According to a poll of INSIDER readers, the second highest factor that plays when supplement brand owners choose an ingredient or supplier was "sustainability of supply chain," with 47 percent (n=104) placing it at "very important" and 23 percent (n=50) above-average. ("Scientific substantiation" was the most important factor.) Almost all (96 percent) of all respondents perceived at least some level of consumer concern about sustainability, with 26 percent "minimally concerned" and 45 percent "somewhat concerned." Most of the 25 percent of respondents who perceived high consumer concern with sustainability indicated it has resulted in making adjustments to their companies' product development and purchasing decisions.
If two things are in danger of hurting the omega-3 industry, it's sustainability and contamination, so brands need to make sure their supply is environmentally friendly and safe, and they must communicate this message to consumers.
"The main challenge with sustainability is lack of communication rather than a true sustainability issue," Schutt said. "The vast majority of the fisheries that supply omega-3s are managed sustainably and the monitoring and enforcement programs in place continue to get more and more robust."
Still, in an article for SupplySide Omega-3 Insights, Schutt said industry could max out on the number of fish that can be sustainably harvested globally. "The answer is not overfishing, however, but rather expanding the supply story to include other sources, both marine and land-based," she wrote.
Eric Anderson, who was vice president of global marketing at Aker BioMarine Antarctic US at press time, also noted increasing consumer demand will soon outpace the supply of fish, "which makes it even more critical to identify other sources that can play a role in the omega-3 market. This is why you see large agricultural companies trying to engineer omega-3 plants and algae." Anderson added krill, which his company supplies, is also a solution to this problem.
Anderson said krill is a sustainable source of omega-3s, plus the company cooperates with numerous environmental organizations to ensure the natural resource remains healthy. "Entities such as WWF [World Wildlife Fund]-Norway, MSC [Marine Stewardship Council] and CCAMLR [the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources] help us keep environmental aspects at the forefront of all our operations," he said.
Neptune, another krill supplier, harvests Antarctic krill, which is also regulated by CCAMLR, an international commission of 25 country members. "In order to comply with a sustainable krill fishery, Neptune's use of Antarctic krill has been certified by two organizations: NSF International and Friend of the Sea (FOS)," said Wael Massrieh, Ph.D., vice president, scientific affairs, Neptune Technologies & Bioressources Inc.. FOS is an international nonprofit organization with an independent certifying body and a public assessment process that focuses on the health of ocean stocks.
While regulated krill operations may be a sustainable source, fish oil can also be harvested in an environmentally friendly way. Ernesto Hernandez, Ph.D., director of process development, Omega Protein Corp., described how Omega Protein plays a role in sustainability of the menhaden fish stocks it uses. "Our fishing efforts are monitored in the Atlantic and Gulf coasts by regional, state and federal management agencies that closely oversee and regulate our fishing efforts, as well as the overall sustainability of the menhaden population. These government agencies have the ability to establish quotas, close environmentally sensitive fishing areas and limit the fishing season." He added Omega Protein's fish oil products are certified sustainable by FOS.
"Sustainability is never stronger than when supported by traceability," said Baldur Hjaltason, Sales Director, Epax AS, noting his company sources almost all its FOS-grade crude oil from Peru. "EPAX has designed a system where we can trace the crude oil to the area where the fish was caught, landed and turned into fish meal and fish oil. We have been audited by independent third parties, such as FOS, to guarantee that we comply with the sustainability issues."
Another sustainable route for omega-3s can be using plant-sourced ingredients. Algae has recently exploded on the market at a plant-sourced way to obtain both EPA and DHA, and many more plant sources can supply alpha lipoic acid (ALA), an essential fatty acid (EFA) that converts to EPA and DHA in the body. While many question if the health benefits of ALA are as potent at EPA and DHA, the lower price point of flax, hemp and chia among others are a benefit to these plant sources.
Omega-3s from fish or plant sources are becoming more popular even as doctors are writing prescriptions to similar drugs. The supplement business is surviving by offering sustainable, easy-to-take products with health claims that go beyond the heart.
Prescription omega-3s are helping the supplement industry boost its credibility and popularity.
While heart health is the benefit most liked to omega-3s, more research is mounting to their ability to boost the brain and beyond.
Learn more on how industry views omega-3 product development in the SupplySide Omega-3 Insights " State of Marine-Sourced Omega-3s " by Karen Butler.