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EFA Marketers Overcoming ObstaclesEFA Marketers Overcoming Obstacles

Steve Myers

June 2, 2011

21 Min Read
EFA Marketers Overcoming Obstacles

Its placed at the end of the Greek alphabet, but omega is anything but last in the world of healthy fats. The awareness of and knowledge about omega-3 and -6 fatty acids has exploded in the past few years, presenting these ingredients with a unique growth opportunity. Diet and nutrition fads ebb and flow with the media-reported research tide, whereby the latest study is the one emblazoned in consumers minds and most likely to impact their behavior. For a nutrient or nutrient group to establish some permanence, its positive studies must drown out its negatives and continuously build on the good news. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are trying to do just that and, so far, they appear to be winning the battle.

EFAs are unsaturated long-chain fatty acids that are essential to the function and health of the human body, which cannot make its own supply of these nutrients. EFAs include omega-3s and -6s; omega-9s, while healthy, arent considered essential because the body can make them. Technically, the body only needs omega-3 linolenic acid (LNA) and omega-6 linoleic acid (LA), and it can use enzymes to convert these two into several different beneficial fatty acids such as the omega-3s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), as well as the omega-6 gamma-linoleic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (AA). However, the conversion from LNA to EPA and DHA is widely reported as inadequateConversion is extremely poor, said Bruce Holub, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the Department of Human Health & Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Research has shown the average conversion rate is between 2 percent and 15 percent,1 with the conversion to EPA much better than to DHA, which is further down the metabolic line. Considering this poor conversion, EPA- and/or DHA-containing ingredients have become popular in the EFA market segment.

In fact, the EFA market is being driven primarily from omega-3 fatty acids, which have been growing at 10 percent to 18 percent across different regions in the globe, according to Frost & Sullivan. The firm further reported 90 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion in global omega-3 revenues in 2010 (85 percent in North America and 93 percent in Europe) were from marine-source omega-3 ingredients, rich sources of EPA and DHA. Frost put the average global growth rate for base year 2010 at about 18 percent for both all-source and marine omega-3 ingredients.

This market is driven by a consistent stream of positive research on the health benefits of increased intake and consumption of omega-3 supplements and foods. With regard to marine derived omega-3 fatty acids, the market has basically been driven by solid science, said Baldur Hjaltason, sales and business development director for EPAX AS. In 2001, there were 7,894 papers listed in PubMed on omega-3s; in 2008, they were up to 13,5000 papers. Thereof, 1127 were randomized control trials (RCT) and 288 based on meta-analysis and systematic reviews. He added the success of the first marine omega-3 concentrate as a prescription drug in the United States has also got the attention of the consumer.

Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) has shown most consumers (87 percent) say scientific and clinical evidence of efficacy is why they buy and use any given supplement. The firm also noted out of a survey population comprised mostly of primary grocery shoppers, 23 percent used omega-3 supplements in 2009, up from 14 percent in 2004. Additionally, 19 percent feel deficient in omega-3s, and 23 percent feel deficient in fish oil, the most common source of omega-3 EPA and DHA.

On Holubs charts, typical North American dietary intake levels of saturated, monounsaturated and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats tower far above the levels of omega-3 LNA, EPA and DHA. There is a simple reason for this: Americans dont like fish. The American Heart Association (AHA) scientific statement on omega-3s reported the intake of total omega-3 fatty acids in the United States is 1.6 g/d or 0.7 percent of total energy intake. The typical American diet is still higher in animal and vegetable fats, which provide mostly saturated fat and omega-6 fat, respectively. Decades ago, health organizations, including the AHA, urged Americans to use more vegetable oils over animal fats. Food formulators, restaurants and home cooks all switched to using primarily vegetable oils, including canola, sunflower, cottonseed and soybean oils. Conversely, flaxseed is a popular dietary source of LNA, which can also be found in the seeds of chia, perilla and even kiwi. EPA and DHA are rich in marine life such as cold-water fish and krill, as well as in algae; fish get their omega-3s from eating algae, smaller fish or small crustaceans.

What has happened in the Western diet (excluding certain island and coastal populations) is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has increased dramatically to around 16:1; 4:1 is a common healthy target, although 1:1 or 2:1 is widely considered ideal. Artemis Simopoulos, a researcher,and founder and president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, explained humans likely evolved on a diet closer to a 1:1 ratio. However modern vegetable oils, compared to 100 years ago, are extremely high in omega-6; for instance, corn oil has a ratio around 66:1 and sunflower about 77:1.


