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Oh, Oh, Omegas

omega softgels on spoon

Nutritionists used to tell us fat was a four-letter word when it came to health. With nine calories per gram (compared to proteins and carbohydrates four calories per gram), fat was seen as the evil behind weight gain, heart disease and diabetes. Product manufacturers answered by releasing fat-free yogurt, low-fat cookies and lean cuts of meat.

Who knew only a decade later we would find out how important fat is for our health; so important that its essential. And, fat is a lot more intricate than just good vs. evil. Fats can be saturated or unsaturated. Unsaturated fats can be broken down into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, and trans fats are considered saturated. To add to the complexity, many foods and oils contain more than one type of fat.

Omega fatty acids commonly make their appearance in the -3, -6 and -9 varieties, although omega-9s are not considered essential because the body can produce them on its own. Omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats are essential polyunsaturated fatty acids; however, many experts agree Westerners consume too much omega-6s, found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, soft margarine and wheat germ, but dont get enough omega-3 fats, available in flaxseeds, walnuts and fish. This imbalance may increase the risk of cancer, obesity, heart disease and arthritis. Therefore, many of the growing number of health-conscious consumers are looking to add more omega-3s to their diets with supplements and fortified foods.

The interest in omega-3 ingredients has exploded in the past several years, creating a major market. It is widely known that omega-3 supplementation now matches multivitamins in popularity and importance in health maintenance, so its no surprise that more manufacturers than ever are creating more omega-3-enriched products, said Andreas Koch, marketing director, Barleans. Consumers are so gung ho on omega-3s because of their health benefits, Koch continued. Mountains of research points to the essential in essential fatty acids. Practitioners, leading health authorities, educators and the media are driving this interest.

Consumers are looking to get omega-3s in many forms, according to Mary Ann Siciliano, national sales manager, Arista Industries Inc. The original interest in omega-3s was primarily as a supplement, but as functional foods and healthy alternatives have become very popular and of great interest, product manufacturer interest in natural omega-3s has grown tremendously, she said. This interest is greatly driven by the multitude of benefits of omega-3s, which include heart health, immune function, brain health and healthy child development, as well as being useful in the treatment of various diseases, including, but not limited to, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), arthritis, circulatory problems, depression and cancer.

 Indeed, omega-3s have shown to be beneficial to the heart,1,2,3 the eyes,4,5 the treatment of depression and mood,6,7 brain health,8,9 the joints,10,11,12 child development,13 ADHD,14,15 anti-aging,16 cancer17 and oral health.18

Sam Wright, president and CEO, The Wright Group, said the key health benefits of omega-3s are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in cardiovascular health and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in brain development and cognitive health. Of course, the benefits go beyond that, he said. With more than 17,000 papers published in this field (1,400 in 2009 alone), omega-3 has clearly become a star in the ingredient space, he said.

However, Wright cautioned omega-3 claims can become too much of a good thing. These benefits are easy to understand, easy to communicate and resonate with a growing proportion of the U.S. consumer base, he said. One of the marketing challenges with omega-3s is resisting the temptation to say too much about the products growing list of benefits. In an effort to differentiate, marketers lose focus on the benefits consumers care most about, and run the risk of positioning omega-3s as a cure all. In marketing, if you stand for too much, you end up standing for nothing.

Still, even with so many reasons to take omega-3s, thousands are deficient. An April 2009 study from researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found omega-3-deficient diets cause an estimated 63,000 to 97,000 preventable deaths annually in the United States alone.19

Consumers may be deficient because they have little guidance on how much omega-3 they should take. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) does not have clear dietary reference intakes (DRIs) for EPA and DHA. Late last year, The Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) and a consortium of eight scientific, trade and consumer advocacy organizations filed a petition with the IOM asking the organization to convene an expert panel to establish DRIs. They argued until DRIs are established, both policy makers and consumers have no way of knowing what the target intakes should be, and by how much they're falling short.

Perhaps allowing more leniency when it comes to omega-3 health claims would permit consumers to better understand their benefits and, thus, increase their consumption. The massive body of research shows an almost embarrassingly large number of health benefits for those who have diets rich in omega-3 fats, yet presently (since 2004) FDA only permits a qualified health claim that omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, said Bruce A. Miller, Jr., executive vice president of Marine Nutriceutical Corp. As an industry, we are pushing for and hopeful that we will receive the right to an unqualified health claim from FDA in the not-too-distant future.


