Appearance, pharmacokinetics, and distribution of astaxanthin E/Z and R/S isomers in plasma and lipoprotein fractions were studied in 3 middle-aged male volunteers (37-43 years) after ingestion of a single meal containing a 100 mg dose of astaxanthin. The astaxanthin source consisted of 74% all-E-, 9% 9Z-, 17% 13Z-astaxanthin (3R,3'R-, 3R,3'S; meso-, and 3S,3'S-astaxanthin in a 1:2:1 ratio). The plasma astaxanthin concentration--time curves were measured during 72 hr. Maximum levels of astaxanthin (1.3 +/- 0.1 mg/L) were reached 6.7 +/- 1.2 hr after administration, and the plasma astaxanthin elimination half-life was 21 +/- 11 hr. 13Z-Astaxanthin accumulated selectively, whereas the 3 and 3'R/S astaxanthin distribution was similar to that of the experimental meal. Astaxanthin was present mainly in very low-density lipoproteins containing chylomicrons (VLDL/CM; 36-64% of total astaxanthin), whereas low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) contained 29% and 24% of total astaxanthin, respectively. The astaxanthin isomer distribution in plasma, VLDL/CM, LDL, and HDL was not affected by time. The results indicate that a selective process increases the relative proportion of astaxanthin Z-isomers compared to the all-E-astaxanthin during blood uptake and that astaxanthin E/Z isomers have similar pharmacokinetics.