Mind the Gap

Recommended intakes vary. Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) and Reference Daily Intakes (DRIs) originate from research review by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine (IOM), which has yet to develop a recommended intake for omega-3s. Adam Ismail, executive director of GOED (Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s), said the body of science on omega-3s has about tripled since the last time IOM was asked to review it. He explained IOM doesnt have a regular review cycle, but the industry hopes another omega-3 review is initiated this year, although it typically takes IOM two years to review.

Other influential U.S.-focused public health-related organizations have publicized their own recommendations, often based on a specific set of scientific findings. For instance, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) suggests 500 mg/d of long-chain poly unsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) for the general adult population, while the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) recommends the general population get 500 mg/d of EPA and DHA from either fish consumption or dietary supplementation. For pregnant and lactating women, intake should be 300 mg/d, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or 200 mg/d, according to PerLip (stands for perinatal lipid nutrition), which is supported by the European Commission (EC). For children (4 to 8 years old), Holub charted an intake recommendation of 350 mg/d, which is scaled down proportionately from the ADA recommendation for adultsthe ADA adult intake was based on 2,000 calories per day, so using 1,400 calories per day for children yielded a ratio of 0.7, which was used to calculate a recommended intake for children.

Still other organizations focused on more targeted populations. The AHA suggests the general population eat fish at least twice a week, with an emphasis on fatty fish. However, for people with coronary heart disease (CHD), AHA calls for 1 g/d EPA-DHA, preferably from fatty fish, or dietary supplements, while it ups the advised intake for CHD patients with high triglycerides (TGs) to 2 to 4 g/d EPA-DHA in the form of capsules, under the direction of a physician.

Globally, the advice is also mixed. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said for the general population, intake of omega-3s should be 1 percent to 2 percent of total energy intake, while the International Society for the Study of Fats and Lipids (ISSFAL) has called for 650 mg/d for the general population including 220 mg/d each of DHA and EPA (based on a 2,000 Kcal/d total energy intake). Meanwhile, the NATO Workshop on omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids recommended a high 800 mg/d of EPA/DHA for the general population. Japan, which has some of the highest dietary omega-3 and fish intakes in the world, has the most aggressive intake recommendations, calling for 1 g/d total omega-3 for infants, escalating all the way up to as much as 2.6 g/d (for 12- to 18-year old boys) and 2.9 g/d (50- to 69-year old men). Generally speaking, Japans recommended intakes for each age group above 8 to 9 year olds are at or above 2 g/d. (For more information on recommended intakes around the world, visit Omega3Learning.uconn.edu or DHAOmega3.org.)

In contrast to all these recommendations, Holub placed the average North American omega-3 intake at about 130 mg/d, noting this figure is far below average intakes in Japan. When comparing average intakes in America and Canada to recommended values, he said, This is a huge nutrition gap.

A particular troubling nutrition gap is in pregnant mothers and infants. Science has shown DHA is important in the brain development and neuronal functioning of infants. According to Holub, breast milk should be 0.35 percent DHA, but the average percentage of DHA in breast milk in North America and other countries is far below this amount (0.14 percent in Canada). This gap reflects an inadequate DHA intake in lactating mothers in North America, who take in an average of 80 mg/d DHA. The intake and gap is similar for pregnant womenduring the final trimester, DHA is strongly concentrated in the brain membrane phospholipids.

The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) found lack of adequate DHA intake (340 g/d seafood threshold) during pregnancy (data assessed at 32 weeks) increased the risk of their children having suboptimum cognitive outcomes, such as prosocial behavior, fine motor, communication, and social development scores;2 the children were also at significantly increased risk of being in the lowest quartile for verbal IQ.


Bjorn Rene, sales director at Golden Omega, said he has seen a lot of interest in DHA for brain and cognitive function, and he also sees increased demand for omega-3s, especially EPA, for cardiovascular health. NMI reported among omega-3 and fish oil users, heart disease was the top-most cited reason for taking such supplements (33 percent use in both groups).

