Fattening Up With Omega-3s: Formulating with Fatty Acids

Alissa Marrapodi

September 9, 2009

10 Min Read
Fattening Up With Omega-3s: Formulating with Fatty Acids

Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) are just thatessential. These fatty acids cannot be constructed within our bodies, and therefore must be obtained from the diet, making outside sources such as fish, flax seeds, and fortified foods and beverages the only way for us to get the benefits of these fats. But these polyunsaturated fats, including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can be difficult to work with. Oils containing omega-3 fatty acids are fragile and susceptible to damage from oxygen and light, said David S. Chance, M.S., sales and marketing manager, Sanmark LLC. Both oxygen and light can initiate a damaging free-radical cascade, which can produce changes in color, flavor, odor and also raise the level of degradation products in the oil such as trans fats and free fatty acids.

And, as the omega-3s market grows, consumer awareness heightens and new applications surface, the demand for omega-3s as a dietary supplement and fortified in foods is only growing. Mary Ann Siciliano, national sales manager of Arista Industries, agreed, I believe many consumers are aware of the heart-healthy benefits of omega-3's and that is why they would look to purchase supplements or functional foods containing these ingredients.

Baldur Hjaltason, sales director, EPAX AS, noted, A recent survey in Canada among the Baby Boomers showed 64 percent looked for food options that were rich in omega-3s compared to five years ago. And, 86 percent of them acknowledged fishlike salmon, rainbow trout and mackerelcontain omega-3 fat.

That knowledge is driving interest in ensuring adequate intake. Awareness about the necessity to integrate omega-3s into the daily diet increases daily, said Dean Mosca, president, Proprietary Nutritionals Inc. This, along with a blowing up offer of omega-3 products (food supplements), will definitely create room for application growth.

Application innovation and growth are almost inevitable as demand and awareness sprout up. There will always be a market for encapsulated omega-3 supplements, but omega-3-enhanced foods and beverages are emerging from a natural food niche and entering a more mainstream market, Siciliano said. Incorporating omega-3 fatty acids in baby formulas and functional foods, which include dairy and bakery products, cereals, sauces and salad dressings, will definitely continue to grow.

Chance agreed, adding: In the last few years, there have been many new food products that have incorporated omega-3 oils. Many of these products were not successful, but manufacturers are continuing to experiment to find the right formulation process to incorporate omega-3 oils. This market continues to grow and is projected to grow for the foreseeable future.


Manufacturers are ready to address the growth by creating foods and beverages fortified with omega-3s. Food manufacturers increasingly seek to improve the nutrient value of their products through the inclusion of omega-3 EFAs from plant (ALA) or marine (EPA, DHA) sources, Mosca said. It stays a challenge: omega-3s are fatty acidsin other words, they are highly unstable fats. Marine-source omega-3s are complex to use in the food industry due to their flavor and stability issues. Land-source omega-3s, like canola or flax oil do present issues on their own, like an unfavorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio or flavor.

Indeed, when formulating with oils, instability adds to the challenging factors such as flavor, temperature, rancidity and oxidation. Often, stability and taste can be addressed simultaneously. The taste and odor can be masked with a flavor and preservatives or other ingredients and refrigeration help with stability, but a product packed in a closed system or without constant exposure to air will have better stability. Siciliano said. She also noted Arista has powder-form fish oil, which makes inclusion in dry products and food much easier.  

At the ingredient level, producers of marine-based omega-3 fatty acids have been working to overcome the taste barrier, said Patrick Luchsinger, marketing manager - North America, Lipid Nutrition. Advanced microencapsulation technology, as developed by Lipid Nutrition with Marinol Fish Powders, provides protection against oxidation and premature deterioration, while also mitigating the fishy taste and smell. This microencapsulation process allows the Marinol oil-product to transition to a powder, suitable for a variety of dry applications, including energy bars, cereals, bread, pastas and crackers.

The battles over which source of omega-3s is better will continue to wage on; but, more importantly, the source of the fatty acid effects formulation and can potentially created or eliminate taste issues. Today the main sources of omega-3s are from flax seed (ALA), algae (DHA) and fish oils (EPA and DHA), Hjaltason said. There is not a major difference in functionality of those sources since all of them are fat-based and prone to oxidation. Both ALA and DHA from algae are extracted with organic solvents from protein while the fish oil is pressed out of cooked fish mass during fishmeal production. What is unique with fish oil is the number of fatty acids it consists of. Many of them are long-chain fatty acids and, compared to other sources, contain both EPA and DHA.

Luchsinger agreed, stating, Using these types of cold water, oily fish [salmon, mackerel, tuna] should not affect the functionality of delivering high-efficacious doses of EPA and DHA in different applications.

There are vegetable forms of omega-3, like flax seed oil and perilla seed oil; and, although flax seed oil faces the same stability issues as fish oils, the smell and taste are not a problem, Siciliano said. Perilla seed oil is a refined product, so this does not face the same problems as the other omega-3 oils. Mosca noted Proprietary Nutritionals Benexia ALA powder is derived from chia oil, which has a slightly nutty flavor similar to oil, making flavor a non-issue.

