Interest in natural products to support overall health and aging has never been greater. Global sales of dietary supplements hit nearly $170 billion in 2021. While there are likely a number of reasons behind the strong and steady growth — a pandemic among them — the nutrition and dietary supplement industry’s increasing emphasis on solid science is surely at the top of the list.
For instance, more than 70,000 papers related to dietary supplements or nutraceuticals were published between 2010 and 2020. A growing number of these studies appear in peer-reviewed journals, focusing on specific ingredients and dosages to bolster structure-function claims for products, as allowed under U.S. regulations that are enforced by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Borrowed science only goes so far
However, not all companies do their own research on an ingredient or finished product. Instead, they lean on studies published by peers or on previous, generic research that may not reflect the actual product in the bottle. This is known as “borrowed science.”
“Borrowed science is when an individual or company utilizes past published research that was not on their exact ingredient or specific product, and attributes it as being supportive or representative of their ingredient or finished product,” explained Doug Kalman, Ph.D, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs with the Natural Products Association (NPA).
Borrowed science is not necessarily bad science, according to Kalman. Indeed, many of the claims that now accompany functional foods — a milk fortified with omega-3s for heart health, for example — are based on research that may stretch back decades (in the case of omega-3, one of the first studies on cardiovascular benefits was published in 1989).
However, borrowed science may not be applicable for substantiating specific health claims because the cited study may not reflect the actual formulation, dosage or target population. In contrast, original research may support novel claims and intellectual property.
“Original and direct research allows for greater consumer confidence in the ingredient, product and/or brand versus borrowed research,” Kalman said. “One of the benefits of conducting ingredient and finished product research is that the evidence is directly tied to your product … [and is] a point of differentiation for the product as compared to its competitors.”
Some of the key elements of this approach involve investing in proof-of-concept research and pre-clinical trials, eventually moving on to the gold standard of clinical research — double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trials. Getting the results published in peer-reviewed journals is also an important element. “This type of transparency helps build confidence from both the healthcare professional sector and the general population,” Kalman said.
Aker BioMarine goes beyond borrowed science
One company that has demonstrated its commitment to original research, innovation and transparency is Aker BioMarine, the leading producer of krill-based omega-3 products for human and animal health. Since 2006, the Norwegian company has invested significantly in research and development (R&D) and intellectual property (IP) around the nutritional value and potential health benefits of the shrimplike critters found in the cold, pristine waters of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.
In the beginning, Aker BioMarine dedicated its R&D efforts on basic research with safety studies for regulatory purposes. “The focus of science these first years was on uptake, heart health and blood lipids — typical science areas for omega-3 fatty acids,” noted Line Johnson, Ph.D, senior vice president of human health and nutrition R&D and regulatory affairs for Aker BioMarine. “In the later years, we have focused more on krill oil as a whole, seeing that krill oil really is a powerful multi-nutrient providing not only omega-3s, but also phospholipids, choline and astaxanthin.”
Over the years, the company has invested more than $800M in processing factory, value chain, Antarctic operations, vessels and science and now holds more than 100 patents protecting its krill-derived products, production methods and uses of such products. Aker BioMarine maintains 16 Ph.Ds on staff and their krill oil phospholipids have been used in more than 200 published studies— with more than 50 studies related to human health.
“For us, it is important to make certain that we fully understand the health potential of what we market and sell,” Johnson said. “A thorough understanding of krill oil nutrients and its potential effects is also what drives science, innovation and growth for us, opening up additional ways to utilize the nutrients to the benefit of health-conscious consumers.”
Original research opens new categories like healthy aging
Indeed, recent investigations into the unique and natural composition of lipids and other nutrients like choline in krill oil have helped support structure-function claims in categories like skin, sports, joint, liver and healthy aging. For example, two gold-standard clinical studies were just published earlier this year on muscle health and joint health.
The former open innovation study, led by the University of Glasgow, assessed the effect of Superba krill oil phospholipids and Superba Boost on muscle function and size in a group of about 100 healthy adults over age 65. The cohort taking the krill oil supplement for six months experienced a 3.5% increase in thigh muscle thickness, a nearly 10% increase in thigh muscle strength and nearly 11% increase in grip strength, even though they spent less than an hour of exercise per week.
The other clinical trial, in collaboration with an Aker BioMarine customer and conducted by Australia’s national science agency, investigated the effects of krill oil on osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee, the most common form of arthritis among older adults. Published in the prestigious American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 235 healthy volunteers were randomized to receive either krill oil (Superba BOOST) or placebo. Participants with mild to moderate knee OA reported significant improvements in knee pain, stiffness and physical function. In addition, those with the greatest level of inflammation at the start of the study had the biggest pain improvement.
While these two clinical studies focused on the effects of aging, the latest research on krill oil extracts from Aker BioMarine investigated the underlying mechanism for aging itself. Published in the journal Aging in November 2022, the paper described experiments using human cells and nematodes (C. elegans). The use of nematodes as a model system for studies on aging has been widely acknowledged in recent decades.
Researchers in Norway found that krill oil promotes healthy aging in a number of ways, such as protecting dopaminergic neurons from aging-related degeneration that occurs in Parkinson's disease, among other benefits. “The results were quite astonishing and showed that krill oil counteracted many of the processes that drive aging,” Johnson explained. “For the future, we will continue to invest and do trials with krill oil and other krill-derived products, and one area with ongoing focus is healthy aging. The topic of healthy aging is wide and forever relevant.”
The emerging body of science around krill oil’s multi-nutrient profile and its natural phospholipid content, which delivers these important nutrients to cells that need them, is an intriguing area of study. Aker believes there is more potential for continuing to explore krill oil’s ability to support overall cellular health and how that impacts the aging process.
Johnson concluded, “As the world’s largest krill oil harvester and supplier, we believe it is our responsibility and obligation to fully explore and investigate krill oil nutrients and its effect on human health.”
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