Fat of the Land (and Sea)

Like the different types of fats, omega-3s come in many forms and affect the body differently. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the parent omega-3, and is found primarily in plants; the body can create the longer-chain EPA and DHA, or people can consume it preformed from marine sources. Fish oil naturally contains 30-percent omega-3s (EPA/DHA) by weight, and concentrated fish oil supplements can easily provide  60 percent or more omega-3s.  By comparison, krill oil contains 7 to 24 percent omega-3s (EPA/DHA). Flaxseed oil contains about 52 to 55 percent omega-3s, but as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), not EPA/DHA.

This is significant because ALA must be converted to EPA and DHA, and conversion to DHA is often poor in humans. The pathway that converts ALA to EPA and DHA requires nutrients, such as vitamin B6, C, zinc and magnesium, for efficient conversion, that are often lacking in the American diet.  Saturated and trans fats, which are consumed in high quantities in Western diets, have also been found to inhibit conversion.

However, some, like Herb Joiner-Bey, Ph.D., scientific advisor to Barleans, say ALA may be unduly getting a bad rap. He said both flaxseed oil and fish oil can be used concurrently for optimal wellness. For general health maintenance, the mounting scientific literature is indicating that flaxseed oil is essentially equivalent to fish oil, he said. People can convert the plant omega-3 ALA into the omega-3s EPA and DHA found in fish oil. Due to the supportive role of estrogens, women of reproductive age are especially capable of making this conversion.

Additionally, many consumers prefer to take plant-based supplements for reasons including sustainability or vegetarianism.

Marine sources of omega-3s are vast.  Krill oil, for instance, is quickly becoming a popular omega-3 marine source because in addition to omega-3s, it contains the potent antioxidant astaxanthin as well as phospholipids. [Astaxanthin] helps your body absorb more omega-3 fatty acids, moves omega-3s to your cells faster, and provides your body with powerful antioxidant protection, Siciliano said. Krill oil is said to help with immune function, brain health, psychiatric disorders and lowering cholesterol, and has been used for treatment of various diseases/disorders, such as arthritis and sore joints, circulatory problems, depression and sleep disorders.

Eric Anderson, vice president sales and marketing, Aker BioMarine Antarctic North America, also praised krill oils bioavailability. Krill omega-3s are provided mostly in the phospholipid form, he said. This results in greater bioefficiencythe omega-3s are absorbed into red blood cell membranes 55-percent greater than other marine omega-3s, which are in the triglyceride form. The phospholipid omega-3s are also better tolerated with less repeating of fishy/oily unpleasantness. And, krill is harvested in the most pristine waters on earth, providing a very clean, pure omega-3 oil. The astaxanthin content of krill protects against oxidation and provides health benefits when consumed, he added noting Aker has conducted more than 30 studies in vitro, in vivo and in humans demonstrating safety and efficacy.

Massrieh also praised the natural astaxanthin found in krill oil. Because omega3s are prone to oxidation, it is very important to combine them with an antioxidant, he said. The presence of astaxanthin in NKO combined with other naturally occurring antioxidants in the oil (vitamins E and A) create exceptional protection against oxidation of the oil, making it stable for a long time. It also protects the body against free radical attacks which can cause aging of the cells. Astaxanthin has been reported to provide health benefits for eye and skin health although it has also been linked to joint health, cardiovascular and central nervous system health and is said to have an antioxidant payload 500 times that of vitamin E.

Wael Massrieh, director of R&D, Neptune Technologies & Bioressources Inc., noted studies using Neptune Krill Oil (NKO®) showed it can reduce triglycerides and LDL, and increase HDL. Its important to also note that phospholipids are the principal constituents of HDLcholesterol (better known as good cholesterol), facilitating cholesterol efflux (the clearance of cholesterol from the arteries). Furthermore, NKO has been demonstrated to have beneficial human health benefits for osteoarthritis, ADHD and of PMS.

Another form of DHA-rich marine oil showing up in ingredients lists is from squid. Squid is not a fish, but is a cephalopod and is emerging as what I believe will be the next big thing in the omega-3 supplementation, Miller said. He called squid omega-3s an enormously abundant biomass, from the trimmings of squid, which simply means that the oil comes from the leftovers after the squid has been cut up for food consumption in the form of calamari.