There is a reason AHA and other health-related experts are concerned about adequate omega-3 intakes. Research has shown fish consumption is inversely related with fatal CHD, and eating fish once or more per week may reduce mortality from CHD.3 The same meta-analysis team found similar connection between fish consumption and mortality from stroke, especially ischemic stroke, noting fish consumption as seldom as one to three times per month may protect against the incidence of ischemic stroke.4 Epidemiological research has also linked fish and omega-3 intake to reduced risks of sudden cardiac death, heart attack and damage from heart attack.5,6,7

Clinical trials have confirmed the epidemiological findings. One of the largest clinical studies in this area (GISSI-Prevenzione trial) was held in Italy and involved 11,324 patients with CHDthey were receiving conventional cardiac pharmacotherapywho were randomized to take either 300 mg/d vitamin E, 850 mg/d EPA and DHA (as acid ethyl esters), both vitamin E and EPA/DHA ,or neither.8 The solo EPA/DHA supplementation lead to a 15-percent reduction in death, non-fatal heart attack and non-fatal stroke, as well as a 20-percent decrease in all-cause mortality and a 45-percent drop in sudden cardiac death.

Holub noted following this and other trials, EPA/DHA supplements become a customary treatment in Italy following heart attack. In fact, in a New York Times article, Dr. Massimo Santini, chief of cardiology at San Filippo Neri Hospital, Rome, said this practice is clearly represented in international guidelines, and not giving heart attack patients purified fish oil or EPA/DHA supplements is considered malpractice in Italy.

Cholesterol is often seen as the main villain in CHD, but triglycerides may be the more important, if not overlooked, culprit. Research has shown 4 g/d fish oil can reduce triglyceride levels by between 25 percent and 30 percent, with a slight 5-percent to 10-percent increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels.9 Holub said it is natural for LDL to increase slightly whenever triglycerides are lowered. AHA noted research shows a significant benefit from 3 to 5 g/d omega-3 fish oil on hypertriglyceridemia, with both EPA and DHA demonstrating such effects. This is reflected in the AHAs specific and higher recommendations for intake in patients with high triglycerides, although AHA noted such intakes are only realistic via supplementation, which should only be under the direction and supervision of a physician.

 In addition to triglycerides, omega-3s have exhibited some beneficial effects on blood pressure, platelet aggregation, platelet-vessel wall interaction and inflammation. In fact, EPA and DHA are a part of the human bodys inflammatory pathway, inhibiting the generally pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid metabolic cascade, and stimulating anti-inflammatory mediators (prostaglandins). This anti-inflammatory mechanism can be beneficial in pain management in conditions such as arthritis, asthma, inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs), eczema and even surgery.

Anti-inflammatory actions, including inhibiting gene expression of pro-inflammatory cytokine (TNFa, IL-1a, IL-1b, etc.) may be part of the benefits of omega-3s to eye health, helping to address conditions marked by irritation and resultant inflammation. Inhibiting TNFa also decreases apoptosisincreased apoptosis in certain eye syndromes decreases tear production, which is not good for proper eye function and can lead to various forms of dry eye. These cytokines can decrease tear secretion in other ways, such as inhibiting neurotransmitter release; EPA, and to a lesser extent DHA, can help counter these cytokines.

Eye to the Future

As in the brain, DHA highly concentrates in the phospholipid-rich brain and retina. Holub noted DHA levels in the brain increase about 30-fold from about 24 weeks gestation to about 2 years of age. After years of research and development, Martek Biosciences introduced its lifesDHA to the infant formula market, where it became a hit. The company, which was recently acquired by DSM Nutrition, has stated premium-priced infant formula fortified with life'sDHA accounted for 99 percent of all infant formula sales in the United States after just four years on the market.

Marteks DHA is from a vegetarian source, algae. While omega-3s from fish and other marine sources has long been the standard, algal-source DHA has increasingly made its mark in the EFA segment. For vegetarians and vegans, algal DHA might be the best way to get adequate omega-3 intake, considering the poor conversion of other omega-3 vegetarian sources to the much-needed EPA and DHA. Given the success of and market for algal DHA, companies are hard at work developing EPA sourced from algae.