Nutrient content and concentration are also important issues during formulation, whether it pertains to functional foods or dietary supplements. Hjaltason noted, The first challenge is to choose the right concentration and ratio of EPA and DHA depending on application. If you are adding other ingredients to the fish oil concentrates, you must take into account that they should preferably be fat soluble and also should not affect the quality of the omega-3 fatty acids. Fish oil concentrates are very prone to oxidation and therefore, any added ingredient should be checked, ensuring it will not cause any oxidation of the oil during storage.

The issue of concentration is important during formulation as well, added Originates director of sales, Leslie Van Der Meulin. He said, When combining an EPA+DHA concentrate with CoQ10 the challenge is: do I use the highest concentrate possible to create a one-a-day formula, or can you effectively produce a two-a-day in a smaller delivery form? On the fish oil side there are some patents that prevent most manufacturers from delivering EPA and DHA in the most optimal concentrations.

The final product should deliver the optimal amount of omega-3s, and that isnt always easy. It is always a challenge to ensure that rancidity is kept at bay, and that the nutrient content remains viable from manufacture through ingestion, Mosca said.

Delivery Systems

Ensuring concentration levels, nutrient content, stability, etc. has a lot to do with delivery systems. From soft gels to buttery spreads, fish oil has many delivery systems shuttling the fatty acid to marketplace shelves and ultimately, into consumers hands. In a perfect world, the food would deliver the required omega-3s amounts the human needs to ensure body functions, Mosca said. In the past, adipose fats of wild animals had all the same ratio of EFAs: omega-6:omega-3, consistently nears equilibrium, 1:1. Agribusiness (grain and cereal production) and food technology (fat and oil extraction) have dramatically changed the pattern of nutrients and lifestyles in the human regimen. Modern food is loaded with omega-6 fats and largely deficient in omega-3 fats, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. So now, the industry needs to use supplementation to add omega-3s in peoples daily diet.

Hjaltason agreed, arguing even though doctors recommend eating fish for its omega-3 content, many fish sources (tuna, salmon, etc.) are polluted with mercury, dioxins and PCBs, and fish such as catfish and tilapia do not contain EPA and DHA, leaving delivery in industrys hands. The options are taking supplements or eating functional foods containing omega-3 EPA and DHA, Hjaltason said. Supplements are an excellent choice since highly concentrated forms of EPA and DHA can be delivered in a soft gel where the oil is protected against oxidation. In order to protect the marine oil from oxidation in functional foods, it is usually made into powder and then mixed to the final product. The disadvantage of this form is the powder usually contains around 30 to 50 percent marine oil; the rest is coating material of limited nutritional benefits. Also today, the technology of making the powder is yet to be developed where highly concentrated oils can be used, limiting the application to rather low concentration of EPA and DHA, which means less EPA and DHA delivered per serving.

Luchsinger said Marinol is successfully incorporated into food applications. Currently, our Marinol fish oil and powders have been optimally utilized in dairy spread applications and dry applications such as cookies, crackers, cereal, nutritional bars and breads, he said.

According to Chance, soft gels are the way to go. Each soft gel contains a controlled amount of oil protected from environmental damage, he said. After the soft gel, micro-encapsulated oil powders provide a form of delivery for omega-3s that masks tastes and odors, protects the oil, and allows a formulator to combine omega-3 oils in liquid beverages and in solid foods.

Van Der Meulin agreed: Currently, soft gel encapsulation is still the number one delivery form in terms of efficacy. A consumer can easily dose the product, and a soft gel is more portable than a liquid. Enteric coating the soft gel will help reduce the repeat or fish burp if present. Powders and emulsions are on the rise but they cant match the potency of the soft gels as of yet.


No matter which delivery system is used, efficacy is pivotal. Testing is the key to efficacy; although, the standards between a food and a supplement may be somewhat different, Chance said. Stability testing is critical to ensure a product is robust and shelf stable. For a food product, taste panels can test to ensure organoleptic properties are acceptable.

Proprietary Nutritionals takes specific steps to guarantee efficacy. We assess the decision process of the manufacturers as much as we can in order to have them adding a reasonable quantity of ALA per portion of food, Mosca said. Also, we ensure that the manufacturing process does not affect the product, through our own lab test, using the same parameters (heating time and temperature) as the manufacturer.

Van Der Meulin added companies should take steps to get educated on quality parameters. Making sure the product you use complies with the GOED monograph takes care of a few things to start with: limiting or removing heavy metal and pesticide residues, as well as ensuring measurable levels of EPA and DHA, he said. It is critical for a manufacturer and marketer to know what the difference is between EE, TG and FFA, and also know that measuring these EFAs in area percentage is different from their mg/g values.

While omega-3s make their way into the everyday diet of consumers, new applications, new formulation challenges and innovative advancements are inevitably the future. There are some very promising and exciting technologies that will help expand the number of application solutions in the coming years drastically, Van Der Meulin said.


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