Leif Kjetil Gjendemsjø, chairman, Pharma Marine Group, said it offers the Calamarine line of high-DHA omega-3 ingredients. Calamarine is sourced from calamari, a highly robust and sustainable marine resource, he said, adding the company provides a range from natural oils to ethyl ester and triglyceride concentrates. We source our raw materials from calamari fisheries all over the world, with the largest commercial fisheries in South America and Asia. Our global sourcing efforts have included ensuring that our suppliers are certified as food grade by the European Union.

Additionally, Originates mainly uses Peruvian anchoveta (Engrualis Ringens), which, according to Daniel Minski, director of operations, contain the highest naturally occurring ratios of EPA/DHA of any fish species.

As noted before, omega-3s can be found in plants as well. Plant sources of omega-3s, such as flaxseeds, chia and canola offer other nutrients besides omega-3s.

Staying within the waters, chlorella, a microalgae rich in ALA also provides 50-percent protein, vitamin B6, minerals, chlorophyll, beta-carotene, vitamin B12 and gamma-linoleic acid (GLA). Golden Chlorella from Solazyme Health Sciences, is a sustainably grown microalgae powder contains omega-3, -6 and -9 oils, and dietary fiber.  Besides it provides naturally occurring carotenoids, phospholipids, tocopherols, tocotrienols and sterols, the company said it is popular in heart-health formulas that can be included in drinks, blended powders, shots, bars and snacks.  "Golden Chlorella Omegas overall composition is similar to that of olive which is a key component of the Mediterranean diet," said Ken Plasse, senior director of sales and marketing, Solazyme Health Sciences.

Along with ALA, flaxseeds contain high levels of dietary fiber including lignans and an abundance of micronutrients, so they are often used as an animal-free omega-3 ingredient. Koch said Barleans flaxseed oil and cold-pressed flaxseeds are only sourced in North America. North American has the finest seed quality in the world, due to the rich soil and perfect climate. Joiner-Bey added the leading commercial source of ALA is flaxseed oil.

While Sanmark manufactures many bulk nutritional seed-oils for the supplement, food, and personal care industry, its primary omega-3 rich oil is flaxseed oil. The demand for this vegetarian omega-3 oil has continued to grow and the primary delivery form is still the soft gel capsule, said David S. Chance, M.S., sales and marketing manager, Sanmark. However, it is also used in a wide variety of food items both as a powdered oil and as a straight oil. Flaxseed powdered oils are becoming more popular, he added, but said odors from poorly manufactured powders with high surface oil content often pose issues.

Oil from the chia seed (Salvia hispanica) is made up of more than 60 percent omega-3s, and also has antioxidants (chlorogenic and caffeic acids, myricetin, quercetin, and kaempferol flavonols) and a variety of amino acids. The seeds  typically contain 20 percent protein and 25 percent dietary fiber (mostly soluble). Because chia seeds contain no gluten and trace levels of sodium, they have quickly become a hot ingredient in the omega-3 market.

Hemp is another growing omega-3 ingredient. Hemp ingredients are a rich vegetable source of both omega-3s and -6s. Hemp contains all of the essential amino acids, and has an overall protein content that is comparable to soy beans and higher than that found in nuts, other seeds, meats, dairy products, fish and poultry. Hemp is also allergen free.


Formulating the Fat

No matter where the source, suppliers and finished product manufacturers face certain challenges when working with omega-3s. The primary concerns, according to Siciliano, are stability, odor and taste. The taste and odor can be masked with a flavor and preservatives or other ingredients, and refrigeration helps with stability; but, a product packed in a closed system or without constant exposure to air, will have better stability.

Along with freshness and toxins, Minski said consistency can be an issue, particularly relating to specific ratios of EPA and DHA from raw materials that can vary from year to year and catch to catch.  Companies can combat this issue by using technology to produce uniformity and reliability. Maintaining high nutrient levels must also be addressed. Another challenge the industry has experienced over the last several years in the production of non-concentrate oils is maintaining DHA levels, which, for a number of reasons have been diminishing, Miller said. A major part of that problem is due to the sustainability of fish stocks naturally rich in DHA.

Miller brought up the issue, but he isnt the first or the last to be concerned with marine omega-3 sustainability. Tuna has traditionally been the go-to fish for DHA, Miller continued, however, a number of tuna species are now considered overfished, and therefore are no longer used in the production of fish oils. He further noted, Sustainability of the fisheries remains a source of concern, but beyond that, there are emerging perceptions (by no means a reality) that the oceans are generally being overfished, and while that is not true, often perception becomes the reality for those who know no better.