EuroPharma has brought a phospholipid form of fish oil to market as Vectomega®, which is based on vectorization. Cheryl Myers, chief of scientific affairs and education for EuroPharma, described it as a gentle, natural enzyme process. What happens is simple: within an hour of the harvest of wild-farmed salmon, the whole oil phospholipids are separated from the fish with enzymes and cold water wash, she said. This is important for a number of reasons: because of vectorization, omega-3 fatty acids are retained on their natural sn-2 position and are carried by phospholipids, making them absolutely identical to the omega-3 fatty acids in the human brain. She added vectorization requires smaller dosing due to higher bioavailability and does not require the use of solvents (hexane, methanol, etc.) common in fish oil processing, nor does it need to reprocess the toxic waste that such fish oil processes make. With vectorization, youre looking at a much more earth-friendly method of creating an omega-3 supplement, she concluded.

One source of omega-3s that has been also creating a buzz is krill, which also provides omega-3s in the phospholipid form. Eric Anderson, vice president of sales and marketing at Aker BioMarine, explained how unlike the triglyceride form of omega-3s, the phospholipid form is not dependent on bile for absorption in the small intestines, but it instead can spontaneously form micelles and be carried in an aqueous environment. He said krill has enjoyed a more recent increase in awareness and attention due primarily to krill companies getting the word out and educating the supplement industry and consumers on the benefits of krill omega-3s. There is a sizeable market segment of people who dont want to take fish oil for various reasons, and krill is a perfect fit for these consumers, he said. Also, the difference in bioavailability between the phospholipid and triglyceride forms is becoming another factor in the growth of krill omega-3s.

In addition to the triglyceride (TG) form, fish oil EPA/DHA is available in ethyl ester (EE) form. In the beginning, fish oil was all TG, Rene said. Technological advances enabled companies to concentrate fish oil, using enzymes, which results in the EE form; then, technology allowed for a reconversion back to an even more bioavailable triglyceride form. He said if you look at the literature, both forms work. With the EE form, you have to take it with food, he added. Otherwise, it appears the differences are mostly in the marketing.

The market for omega-3s may be affected less by chemical form and more by product development trends. Hjaltason cited Frost & Sullivan figures showing around 60 percent of marine based omega-3 products are used as dietary supplements in 2009, while 11 percent went into food and beverage products.  Other applications include animal and pet feed, pharmaceuticals, infant nutrition and clinical nutrition.

He predicted supplement share will go down in favor of functional and pharmaceutical uses, noting there are a number of omega-3 products going through clinical trials and will be launched as drugs in coming years, basically in the cardiovascular area.

According to Hjaltason, the supplement marine omega-3 market can be divided in two parts: well-being products, which are usually non-concentrated fish oil products containing around 30-percent EPA and DHA; and  health condition-specific products, which contain concentrated EPA and DHA.  The market seems to be moving more into the condition-specific products since now more science is available to back up their efficiency, he said.

Hjaltason was bullish on the trajectory of DPA (docosapentaenoic acid), the third most common omega-3 in fish oil. The consumer awareness is very low of this fatty acid as well as scientific support, he said, noting DPA levels are highest in seal and whale oil, but in lower amounts in fish oil.

However, Alex Byelashov, Ph.D., manager of R&D at Omega Protein Corp., reported menhaden possess an outstanding ability to accumulate this compound in their flesh. In fact, based on the USDA Nutrient Database of foods and dietary supplements, menhaden oil has the highest level of DPA when compared to any other fish oils, he said. 

Byelashov alleged published studies demonstrate DPA may be even more important than EPA and DHA in supporting multiple health functions, referencing research presented at the recent SupplySide Science Tour in Salt Lake City. Nevertheless, each of these molecules has unique properties, he said. These compounds can simultaneously affect multiple processes in our bodies and complement each other. Because of this, products that contain meaningful amounts of all three fatty acids have great synergistic potential. From his perspective, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of EPA and DHA in human health. I believe the market is ready for DPA, he assured. In fact, Australian and New Zealand health authorities have already included DPA in their dietary recommendations.

In addition, Rene said sustainability and traceability are important to marketing a fish oil product, but they are no empty marketing terms. Sustainability is important because its all about access to high-quality raw materials, he said. Golden Omega is a vertically integrated Chilean fish oil company, so it has 100-percent control of its supply chain, from fishery to processing, giving it 100-percent traceability. In addition to sustainability and traceability, he listed purification, GMPs and California Prop 65 compliance as key issues in the continued growth of the omega-3 fish oil segment.

