Sea-nery: The marine ingredient market

Despite its infancy, the marine market is expanding and growing. What's more, the steady introduction of novel marine ingredients is opening the doors for myriad opportunities, including condition-specific formulas and new applications.

Alissa Marrapodi

October 18, 2011

14 Min Read
Sea-nery: The marine ingredient market

Top marine ingredient issues

  • The marine ingredient market is expanding its reach beyond supplements into categories such as functional foods and beverages, and nutricosmetics.

  • Companies need to manage every step of the production process in order to ensure sustainability is threaded from source to store.

  • Audits, supplier assessments and more help ensure the quality of marine-derived ingredients.

The marine market is expanding and growing due to offerings beyond marine-sourced essential fatty acids (EFAs) that already have a long history of usage in functional foods and beverages, and supplements. Whats more is the steady introduction of novel marine ingredients, opening the doors for myriad opportunities, including condition-specific formulas and new applications.

There has been an exponential increase in the number of companies and research groups that are turning to the sea to unlock new discoveries that address many of the top health concerns of todays market, said Scott Steil, president, Nutra Bridge.

Omega-3s are arguably the most well-known, pioneering the use of marine ingredients in food and beverages. According to Mintels Omega-3 U.S. January 2008 Executive Summary, 30 percent of all consumers say they, Specifically buy food, drink or supplements that contain omega-3 fatty acids (which are also sometimes identified as eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA] and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]).

Sure, consumers may be familiar with omega-3s, but what they may not know is the source. Many consumers do not understand the difference between marine-based omega-3 fatty acids containing EPA and DHA and plant-based omega-3, said Baldur Hjaltason, EPAX sales director. However, the conversion factor from ALA over to EPA and DHA is so low in the body that ALA cannot alone supply the needed amount of EPA and DHA. Fish consumption or supplement intake of EPA and DHA is needed in order to supply sufficient amount of those fatty acids to the body.

Neptune Krill Oil (NKO®) from Neptune Biotech ensures its bioavailability via a phospholipid-bonded EPA, DHA and antioxidant composition. This allows recommending daily doses as low as 300 mg/d (one softgel), said Wael Massrieh, director of R&D, Neptune Biotech. Even with the highest daily recommended dose for NKO, 1,000 mg/d (two softgels), it is still at least three times less than recommended dose for standard fish oils. He said krill is known to be the most abundant marine biomass and is rigorously monitored by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

Research shows bioavailability is higher for marine phospholipids than triglycerides or ethyl esters forms, Hjaltason commented. This delivery form is not always clear for the consumernot at least since the marketing of krill oil has been focused more on the source as krill and bioavailability than the phospholipid form. The focus on new sources of biofuel and extensive government funding in the area created number of innovation firms that wanted to make biofuel from algae. When funding dried up, it was clear algae oil was too expensive for biofuel uses but contained both EPA and DHA that were valuable ingredients into supplement and functional food. With demand for marine-based EPA and DHA growing faster than availability of crude fish oil, investment has increased in algae production globally and we will see within 10 years that algae oil will have replaced fish oil to some extent in supplements and functional food.

Sourcing is important, not only to satisfy the levels required to meet specific health benefits, but for safety and sustainability, too.

Under the sea  

From salmon, seaweed and mackerel to crustaceans and blue-green algae, marine life offers an abundance of ingredient opportunities. Thanks to Dr. Oz, other marine ingredients are climbing the ladder, such as astaxanthin and spirulina, which companies such as Cyanotech Corp. have benefited from. Weve seen huge increases in the sales of our ingredients since both of our ingredients appeared on Dr. Oz earlier this year, and this has led to other publicity across various media by many different opinion leaders, said Bob Capelli, vice president, sales and marketing, Cyanotech. Astaxanthin is used for joint and tendon health; and heart, eye and brain health; but its also used in skin care for internal UV protection and beauty from within. Spirulina is used for heart, eye and brain health, but it also enhances the immune system and increases energy levels. 

IncaCartilago (available through OptiPure), a proprietary chondroitin sulfate-E (CS-E), supports joint health, too, as well as bone health. Its source, Humboldt squid, is found in abundance off the coast of South America. It exhibits a characteristically superior chondroitin profile with a 60-percent guaranteed minimum of total chondroitin sulfates, a 40-percent minimum of chondroitin sulfate E and a 20-percent minimum chondroitin sulfates A and C, said Ron Udell, president and CEO, Kenko International. IncaCartilagos composition encourages osteoblastic and osteocalcin formation, replication and expression. CS-E serves as an alternative to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), as its been shown to affect the binding and action of midkines, whose proliferation are responsible for pain sensation.