Still, the sustainability issue is important as this market and the lives of many species require it to survive. Now and in the future it is very important that the raw material used to produce omega-3s is genuinely sustainable, and is sourced using low-ecological impact methods, Gjendemsjø said. Our future literally depends on responsible stewardship over our planets limited and threatened resources.

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important to both manufacturers and consumers, said Baldur Hjaltason, sales director for EPAX AS. In industry terms, this focus on sustainability will increase since many retailers have asserted they will not sell any fish oil product without documentation that the fish oil used in the product comes from sustainable fish species, he said. On a related note, it is important that a third-party certification body performs auditing according to international sustainable-fishing standards.

Anderson noted manufacturers can take steps to assure product makers that the omega-3s come from caring companies. For example, Aker BioMarine is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an independent, global, nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable seafood, and also follows the Eco Harvesting technique, in which the net stays submerged. This specially designed trawl system collects and pumps the krill to the surface vessel, and includes a special mechanism that singles out unwanted by-catch, releasing it unharmed.

Similarly, EPAX uses only anchovy oil from its sister company in Peru that has been certified by Friends of the Sea (FOS) confirming the fish is a sustainable source. In addition, EPAX has established a batch number traceability system, and can now offer its customers traceability to the fish meal plant where the oil was produced in Peru as well as where and when the fish are caught.

Along with sustainability, purity is a big issue when it comes to the omega-3 market, especially when it comes to marine-sourced products. Where the seafood is located on the food chain helps determine how many containments it is exposed to. Anderson said the low position of krill on the food chain adds to its safety levels, and Minski noted Peruvian anchoveta have a smaller toxic load because the fish are small with relatively short life spans and rapid reproductive cycles, which minimizes exposure to environmental toxins.

Lab techniques to remove contaminants can also enhance purity. Croda fish oils are made using the PureMax technology, which removes heavy metals, environmental pollutants and oxidative impurities, according to Karen H. Chen, marketing manager, health care, Croda Inc. Koch noted Barleans also uses small-bodied fish to avoid mercury, toxins and other impurities, and Miller said Marine Nurticeutical removes environmental contaminants during the production process. Miller said they are unavoidable in raw material sources, but the company documents their removal using the third-party analyst Eurofins.


Open Wide

As suppliers and formulators have addressed issues of concern, they have paved the way for the abundance of omega-3 products on the market, with no sign of slowing.

Supplementsespecially softgelshave traditionally been the most popular delivery form for omega-3s, Wright said. They are stand-alone products delivering an efficacious dose of 1,000 to 1,500 mg, he said. Some are enteric coated to minimize the reflux problems associated with fish oils. It is estimated that supplements account for 80 percent of the U.S. omega-3 market by volume.

Softgels being the most popular is not a coincidence, according to Hjaltason, because softgels provide the best oxidatation protection for omega-3 concentrates.

Diane Hnat, senior technical marketing manager, DSM Nutritional Products, said although less than 15 percent of the adult population regularly consumes fish oil supplements, it is the most common delivery system for the consumption of EPA and DHA. Actually, this number has doubled over the past five years, she said. In North America, there is not an extensive selection of EPA- and DHA-fortified foods and beverages. And the level of fortification can be as low as 8 mg per serving or as high as 500 mg per serving, due to lack of clarity by FDA about what is relevant to consumers health on a label.

Marine-sourced omega-3s face more stability issues when it comes to putting them in products other than supplements, but plant sources can be more easily incorporated, Siciliano said. Vegetable-based omegas, like, flax seed oil, hemp seed oil, perilla seed oil and chia seed oil are much more stable and have found their way in personal care products as well as functional foods.

However, she added powder form oil, where the oil is loaded into a dry base, normally maltodextrin at a 50-percent ratio, can help more omega-3s find their way into finished goods. This allows omega-3s to be used in powdered supplements, cereals and a variety of applications where the liquid form is difficult to use, she said.

Microencapsulation also offers a solution, protecting against oxidization and also masking smell and taste, Hjaltason noted. The main disadvantage of this technology is how much carrier is needed, he said. Sometimes up to 75 percent of the weight is the carrier, while the fish oil makes up only 25 percent. Therefore, the most likely trend will be using concentrates for microencapsulation, but this is also cost related, and further research and development will be needed until solid microencapsulation technology is available that can protect concentrated omega-3 oils.