For most fishing involved in fish oil, countries like Peru maintain strict limits and control to prevent overfishing and a healthy biomass. For krill, which is sourced from the Antarctic, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) manages the krill population, ensuring sustainability and minimizing negative impact on krill and it natural predators in that region (whales, penguins, etc.). Consumers and retailers are searching for reassurances of sustainability when they stock and purchase marine omega-3 products, so certifications like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) have become increasingly popular among high-end and responsible omega-3 companies.

Ismail confirmed sustainability is a big issue in the fish oil segment, as growing demand may someday outpace the usable supply. This could happen in a few as three to four years from now, although it is difficult to predict. This makes the quest for alternative oil sources that much more important. But for now, Ismail contended while the different sources may compete with each other for overall omega-3 market share, each has its own value proposition, and there is growth across the board, which is good for the entire EPA/DHA market.

He said future growth will be buoyed by continued commit to quality, further establishing consumer trust. The GOED monograph was put out eight years ago, and increased adoption of the monograph has greatly addressed and improved quality issues such as purification and contamination. Ismail noted while Prop 65 has some strict limits for fish oil toxins and contaminants, the monograph accounts for these limits; thus, the most troublesome may be where Prop 65 doesnt have a limit for a particular chemical, meaning the state uses any detection as its trigger point. Despite the increased adoption of the GOED monograph and the positive impact of GMPs, which require testing of every batch, the challenge remains the behavior new entrants into the omega-3 market who do not adhere to quality standards and regulations.

Another factor in future growth of the omega-3 market is in functional or fortified foods. NMI reported 51 percent of consumers want their retail stores to stock foods enriched with omega-3s, and 56 percent of consumes said of the foods and beverages they consume, they wish they could get more omega-3s. Of course to be incorporated into foods, an omega-3 ingredient must be GRAS (generally recognized as safe) in the United States and/or win novel foods approval in Europe, but it also needs to overcome challenges of processing, finished product storage, shelf-life and final delivery at an efficacious or beneficial dose. Rene noted to date, most fortification with EPA and DHA has been in foods and beverages that either are traditionally refrigerated (i.e. yogurt, orange juice, etc.) or those that are typically consumed quickly, thereby negating some of the risk of oxidation of the fatty acids, which can destroy a product. The one thing customers recognize over all else is if it tastes, smells and looks good, he said. It is very hard to mask a bad oil.

Educating consumers on the researched benefits of omega-3s and the advantages of various sources, as well as marketing efforts and certification of sustainability, quality and traceability will be vital to continued market growth in this natural products segment. Compliance with various regulatory requirements, development of better testing methods and quality controls, and further development new processing technologies will be the crucial investment needed for success in this market.

References are on the next page...

References for "EFA Marketers Overcoming Obstacles"

1. Gerster H. Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)? Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1998;68(3):159-73.

2. Hibbeln J et al. Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. Lancet. 2007; 379:578-584.

3. He K et al, Accumulated evidence on fish consumption and coronary heart disease mortality: a meta-analysis of cohort studies. Circulation. 2004 Jun 8;109(22):2705-11.

4. He K et al. Fish consumption and incidence of stroke: a meta-analysis of cohort studies. Stroke. 2004 Jul;35(7):1538-42.

5.  Deckelbaum RJ et al. Conclusions and recommendations from the symposium, Beyond Cholesterol: Prevention and Treatment of Coronary Heart Disease with n-3 Fatty Acids. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Jun;87(6):2010S-2S.

6. Mozaffarian D. Fish and n-3 fatty acids for the prevention of fatal coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death.  Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Jun;87(6):1991S-6S.

7. 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.

8. [No authors listed] Dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E after myocardial infarction: results of the GISSI-Prevenzione trial. Gruppo Italiano per lo Studio della Sopravvivenza nell'Infarto miocardico. Lancet. 1999 Aug 7;354(9177):447-55.

9.  Harris  WS.  N-3 fatty acids and serum lipoproteins: human studies.  Am J Clin Nutr.  1997;65:1645S-54S



About the Author(s)

Steve Myers

Senior Editor

Steve Myers is a graduate of the English program at Arizona State University. He first entered the natural products industry and Virgo Publishing in 1997, right out of college, but escaped the searing Arizona heat by relocating to the East Coast. He left Informa Markets in 2022, after a formidable career focused on financial, regulatory and quality control issues, in addition to writing stories ranging research results to manufacturing. In his final years with the company, he spearheaded the editorial direction of Natural Products Insider.

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