Nutra Bridges two marine-based ingredients (owned and manufactured by innoVactiv Corp.) support healthy blood glucose and a balanced immune system. InSea2 is made from two types of wild brown seaweed, and helps block starch and sugar from spiking blood sugar and insulin levels. We continue to make progress on its scientific pedigree and have just completed another round of human clinical studies, said Scott Steil, president, Nutra Bridge. Its second product, PeptiBal, is made from hydrolyzed fish protein and is classified as an immune modulator. PeptiBal improves several aspects of the mucosal immune system and is suitable for a daily use, Steil added.

From sea to store

Supplements have been the popular form of delivery for marine-derived ingredients, but thats all changing. We certainly have seen an increase in the number of companies looking for innovative, next-generation products, Steil said. It does require us to be more creative and help develop product concepts that address organoleptic challenges; but, so far, we have been very successful at developing flexible delivery formats, including drink mixes, chewables and liquids.

Functional foods and beverages are a rapidly growing segment within the natural products industry, and, as stated previously, many companies are seeing a demand for their marine ingredients for functional foods and beverages.

Mintel reported the U.S. market for food products fortified with EPA and DHA omega-3 has grown from very small in the 1990s to a broadly estimated $600 to $800 million in 2007. For example, sales revenues of DHA as a food and beverage ingredient roughly tripled in both 2006 and 2007 at Martek Biosciences, an omega-3 provider.

Different formats are required to facilitate the integration of key ingredients into food or beverage, said Caroline Gauthier, marketing manager, Neptune Biotech. Demand for liquids and powders is driven by innovation, and Neptune is working hard behind the scenes to develop the right products to answer the market needs.

Capelli echoed this demand, stating: U.S.-grown spirulina received GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status in 2003, and since then, weve seen many companies, both large and small, put spirulina into green drinks and some food items. Our BioAstin Hawaiian Astaxanthin just received GRAS status in January of this year, but were already starting to see interest in including BioAstin in functional food and beverages over the last few months.

Large and small, companies are making adjustments to adhere to the increase in demand and make their product stand out from the other fish in the sea. The marketing companies are also looking at different delivery technologies to differentiate them from the competition, Hjaltason said. We see different kind of microencapsulated powders, emulsions and liposomes as well. Even some companies are starting to sell their product in small bottles instead of softgels to make the concentrate more affordable to the consumer.

Condition-specific formulas are a popular way to attract consumers, as they are often looking to address a specific ailment. Many companies such as EPAX AS have experienced healthy growth in the health condition-specific market, according to Hjaltason. 

Nutra Bridge and Cyvex are also honing in on specially made formulas. Our key focus has been on working with clients to help develop condition-specific formulas, which is where we see the highest degree of innovation taking place in todays market, Steil said.

Formulations are becoming condition specific, including combining marine ingredients with other ingredients that have scientific support for a specific condition, added Katherine Bond, Cyvex, director of business development. By combining several ingredients that have shown benefits in a certain therapeutic area, theoretically there would be a synergistic effect. When formulating with marine oils, there are inherent challenges due to the natural characteristics of oil, smell and stability; so novel delivery systems that can overcome these challenges are extremely important.  


From the inception of the supply chain to the shelf, sustainability is a big issue. Ingredient suppliers are keen on this fac,t and taking steps to ensure they are acting, sourcing and producing responsibly.

It is critical to be able to track every source of raw material used to make the finished ingredient, Steil said. Sadly, there are still many suppliers who dont so this. However, the implementation of GMPs (good manufacturing practices) is dramatically improving the quality of marine-based products and allows for a better consumer experience.

Sustainability is a cornerstone in the natural products industry; and if manufacturers are hesitant, it may be sink or swim. Sustainability is a fundamental concept for responsible fish oil suppliers, Bond said. It is especially important to fully vertically integrated companies that manage every step of the production process from fish harvest to oil caps. Bond said Cyvex fishes only seasonally to protect the natural spawning cycle, and only uses fishing nets that allow small and immature fish to escape. Practices such as these protect the fisheries, ensuring the longevity of their business.

Sustainability of krill is of paramount importance for Neptune Biotech, and its existing and potential strategic partners, Massrieh said. To this effect, Neptune successfully completed a review of key environmental claims by NSF International.

Nutra Bridge also harvests the wild brown seaweed used in its InSea2 using sustainable practices from multiple geographies. PeptiBal is made from fish that have been used for their meat, Steil said. In fact, we get our starting material (remaining meat that is left over after filleting) from what would simply be thrown away if we did not use it.

Hawaii-based Cyanotech makes sure it leaves the environment used to culture its microalgae in better condition than it found it. This runs throughout our organizationfrom cooling our ponds and even air conditioning our buildings with deep seawater, to recycling water in our production system, winning an Audubon Society Award for saving an endangered Hawaiian bird species and growing a productive crop that gives off oxygen as it grows. Capelli said.

