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Known for its ability to improve eye health, lutein is now promising protection for the skin

The body of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of lutein for eye health has been the main market driver, while dietary supplements have been the key delivery form. A maturing dietary supplements segment presents only a minor challenge, as there are plenty of new market opportunities too.The European population is maturing fast, presenting manufacturers with a growing opportunity as eye health is one of the top health concerns of consumers worldwide and those concerns have been shown to increase as people age.

New application segments like skin health also hold considerable promise and, with increasing clarification of European legislation for functional food, a new era of product opportunities will dawn.

What is lutein?

Lutein is a member of the large family of carotenoids which have two essential functions in plants. Firstly, they enable photosynthesis to take place, helping plants to make optimal use of sunlight. Secondly they protect the photosynthesising plants against the damaging effects of too much sunlight (UV radiation).

Today, carotenoids are recognised as important constituents of our diet and it has been suggested that in humans they may perform a similar protective function for tissues exposed to sunlight. As with all carotenoids, lutein is an effective antioxidant, protecting important biomolecules and cells against damage induced by free radicals.

There are two forms of lutein that occur naturally in the human diet: lutein esters, in which fatty acids are 'bound' to lutein, present in foods such as red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables including red peppers, peaches, oranges, squash and potatoes; and 'free' unesterified lutein, found in vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, for example.

The plant with the highest known lutein concentration is the marigold, and all commercially available lutein products are extracted from its flowers, which contain lutein in the ester form.

Xangold, from Cognis, for example, is a natural lutein ester concentrate extracted from marigold flowers with the minimum of gentle processing. It also contains small amounts of naturally occurring zeaxanthin esters. The body digests and absorbs fat-soluble dietary compounds such as lutein esters as part of normal digestion and all our dietary fats and oils are compounds in ester form. Lutein esters are broken apart to release lutein, which is then absorbed into the bloodstream and distributed to tissues such as the retina.

Eye health

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in the elderly, affecting an estimated 20% of over-65s. By 2020, around 8M over-65s could be suffering from the condition, according to AMD Alliance International.

For the patient, the outlook is currently grim. AMD is a progressive disease in which central vision becomes blurred or distorted. As it advances, sufferers see a blank patch or dark spot and central vision is lost.

Lutein - as a yellow carotenoid and powerful antioxidant - has been identified as particularly important to eye health. Lutein, with its yellow carotenoid companion zeaxanthin, is the only carotenoid found in the lens and retina of the eye.

Scientific data suggests that there is a specific and critical purpose for this very selective concentration of carotenoids. It is believed they both absorb harmful blue light and act as antioxidants. They are particularly concentrated in the central part of the retina called the 'macula lutea' - latin for 'yellow spot' - the yellow colour being due to the presence of these two carotenoids. Here they form the 'macular pigment', a protective layer that absorbs blue light, which is particularly damaging to photoreceptor cells.

A growing body of evidence supports the protective effect for the lutein/zeaxanthin-formed macular pigment, both through its absorption characteristics and antioxidant properties.

Levels of lutein and zeaxanthin can be increased by boosting lutein intake from either foods or supplements. Some studies suggest 6mg/day of lutein may be beneficial as a preventative measure, but actual dietary intake is far less, averaging at only 1-2 mg/day in western countries.

Skin health

As European populations age, increasing numbers of consumers will be demanding beauty-from-within products to protect them from signs of premature ageing. Indeed, they are already actively seeking skincare products that deliver beauty benefits through nutrition, fuelling one of the hottest trends in the market.

The skin is constantly exposed to UV radiation from the sun and other environmental attacks. Chronic exposure to sunlight causes premature ageing of the skin, characterised by:

• loss of skin elasticity

• skin thinning

• increased dryness

• wrinkling

• pigment changes.

Scientific studies have shown that lutein has proven skin protective benefits, including all-important protection against UV damage from sunlight - the primary cause of skin ageing. Lutein helps to improve hydration and elasticity and to reduce roughness and scaling, promoting healthy, young-looking skin.

Like other carotenoids such as beta-carotene, lutein accumulates in the skin over time. Research suggests that carotenoids offer a measurable protective effect that is directly linked to their concentration in the skin. As a powerful antioxidant and free radical scavenger, lutein neutralises the effects of oxidative stress in skin cells, and is also believed to have effects beyond antioxidant action.

Improvements in skin hydration, elasticity and beneficial lipid levels

In two studies by Morganti et al (2002, 2004) an antioxidant combination of lutein, vitamins C and E and alpha-lipoic acid improved skin hydration and increased lipid levels. In women aged 25-50, lutein helped increase skin hydration by approximately 40%, skin elasticity by nearly 10% and superficial lipids in the skin by almost 40% (Palombo et al 2007).

Skin density and reduced roughness

A study by Heinrich et al (2006) found improved skin thickness and density, and reduced roughness and scaling following supplementation with lutein, lycopene, beta-carotene, vitamin E and selenium.

Reduction of lipid peroxidation​UV-induced peroxidation of skin lipids causes membrane damage and accelerates the ageing process. Both Morganti and Palombo found lutein, alone or in combination with another antioxidant, reduced lipid peroxidation.

Improved resistance to sunburn

An earlier study by Heinrich comparing a carotenoid blend of beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene, with beta-carotene alone, found the combination reduced sensitivity to sunburn as effectively as the single carotenoid.

Regulatory status

Lutein and lutein ester products were used for human consumption in the EU prior to May 1997 and are therefore not considered as novel foods. They are also permitted as colouring E161b, to be used in various products, including non-alcoholic flavoured beverages, confectionery, certain cheese products, baked goods, soups, sauces, seasonings and many others.

As far as the functional food segment and the use of lutein and lutein esters are concerned, legislation has yet to be harmonised in the EU. So until this is achieved, lutein and lutein esters as food-fortifying ingredients are subject to country-specific laws and regulations. This does not imply that all countries have specific local regulations in place. Progress, however, is being made: so far, the UK, France and the Netherlands have specified that lutein esters extracted from marigolds can be used as ingredients in foods.

The following are some examples of wording for possible claims about lutein and eye health submitted under the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (based on a minimum consumption of 6mg/day of free lutein, corresponding to 12mg/day of lutein esters):

• helps support eye health

• helps maintain healthy eyes

• promotes healthy eye function

• is deposited naturally in the eye

• natural antioxidant for the eye

• helps fight free radicals in the eye.

For skin, the following claims have been submitted (based on minimum consumption of 10 mg/day, (free lutein, corresponding to 20mg/day lutein esters):

• Helps improve skin hydration and elasticity

• Helps maintain skin hydration and elasticity

• Contributes to the appearance of skin associated with premature ageing

• Helps protect the dermis and epidermis from oxidative stress

• Helps protect the skin against visible light damage

• Helps protect the skin against harmful effects of light exposure

• Helps fight free radicals in the skin

• Helps maintain healthy skin.

Holger Becker is global product line manager at Cognis Nutrition & Health, a specialty chemicals company and leading provider of natural lutein esters.

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