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Functional Fats as Functional Ingredients

Carbohydrates may be today's dietary villain to many consumers, but it was not so long ago that fat was seen as a foe with no redeeming value. However, media coverage and research into the benefits of healthy fats has led to an upsurge in interest in incorporating such ingredients into foods and beverages, as well as a change of mentality among consumers.

Fat itself is not necessarily a bad thing; however, too much of the wrong type of fat is. Unfortunately, the typical American diet tends to contain high amounts of trans-fat and saturated fat (the bad fats) and not enough of the beneficial fats. This imbalance of fats leads to an imbalance of prostaglandins--hormone-like compounds found in virtually every cell of the body that regulate inflammation, some reproductive functions and muscle contraction. This imbalance can eventually lead to various diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. Incorporating nutritional fats, such as essential fatty acids (EFAs), can help promote proper prostaglandin functioning and cellular health and processes, and get the ratio of bad to good fat back on track.

EFAs are polyunsaturated oils and are chemically distinguished by the position of their first double bond, separating them into two categories--omega-3s and omega-6s. Omega-3 fatty acids have their first double bond three carbons from the molecules acid tail, while omega-6 fatty acids have their first double bond six spots up the tail. The omega-3s include alpha linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), while omega-6s include linoleic acid (LA) and gamma linoleic acid (GLA).

The primary dietary source of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs) such as EPA and DHA, are deep, cold-water fish; vegetable sources such as flaxseed, hemp and perilla oils provide short-chain omega-3s. Vegetable oils such as flax, black currant and borage contain considerable amounts of omega-6 LA, and GLA can be found in black currant, borage and evening primrose oil. Omega-3 EFAs are particularly known for their ability to aid cardiovascular wellness and brain function, though the list of health benefits is increasing.

Manufacturers are looking at addressing a whole host of health issues with omega-3 EFAs, said Duane Chase, general manager of Spectrum Organics Spectrum Ingredient Division. Omega-3 EFAs are probably even more ubiquitous than vitamin C or one of the B vitamins in regard to their potential health benefits. We dont have to go after just athletes, the elderly or the overweight because EFAs are needed by everyone for a whole list of metabolic functions.

Another area of health benefits and interest mentioned by industry experts pertains to cosmetic and skin conditions. In the future, I predict EFAs will generate more consumer interest because of cosmetic benefits--such as skin moistening, hair quality and reduction of susceptibility to skin allergies, said Daniel Best, marketing director for Pizzeys Milling. How do I know this? Because the animal care industry already uses omega-3s for these purposes.

The list of health conditions being addressed with EFA products includes heart health (cholesterol, blood pressure), arthritis and other forms of inflammatory disease, diabetes and diabetic neuropathy, mental health and cognitive development, obesity, skin conditions (acne, eczema, psoriasis), PMS, menopause, digestive problems (irritable bowel, Crohns disease, constipation) and some cancers, according to Shelagh Jamieson, director of marketing services for Bioriginal Food & Science Corp., the North American distributor of Crodas fish oil concentrates. In fact, there are more than 5,000 scientific papers focused on the health benefits of EPA and DHA alone, according to Ian Lucas, vice president of marketing and new product development for Ocean Nutrition Canada. EPA is known for its anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular health benefits and DHA is known for its support of the brain, neurologic function and eye health," he said. "DHA also has an important cardiovascular health role in reduction of arrythmias and reducing primary myocardial infarctions. Both EPA and DHA are important in combination since the health benefits compliment each other. 

Formulating with EFAs

Preventing off-odors and oxidation remain the two major challenges when formulating with nutritional oils, according to Helen Zhong, Sanmarks sales and marketing manager. EFAs highly unsaturated structure renders them highly susceptible to oxidation, often detected by a rancid fishy smell (in marine-sourced EFA oils) or oil paint scent in oxidized flaxseed oil. Heat, light and oxygen are detrimental to most EFAs and can quickly cause oils to become unstable and break down, not only damaging the flavor of the product, but also eliminating the benefits of the oil. The problem is much more severe for marine oils than that for plant oils, Zhong said. Natural plant oils contain many endogenous antioxidants if processed correctly, which enhance the oils stability significantly. Removing oxidative compounds, adding antioxidants to the oils and incorporating EFAs into foods and beverages with a shorter shelf life (such as refrigerated, perishable products like salad dressing) are all ways of reducing the level of oxidation.