Miller said the powder form enables omega-3s to be integrated into an array of foods, from baked goods to yogurt, but the major technology used in the production of omega-3 fatty acids is short path molecular distillation. This method allows for softgel capsules, liquids, emulsified products, chews, gummies and oils.

Infant formulas, pet foods and eggs are saturated markets, according to Dr. Chet Rao, marketing manager for Hormel Foods Specialty Products, but he sees growth for beverages, condiments and sauces, bakery and margarine/spreads. He noted, Earlier this year we launched a clear beverage technology that helps formulators with clear, shelf-stable products. At IFT, we launched an emulsion-based delivery technology that is targeted for non-clear beverages. Additionally at IFT, Hormel released a combination ingredient that features omega-3 and vitamin D.

Chen noted Crodas melife Smooth is microencapsulated, and designed specifically for ease of application in food and beverage products. melife Smooth is twice as concentrated in omega-3 (EPA+DHA) as most powdered offerings, and contains only natural, clean declaration ingredients. Based on super refined fish oil, it looks like milk, and is both odorless and tasteless in application, mixing easily in to dairy, bakery and beverage products, to name but a few.

Types of delivery forms are not stopping there, as noted by Hnat. While DSMs anchovy and sardine ingredients are mainly used in dairy, supplements, food and child segments, she said, Chocolate, pasta sauce and flavored zero-calorie water are some innovative food and beverage products in the American marketplace.

Wright added The Wright Groups IFT launches included a school-lunch pizza containing an efficacious dose of fish oil omega-3s without the slightest hint of fish taste or odor. As the ingredients themselves get more sophisticated, the door may open further to omega-3 enrichment not possible using todays products.

Omega (the last letter of the Greek alphabet) is often used to denote the last, the end or the ultimate limit of a set, in contrast to Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet. However, we havent heard the last of omega-3s in the marketplace. The rapid aging of the population, escalating health costs, and the proven ability of omega-3s to help alleviate cardiovascular disease (CVD) and slow mental decline are indicators of strong future growth, Wright predicted.

Joiner-Bey stated, The demand for omega-3s will never decline because human physiology, biochemistry and nutritional wellness absolutely depend on abundant supplies of these indispensable nutrients.

Enough said. With never-ending demand, increasingly better formulation practices and safety assurances, omega-3 essential fatty acids will never again be seen as a four-letter word.

References are on the next page...

References for Oh, Oh, Omegas

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2.       Bucher HC, et al. N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Med. 2002 Mar;112(4):298-304.

3.       Yokoyama M, et al. Effects of eicosapentaenoic acid on major coronary events in hypercholesterolaemic patients (JELIS): a randomised open-label, blinded endpoint analysis. Lancet. 2007 Mar 31;369(9567):1090-8.

4.       Cho E, et al. Prospective study of dietary fat and the risk of age-related macular degeneration. Am J Clin Nutr. 2001 Feb;73(2):209-18.

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11.   Ariza-Ariza R, Mestanza-Peralta M, Cardiel MH. Omega-3 fatty acids in rheumatoid arthritis: an overview. Semin Arthritis Rheum. 1998 Jun;27(6):366-70.

12.   Vargová V, et al. [Will administration of omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids reduce the use of nonsteroidal antirheumatic agents in children with chronic juvenile arthritis?] [Article in Slovak] Cas Lek Cesk. 1998 Nov 2;137(21):651-3.

13.   Innis SM. Dietary omega 3 fatty acids and the developing brain. Brain Res. 2008 Oct 27;1237:35-43.

14.   Stevens LJ  et al. Essential fatty acid metabolism in boys with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995 Oct;62(4):761-8.

15.   Matsudaira T. Attention deficit disorders--drugs or nutrition? Nutr Health. 2007;19(1-2):57-60.

16.   Farzaneh-Far R, et al. Association of marine omega-3 fatty acid levels with telomeric aging in patients with coronary heart disease. JAMA. 2010 Jan 20;303(3):250-7.

17.   Calviello G, Serini S, Piccioni E. n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and the prevention of colorectal cancer: molecular mechanisms involved. Curr Med Chem. 2007;14(29):3059-69.

18.   Iwasaki M, et al. Longitudinal relationship between dietary omega-3 fatty acids and periodontal disease. Nutrition. 2010 Jan 22.

19.   Danaei G, et al. The preventable causes of death in the United States: comparative risk assessment of dietary, lifestyle, and metabolic risk factors. PLoS Med. 2009 Apr 28;6(4):e1000058.

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