At one time, cold water fish was the predominant source for omega-3 fatty acids, but “fish burp” pushbacks, and calls for more sustainable and vegetarian alternatives have given rise to a marketplace flourishing with choice—which can be simultaneously as wonderful as it is confusing to consumers. For omega-3 brands, playing up a product’s unique ingredient origin can help unlock elusive on-shelf differentiation, regardless of whether the product hails from fish, krill, algae, ahiflower, calamari or flax.
To be clear, consumers have a healthy interest in fish-origin docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).Chris Gearheart, director, member communications and engagement, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED), said the market for those ingredients has grown at least 2% in volume and value for each of the last three years, according to the 2016-17 edition of GOED's EPA and DHA Omega-3 Ingredient Market Report. However, the overall market is being shaped by two forces: mass market activity and interest from new users.
Eric Meppem, co-founder, Pharmako Biotechnologies Pty Ltd., said the mass market has been commoditized. “Pundits state the market is flat or shrinking, but due to lower retail prices and larger pack size, actual omega-3 use is rising,” he said, adding that the factors are causing margin pressure throughout the supply chain.
New, emergent users typically embrace new omega-3 sources or delivery systems. “In most markets, these are more specialized, but mass-market brands are now considering these, wanting to broaden their offerings and combat margin squeeze,” he explained.
Top drivers behind interest in newer omega-3 sources include bioavailability and absorption, as well as ecological concerns like sustainability from sea-origin ingredients.
Organic Technologies, producer of AlaskOmega omega-rich fish oil products, begins with wild-caught Alaska pollock oil from Alaska’s Bering Sea. Steve Dillingham, vice president of sales and marketing, said the expansive U.S. Alaska pollock fishery is responsibly managed, with less than 1% bycatch and certified 100% sustainable and traceable by the Marine Stewardship Council. AlaskOmega oils are also certified sustainable through the Marine Stewardship Council chain-of-custody program, considered the gold standard by the industry.
Kate Pastor, senior vice president, Superba North America, Aker BioMarine Antarctic US LLC, said she believes ongoing investments in science and innovation are contributing to the vibrancy of the krill oil market. Aker BioMarine recently announced that it would be exploring krill oil’s potential benefit in new areas of study, including sports nutrition, skin health and Lupus.
“More novel sources of EPA and DHA omega-3s like greenshell mussel, hoki and calanus have seen double-digit growth in volume and value recently, but they are starting from a much smaller base,” explained GOED’s Gearheart, based on the 2016-17 edition of GOED's EPA and DHA Omega-3 Ingredient Market Report. “Some of these unique ingredients appeal to Chinese consumers, for example, because they are especially interested in products from certain geographic regions—mussel oils come largely from New Zealand, [and] calanus saw most of its growth in the U.S. and Europe, where consumers may be drawn to the chance to revisit omega-3 consumption in a novel way.
Courting the Vegan Omega-3 Consumer
The surging consumer penchant for veganism has been a powerful trend across the CPG spectrum, even prompting The Economist and Forbes to declare 2019 the “Year of the Vegan.” The movement is giving vegan-friendly, alternative-source omega fatty acids like chia, flaxseed and ahiflower well-deserved time in the spotlight.
Interest in flaxseed-origin omega-3 is tied to interest in plant-based nutrition. Julie Faber, director of marketing, Pizzey Ingredients, said flaxseed has an established following in plant-based milks, egg replacers and meat analogues, and long association with health benefits. A research endeavor at the Canadian Centre for Agri-Food Research in Health and Medicine (CCARM) at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, is examining the health benefits of flaxseed as it relates to cognitive and heart health.
Sid Hulse, vice president, product development, PLT Health Solutions Inc., noted an upswing in demand for omega-3 ingredients sourced from algae, citing Research & Markets data that show the North American market for algae omega-3 ingredients is expected to grow by 10% per year between now and 2022.
“This has to do not only with the ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ aspects of this non-animal source, but also sustainability, which is becoming more of a market-driving concern, as well as the concerns surrounding the contamination in our oceans, specifically heavy metals, pesticides and plastics that are becoming more worrisome in marine-based ingredients,” he said.
Most people know fish are a rich source of DHA, but don’t know fish get DHA from the algae they eat in their food chain. DSM’s life’s DHA is a sustainable, microalgae source that begins with the initial algae cell culture and results in a purified product that delivers both DHA and EPA omega-3s in a vegetarian capsule.
PLT’s algal élantria brand omega-3 ingredient is the first algal DHA in the U.S. to be certified non-GMO (genetically modified organism) by the Non-GMO Verification Project. The base material for élantria Algal DHA is Schizochytrium sp, a non-GMO whole cell alga, a genus of the unicellular eukaryotes in the family thraustochytriaceae, which hail from marine coastal habitats. Hulse said the algae are grown in closed systems with strict quality control (QC) over water, temperature, light and nutrients. “The food for these algae is also non-GMO, which is an important distinction when considering non-GMO options,” he said. “Some commercial algal DHA ingredients that call themselves non-GMO are derived from algae that has had GMO feedstocks.”
GOED’s Gearheart said several algal companies are on the verge of commercializing production, and while it will be “some time before large scale algae production displaces fish or krill, the interest in this vegetarian form of omega-3s is high among consumers.”
