredients space. As Allen Levine takes the reigns as president of the Natural Algae Astaxanthin Association (Naxa), he tells Christian Doherty why he is determined to ensure manufacturers and consumers can drive more growth with confidence.

Allen Levine is that rare thing: a genuine true-life evangelist and enthusiast for the products he spends much of his time promoting. An avid sportsman and fan of outdoor pursuits, the new president of the Natural Algae Astaxanthin Association (Naxa) is a fully paid-up member of the astaxanthin fan club.

With his business partner Marissa Ford, Levine has developed a thriving sales business catering to the natural ingredients industry.

“In the course of the past few years, we’ve both been taking astaxanthin, and we’re also well known in the industry through our work selling a lot of wheat grass and alfalfa,” says Levine.

Build on success

As a well-established presence – and a keen climber – Levine recalls a recent conversation he had with a board member at Naxa about astaxanthin and its wellknown anti-inflammatory properties, which make it exceptionally useful for athletic recovery.

“As a regular user, I asked if they could help me with doses and new developments,” Levine recalls. “A few weeks later they called me back to discuss whether I’d consider taking over as president of Naxa. I suppose my experience and the fact that I had no financial interest in astaxanthin were both pretty useful – they needed a neutral person to run the organisation and promote the ingredient. I was thrilled, since I’m such a fan of astaxanthin. I’ve been involved since the early ’90s, but it was a case of being in the right place at the right time.”

Levine’s work has also seen him help clients with regulatory issues, as well as writing specifications for products and helping access export assistance dollars.

“We’re able to help with a lot of these things, so that’s why we were asked to take over at Naxa and we’re happy to do it,” he says. “I love the product and the ability to be more involved is great.”

Figure it out

This time is a prosperous one for astaxanthin, which has flourished as a category in the competitive natural ingredients sector. Occurring naturally in certain algae, astaxanthin causes the pink or red colour in salmon, trout, lobster, shrimp and other seafood. It is taken orally to help treat Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, high cholesterol, age-related macular degeneration and prevent cancer.

However, the ingredient’s wide range of applications and benefits has created a challenge to singularly define it as a product.

“When I first tried to buy astaxanthin, I went to three or four different stores, and almost all had it stored in their health and beauty section,” Levine recalls. “As a consumer, I’d always thought of it as a sports recovery antioxidant and I was so surprised that it was in that section. So, our role is to let our membership and producers figure out the category, in terms of sports, antioxidant, skin, eyes, macular and so on. We’ll then have a supporting role in achieving that.”

Key priorities

So, what is Levine’s vision for Naxa in 2020? “In short,” he says, “We’re trying to do three key things. The first is to find studies that we can undertake that would benefit the category. Often, we see companies within this category trying to stand out alone – and that’s fine – but if there’s a way to facilitate something so there isn’t a duplication of effort, then that would help.”

And that, Levine believes, is especially true in order to help natural algae astaxanthin stand out from factory or synthetic alternatives. “That’s a key role for Naxa to take on in order to save money and avoid duplication.”

The second goal is to promote the category to the public, the media and other manufacturers within the industry, specifically to educate them on the differences between the three different types of astaxanthin. This is something Levine believes is a vital message to spread.

“The number of studies out there is growing,” he explains. “There are companies that make more than 239 claims with the US FDA with one of their astaxanthin products and that’s great – but the consumer needs to know the difference, and how it works to make sure they understand the product and make better informed buying decisions.”

That last aspect plays directly into Levine’s third priority: consumer protection. About 18 months ago, there was talk of creating a seal for bottles that would carry the message: ‘Naxa-approved product that contains natural algae-derived astaxanthin’. This label is now being added across the company’s range.

“There are lots of products on the website that do contain what they say and we’re adding more. I see that as the main role of the three – because without consumer confidence in the products, everything else gets undermined.”

“Our role is to let our membership and producers figure out the category, in terms of sports, antioxidant, skin, eyes, macular and so on.”

Set the record straight

However, despite the ingredient’s surging profile in the supplement space, Levine admits Naxa is facing some challenges to address the misperceptions around the different categories of astaxanthin.

“I think one of main issues is that consumers need to know that not all astaxanthin is the same. Some have been extensively researched and tested, while others haven’t. So, there are differences at a molecular level and that will affect the benefits for those taking it.”

Levine admits that there are some challenges that remain in order to successfully carve out a market niche for a product with several origins and no single overarching use.

“The first is that there are three or four things that can carry the astaxanthin name, which can muddy the waters a little bit on the main product,” he says.

“And when you have a name like astaxanthin, it’s not something the consumer is likely to immediately understand or even know much about. So, the companies that have come out with branded astaxanthin products have a good idea. You see the labelled stuff and it helps.”

Levine believes that, to make more progress in this area, it will most likely require greater investment in marketing, as opposed to further funding of scientific studies. “There’s already a lot of science behind astaxanthin, so it would probably benefit from companies getting together and throwing some marketing dollars at it. And I say, as president of Naxa, that we could do more in the consumer education space.”

“At the moment, I don’t see Naxa stepping in and demanding a broad definition; I see our role as a supporting one.”

What it says on the tin

As part of that effort, Levine is determined that the organisation takes a leading role in addressing the threat of adulterated and mislabelled products. Much of the focus of this will be centred on online sales.

“We’ve got to look at online sales because it’s very easy to pass something off online. We’re already talking to other industry groups looking at this and aiming to come up with a co-ordinated effort to address the situation,” he explains. “This isn’t limited to astaxanthin – it happens with other ingredients, and we need to inform and protect the consumer.”

Levine is committed to tackling this issue, beginning with a concerted effort to identify the scale of the problem and then come up with a solution.

“It may be that we look to bring together up to around seven trade bodies to tackle the issue,” he says. “If we can identify which platforms are selling the most adulterated products, we can approach them directly and say, ‘here’s the problem we’re facing, what action can we take?’”

The final part goes beyond that – not just certifying that the product contains astaxanthin, but also at the right levels and the stated dose. Levine makes a point of drawing a line around what Naxa should and shouldn’t do. He is cautious against calls for Naxa to take a more active and partial role in the promotion of specific products or companies.

“At the moment, I don’t see Naxa stepping in and demanding a broad definition; I see our role as a supporting one,” he explains. “So, if someone’s making a claim, we have to make sure that the product in the bottle is what it says it is.

“Of course, if the membership as a whole came to us and suggested doing a study on the impact of astaxanthin on eyes, skin, hair or whatever, then we would certainly do something like that if there was a plurality behind it. Also, I don’t see Naxa’s role as picking individual companies or products and promoting anything above others. They can do that themselves. We should be neutral on who makes the best or how best it’s used.”

An annual bonus

This all adds up to what should be a busy first year in the hot seat – and Levine is confident about building on the work done by his predecessor Scott Steinford in raising astaxanthin’s profile and niche in the marketplace.

“Looking at my first year, my goal would be to have Naxa and other organisations well on the way to addressing adulteration and piracy issues in online sales,” he explains. “Whether that’s individual agency websites or creating a clearing house for brands and sites where consumers should feel safe to buy online, I would hope to have something for both manufacturers and, more importantly, consumers to be directed to online so they can buy and sell, not just astaxanthin, but other products that have joined with us.

“And finally, I want to expand the Naxa seal programme in general. I’d like to see more manufacturers step up and start using the seal to show the consumer that a third party has looked at it in order to boost confidence. That’s a really important issue, so I hope you’ll see progress on that in the coming year.”

Astaxanthin occurs naturally in certain algae, and causes the pink/red colour in salmon, trout, lobster, shrimp and other seafood.

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