How do we bridge the gap between the compelling research supporting the health benefits of omega-3s and consumers' sensory perceptions about fish oil products? Often, the answer is in the freshness of the raw ingredient and how it's formulated.
Convincing science is evident in omega-3 pharmaceuticals such as Lovaza® and Omacor®, which have seen widespread adoption for treatment of certain cardiovascular conditions.1,2 Beyond cardiovascular health, omega-3s also enhance the health of joints, eyes, brain and skin to name a few—to this end, over 35 different drug candidates with omega-3 and derivatives are currently in development.1 The broad range of health benefits points to omega-3 as a vital player in the body’s natural anti-inflammatory response and is located in every cell of the body.3
Despite the totality of evidence supporting the ingredient, current average omega-3 intake in the United States was recently estimated at 120 mg/d, far less than the 250 to 500 mg recommended by various experts.4 Part of this shortfall may be explained by some unfavorable references to omega-3 products such as “horse pills", “fishy smell", and “fish burps". There is a tremendous opportunity to turn these negative perceptions into a positive experience with user-friendly dietary supplements.
The Consumption Experience
The consumer’s first impression makes or breaks a brand. According to one survey, 59 percent of consumers report that their brand loyalty is determined by the first usage of a product.5 Another survey reports that 59 percent of dietary supplement consumers value taste and smell in their purchase decision.6 As the old advertisement goes, “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression." If the initial experience is poor, the consumer will not comply with the supplement regimen.
Preserving Freshness is Key
To design a consumer-friendly product, formulators must first start with raw material selection. For the freshest product, omega-3 raw materials should be selected with minimal oxidation. This part is critically important because the raw material is extremely sensitive, and oxidation occurs in minutes when omega-3 ingredients are exposed to air. Ingredient manufacturers will typically report oxidation values on their certificate of analysis (CoA) in a form called TOTOX. TOTOX is a measure of primary oxidation (formation of lipid peroxides in response to exposure to oxygen) and secondary oxidation (reaction of these peroxide products to form secondary anisidine products that produce the characteristic odor compounds). The TOTOX value is a valuable indicator of freshness (although a low TOTOX does not necessarily mean the product is free from odor). When sourcing omega-3 ingredients, formulators should look for concentrates with TOTOX values in the low single digits. Compare this with the voluntary monograph from the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), which is focused on safety and specifies TOTOX maximum of 26.7
Having a clean, raw material means nothing if it is mishandled upon receipt to the softgel manufacturer. The manufacturer must prevent “oxidation drift", which is the difference between the TOTOX value of the finished softgel versus the starting raw material. Ideally, oxidation drift in the low single digits is possible with proper handling. Proper handling involves a continuous process in a nitrogen purged or low-pressure closed system. Any time oils are removed from a drum of omega-3, an inert gas such as nitrogen should be introduced into the drum to prevent air from rushing in. Transition metals are capable of catalyzing oxidation, so all processing equipment must be coated with an inert polymer. It is also important to protect raw material and finished softgels from light and heat, first during drying of the finished softgels in low light, and second, by selecting light impermeable finished packaging. Surprisingly, the outer packaging must also be as impermeable to oxygen as possible because the bottle also can help prevent oxidation.
Improving the Sensory Experience
In addition to raw material selection and proper handling to preserve freshness, consideration must be given to creating the best finished product for the target market. Fresh oils will sometimes have a “marine" quality, this can be avoided with a lemon or vanilla flavor. Enteric coating is useful to prevent reflux or burps, but should not be a substitute for sourcing fresh oil, as enteric coating has known to fail in certain people (e.g., in those taking antacids). Triglycerides are sometimes chosen over ethyl esters for slightly better organoleptics.
The size of softgels is often a complaint with omega-3 consumers. By using highly concentrated oils, the benefits are four-fold: 1) The pills are easier to swallow and often can be presented in a “mini" format, 2) The consumer needs to take fewer capsules per day to reach a relevant dosage level, 3) There is less oil to potentially cause an unwanted burp, 4) there is more active omega-3 and less unwanted fat, such as saturated fat. The last point is one that frequently gets overlooked—saturated fat can add up over time for those that are taking several natural fish oil capsules every day.
Selecting the Right Supplier
A high-quality omega-3 ingredient with preserved freshness can differentiate a product in the market place. As demand grows for omega-3 products, preserving freshness should be top of mind when formulators select a supplier. Also important will be those suppliers offering assistance with formulations, softgel manufacturing, science and claims development, and patented production claims. Together these products and services will help formulators deliver successful omega-3 products with the sensory appeal consumers expect.
For more information on formulating with fats, visit INSIDER’s Nutritional Lipids/EFAs Content Library.
Joseph Moritz, Ph.D., is scientific marketing manager at BASF Nutrition & Health.
1. Supply Side Omega-3 Insights website, GOED presentation “DHA/EPA Omega-3 Pharmaceutical Developments". n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <http://omega3.supplysideinsights.com/Galleries/2012/10/Slide-Show-DHA-EPA-Omega-3-Pharmaceutical-Developments.aspx>
2. DiNicolantonio, J et al. "Omega-3s and Cardiovascular Health." The Ochsner Journal 14.3 (2014): 399-412.
3. Higdon, J et al. Oregon State Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. “Essential Fatty Acids." April 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/othernuts/omega3fa/>
4. Papanikolaou, Y et al. "US adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003–2008." Nutrition journal 13.1 (2014): 31.
5. Clickfox. “2014 Customer Loyalty Survey." 09 May 2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <http://www.clickfox.com/clickfox-survey-finds-apple-continues-to-lead-in-customer-loyalty-in-third-consecutive-year/>.
6. Stephens, Greg. “The Natural Marketing Institute Omega-3 Consumer Insights Report." 31 Aug. 2010. Presentation.
7. “GOED Voluntary Monograph (v.4)" 1 May 2012. PDF File. 11 Nov. 2014. <http://www.goedomega3.com/index.php/files/download/155>.