Sustainability isnt only on manufacturers minds, but its on the mind of consumers, too. There is a great concern among consumers and retailers about the sustainability of the fishes used to make the crude fish oil, Hjaltason said. Today, most of the omega-3 processors use anchovy oil from Peru, and it is expected the anchovy industry will be certified by Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) before the end of 2012 or early 2013. EPAX is also using oil certified by Friends of the Sea to be from sustainable sources. We use only crude oil produced by fishmeal and oil plants that have been audited in compliance with human consumption.


Many consumers are still concerned with toxicity in their under-the-sea adventures, whether buying a supplement or picking up dinner. Because of this, the industry is working overtime to ensure theyre delivering quality ingredients.

First step for any manufacture should be to assess the competence of the supplier, Massrieh said. This should be done in parallel with assessing the suppliers compliance with GMP. In more than 50 percent of issues with toxicity and sustainability, due diligence for the above mentioned two factors are usually not done. Whats the best way to ensure these two factors are taken care of? An audit. Supplier audits are one of the best ways to ensure that supplier is following the processes and procedures that you agreed to during the selection processes, Massrieh added. It identifies non-conformity in manufacturing process, shipment process, engineering change process and many other contributors to quality.

A big step was taken to ensure the quality of the omega-3 products when processors formed an omega-3 working group under the umbrella of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), leading to the birth of the Voluntary Fish Oil Monograph, and after the working group split from CRN, it became the trade association Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED). The majority of those that produce and sell omega-3 oils are now members of GOED, Hjaltason said. In the Voluntary Fish Oil Monograph, there are strict limits on pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins. Those pollutants are removed during processing of the oil, and are in some cases so low that they cannot be detected in the final products. EPAX has always focused on purity and has set its own voluntary standard for pollutants that are up to 20 times lower then requested by the monograph or authorities. Because EPAX mainly sources its oil from Peru and stores the oil in special tanks until it is shipped to Norway, its set up a traceability system where it can trace by bath numbers the oil from the finished product back to the fish oil plant that made the crude oil.

Omega Protein fishes in the U.S. coastal waters, which are highly regulated, Bond said. Stock assessments are conducted regularly to prevent over fishing. Supply is always a concern as demand increases, and global demand is increasing for not only for fish oil, but other fish products as well; therefore, prices in the future will go up.

Cyanotech has the option to source its spirulina from Asia for half the price of Hawaiian crop; But independent lab analyses show three to 12 times the levels of lead, which means you cant even sell it legally in California under Proposition 65, Capelli said. And independent labs have also found multiple brands of Chinese spirulina are irradiated. Manufacturers do this to kill bacterial growth from poor hygienic conditions when theyre culturing their spirulina. Its illegal to distribute irradiated spirulina in the United States and Europe.

When it comes to sourcing, Udell has a different set of hurdles. Because the majority of chondroitin sulfates are derived from bovine and porcine sources, and even shark and salmon, extracting commercial CS-E from animal tissues requires complex purification procedures due to contamination risks and cost. Indiscriminate fishing has led to the protection of sharks by international treaties, he said, The demand for CS-E is increasing, prompting the discovery of novel sources of chondroitin. Researchers in Japan found a new marine source, the Humboldt squid. Invertebrates, such as squid, are a promising resource for CS-E, and the Humboldt squid exhibits a characteristically superior chondroitin profile.

But the more care manufacturers and suppliers take, the more reputable the marine market will become. As finished goods companies ramp up the testing on their products, I remain fully confident in our ability as an industry to produce products that are safe and deliver solid efficacy to the end user, Steil said.

New waters

As sea-based ingredients continue to test the waters of functional foods and beverages, theyre also branching out into other avenues. A very exciting concept is the inside/outside approach to beauty, Capelli said. Rather than simply putting on topical products to help with skin, many companies are already offering internal beauty products. But the emerging trend will be using a marine ingredient with proven efficacy as both a topical product as well as a beauty-from-within supplement in combination to improve skin appearance from both angles. Astaxanthin has been shown in both topical and internal studies to be beneficial in this area.

And as the industry has already experienced, the pharmaceutical industry is dipping its toes into our industry with drugs such as Lovaza, an omega-3 acid in ethyl-ester form. Pharmaceutical products containing EPA and DHA will still have to use fish oil since the clinical trials behind their efficacy are based on fish oil, Hjaltason said. In just few years, the pharmaceutical industry has become a larger user of crude fish oil. The success of Lovaza in the United States and Omacor in Europe has led to a number of newcomers in this area that are running clinical trials for various symptoms. If only a small part of those companies will be successful, we will see the majority of the fish oil used for human consumption go into pharmaceuticals, which might affect the supplement and functional food industry in coming years.

We shall see The marine market is just gaining its footing, but its a strong foothold. Endless potential is supported by sustainable processes, efficacious backings and an array of health conditions already being addressed, making this market sturdy and secure.

Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the health and nutrition industry.
Join 37,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like