Latest ‘phenomenally beneficial’ supplement being farmed on isle

Astaxanthin, the latest dietary supplement in health food trends, has been touted by nutritionists and media as one of the most powerful antioxidants to reach health food store shelves in years. It is 550 times more powerful than Vitamin E and a thousand times more powerful than Vitamin C, experts say.

“It’s a phenomenally beneficial supplement in that it is one of the most potent natural anti-inflammatories that we know of,” said Dr. Joseph Mercola when he appeared on the nationally televised “Dr. Oz Show” two years ago. A proper dose of astaxanthin – about 10 milligrams a day – can be used to prevent cardiovascular diseases, arthritis and cataracts, he added.

But what is it and where does it come from?

In its most primitive form, it is algae, and it’s being farmed on Maui.

Brad Reeves is the chief executive manager of Maui Tropical Algae Farm, a small facility on 21 acres in the Kihei Tech Park behind the Kihei Wastewater Reclamation Facility. The property was previously owned by Fuji Chemical, which was growing the same type of algae, Haematococcus pluvialis, from which astaxanthin is extracted.

However, Fuji shut down its operations in 2010 when it was unable to sequester contamination in its algae domes, according to Reeves.

Reeves purchased the property in 2011 and has been working on growing algae in a way that is safer, more cost-efficient and better for the environment, he said.

Instead of growing algae in domes, which are hard to clean and more susceptible to contamination, the Maui Tropical Algae Farm uses large, 120-liter bags made of polypropylene, or plastic. Then, if one bag gets contaminated, workers are able to remove the contaminated bag instead of losing the entire batch, Reeves said.

That’s not all. The algae farm strives to be “an off-grid operation,” with little to no waste. The farm recycles old plastic bags and water, makes its own carbon dioxide from local sugar cane, and runs off solar energy harvested from photovoltaic panels located on the property.

“We’re the only algae farm in the world that is 100 percent carbon-neutral and petroleum-free,” said Reeves, who has more than 30 years of experience in renewable energy technologies. “Nobody else in the world is growing algae like we are.”

By using renewable energy technologies, Reeves has been able to cut energy costs and energy consumption by 95 percent, he said.

The process is simple. It starts in the lab, where algae is cultivated in petri dishes. It is then transferred to the nursery, or the green stage, where the algae is put into large bags, hung from the ceiling and kept indoors under low-light levels for up to two weeks. All the while, the bags are being pumped with a steady stream of carbon dioxide, which Reeves makes in-house by distilling it from sugar cane he buys on island.

“We’re pretty much making rum,” Reeves said with a chuckle. One pound of alcohol produces 19 pounds of carbon dioxide, he added.

After the green stage, the bags of algae are transferred outdoors for up to 20 days, when the algae starts to turn red. The algae produces astaxanthin as a protective mechanism against the environmental stress caused by intense sunlight. The algae is then harvested and dried.

Reeves and his staff are still experimenting with the process, but he expects to be growing and selling his algae, wholesale, by the end of 2014, he said. He estimates that the farm will be able to produce about 10,000 kilos of algae each year. Commercially, the algae can fetch up to $12,000 per kilo.

Kailua-Kona’s Cyanotech Corp. is one of the largest producers of astaxanthin in the world.

Last year, the company sold about $16 million in astaxanthin products, according to company spokesman Bruce Russell.

“Demand for (astaxanthin) is growing steadily in the U.S. and worldwide as more studies demonstrate its value for human health,” Russell said.

Cyanotech has discussed buying “Haematococcus biomass” from Maui Tropical Algae Farm in the future, once the farm is fully operational, according to Gerry Cysewski, Cyanotech’s chief science officer.

“We are waiting for them to achieve commercial production levels and wish them well,” Cysewski said in an email.

On Maui, astaxanthin gel capsules can be found, under various brands like Bioacitin, at most health food stores like Down to Earth, Mana Foods, Hawaiian Moons, and even larger retailers like Whole Foods and Walmart.

“We feel good we’re growing products that are going to be improving people’s health, and doing it using resources on Maui,” said Kathleen Murphy, business manager for Maui Tropical Algae Farm.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at