Ahiflower seed oil is another omega fatty acid source benefitting from the vegan bounce. Nena Dockery, technical services manager for Stratum Nutrition, explained that, according to the company’s spec sheet, the ingredient is a vegan source of omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids, has a high level of omega-3 (with a content ratio of around 3.5:1 omega-3 to omega-6), and contains both the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and stearidonic acid (SDA), as well as omega-6 gamma linolenic acid (GLA).
SDA, Dockery said, converts more efficiently in the body to EPA compared to ALA, pointing to one study that found Ahiflower oil to be four times more effective than flax seed oil at raising blood levels of EPA,1 and another that concluded Ahiflower may also help support the immune system in a similar manner to marine oils. It has also been shown to increase the anti-inflammatory cytokine interleukin (IL)-10.2
The range of established and emerging omega-3 sources has given way to a diverse and flourishing market, affording consumers a breadth of choices likely to satisfy most any dietary or lifestyle need.
Synergistic bioavailability boosters
Omega fatty acids aren’t just beneficial, they’re also prized as companion ingredients to help enhance the bioavailability of other ingredients like astaxanthin and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10).
Aker BioMarine Antarctic US LLC’s Kate Pastor explained that since fatty acids found in krill oil, for instance, are largely bound to phospholipids, its omega-3s are carried directly into the blood. “And since the body recognizes these omega-3s immediately, they can be carried to the tissues and organs that need them most,” she said, noting that krill oil also contains choline and astaxanthin.
Researchers at Tohoku University in Japan recently conducted a study to determine the brain health benefits of a combination of Cognizin citicoline (manufactured by Kyowa Hakko Bio Co. Ltd.) and omega-3 DHA on mice with cognitive impairment in the form of cerebral ischemia.3 Not only were the mice improved in their ability to learn and recall information, the researchers also expressed the belief that the combination “may help prevent further brain cell death following a stroke brain infarction.”
“DHA is a well-known ingredient that fights free radicals and is an important part of healthy brain development,” said Danielle Citrolo, registered pharmacist, scientific and regulatory affairs director, Kyowa Hakko USA. “Pairing Cognizin and DHA bridges good with good, or the combo looks like it could have potential synergy, and further research would be interesting.”
Consumer outreach in “omega town”
The omega-3 market is amid an interesting conundrum: Consumers have abundant options, but many still don’t understand how or why omega fatty acids work. This summer, Reckitt Benckiser (the company behind MegaRed), launched “Omega Town” in Newport, Rhode Island, to raise awareness of the importance of omega-3 intake.
“A recent U.S. study showed that 98% of participants in the study have sub-optimal levels of omega-3 fatty acids4 …because most Americans do not obtain enough through diet alone, and our bodies can only make small amounts of EPA and DHA,” said Alejandra Gratson, the company’s R&D director of vitamin and mineral supplements. “Since omega-3 fatty acids are critical for human health, it’s no surprise that omega-3s are by far one of the most researched nutrients; its intake has been recommended by multiple health authorities around the globe, including but not limited to WHO [World Health Organization],5 EFSA [European Food Safety Authority]6 and the U.S. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.”7
The Omega Town experience gave Newport residents and visitors access to on-site omega-3 testing, nutritional counseling, outdoor workouts and activities and education—all aimed to inspire residents to understand and improve their omega-3 levels.
Joanna Cosgrove is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer who has enjoyed covering the dynamic dietary supplement and healthy food and beverage industries for nearly 20 years.
1. Lefort N et al. “Consumption of Buglossoides arvensis seed oil is safe and increases tissue long-chain n-3 fatty acid content more than flax seed oil – results of a phase I randomised clinical trial.” J Nutr Sci. 2016 Jan 8;5:e2. DOI: 10.1017/jns.2015.34.
2. Lefort N et al. “Dietary Buglossoides Arvensis Oil Increases Circulating n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in a Dose-Dependent Manner and Enhances Lipopolysaccharide-Stimulated Whole Blood Interleukin-10-A Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial.” Nutrients. 2017 Mar 10;9(3). PII: E261. DOI: 10.3390/nu9030261.
3. Nakazaki E et al. “Combined citicoline and docosahexaenoic acid treatment improves cognitive dysfunction following transient brain ischemia.” J Pharmacol Sci. 2019 Apr;139(4):319-324. doi: 10.1016/j.jphs.2019.02.003.
4. Thuppal S et al. “Discrepancy between Knowledge and Perceptions of Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake Compared with the Omega-3 Index.” Nutrients. 2017 Aug 24;9(9). PII: E930. DOI: 10.3390/nu9090930.
5. World Health Organization, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. “Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases” WHO technical report series 916. 2002.
.6 European Food Safety Authority. “Outcome of the Public consultation on the Draft Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition, and Allergies (NDA) on Dietary Reference Values for fats, including saturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, and cholesterol.” EFSA Journal. 2010;8(3).
7. Vannice G, Rasmussen H. “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Dietary Fatty Acids for Healthy Adults.” J Acad Nutr Diet. 2014 Jan;114(1):136-53. DOI: 10.1016/j.jand.2013.11.001.