Microencapsulation is also an option, although it tends to be more costly and results in a less highly concentrated end product, according to Diane Hnat, senior marketing manager, food industry unit, North America, for DSM Nutritional Products Inc. Powders or microencapsulated versions are typically one-third the potency of the corresponding fish oil and twice the cost of the oil from which it was derived.

Lipid Nutrition utilizes microencapsulation technology with its Marinol<\#170> Powder and Marinol DHA Powder. This provides protection against oxidation and premature deterioration, while also mitigating the fishy taste and smell, said Marianne OShea, Ph.D., nutrition and technical services manager, North America for Lipid Nutrition. Foods or beverages containing rancid oils may not only taste and smell bad, but may also be detrimental to the body by increasing free radical formation. Unfortunately, there is a fair body of evidence that suggests the consumption of pro-oxidative rancid oils (including EFAs) may actually be unhealthy, Best said. So EFAs are essential to good health, but only if they remain unoxidized.

Using fish-derived EFA oils also brings with it another cause for concern--the possibility of toxins such as PCBs and heavy metals, including lead and mercury. The media continues to cover consumer and government concerns over fish contaminated by environmental toxins that, in turn, sounds an alarm to stay away from fish. Statistically speaking, with the [low] consumption of fish in North America, few consumers have reason for serious concern; however, the perception of danger has rapidly caused a decline in seafood consumption, said Bruce A. Miller, executive vice president of Marine Nutraceutical Corp. This has presented manufacturers of quality omega-3 fish oils with an excellent opportunity, as I believe consumers understand while it is not practical to test each fish through the local fish market, it is practical to test large production runs of fish oil. Having fish oil tested by a third party can ensure manufacturers' toxins are at minimal amounts, and offering such verification to manufacturers benefits all parties. On request, our customers are provided with copies of these tests, with many of them making the test results available to their customers to demonstrate product purity, Miller said.

Manufacturers should ensure their oils meet high quality standards. Manufacturers are doing this in various ways. For instance, Ocean Nutrition recently had 11 of its fish oils verified under the U.S. Pharmacopeia's ingredient verification program. Hnat agreed fish oils should adhere to USP standards, and added algal oils should also comply with the voluntary USP monograph. Another way to solve the problem of eliminating harmful toxins is using sources that do not come into contact with environmental toxins. Marteks DHA is made from microalgae, which is how fish incorporate DHA into their tissues, said Angela Tsetsis, executive director of marketing for Martek Biosciences Corp. [Because our] algae-derived DHA does not come in contact with the environment during the process, manufacturers can eliminate the risk of toxins. Using plant-derived sources such as flax also eliminates heavy metals including PCBs and mercury often found in fish. To remove these toxins, fish oils need to be heavily refined. On the other hand, plant oils in general have lower contamination, Zhong said. Organic plant oils such as evening primrose oil and flaxseed oil, in particular, have a strong appeal to many consumers as a pure source of EFAs for the same reason.

Until recently, there have been some problems with supply of high-quality fish oils keeping up with growing market demand. However, the problem may be at an end, according to Baldur Hjaltason, sales director for the United States and Asia for Pronova Biocare. Most producers of marine fish oils are increasing their production capacity and therefore there should be sufficient quantity of quality fish oils available in the market the second part of this year, Hjaltason said.

Another thing to consider when formulating with EFAs is the delivery method and what foods or beverages each type works well with. The three main delivery methods are oils, powders and microencapsulated powders. Fish oil concentrates are used in higher end condition-specific products with therapeutic applications," Jamieson said. "Powders are primarily used in functional foods and beverages, where compatibility with other ingredients and dispersability are key criteria."

To ensure uniform dispersion in a beverage, Best suggested using a pre-emulsified oil, rather than a powder. An emulsion should also contain the appropriate antioxidants to protect the oil and a balancing oil to adjust the density of the emulsion to that of the surrounding liquid (to prevent separation), he said. You may also want to reduce the dissolved oxygen content of the beverage to ensure longer shelf life and make sure that emulsion system survives any heating or homogenization step intact.

Adding antioxidants and other nutrients to an EFA fish oil blend may not only help prevent oxidation, but may also augment its beneficial effects, according to Hnat. Nutrients such as vitamins E, B3, B6 and B12 for heart health help augment the benefits of LCPUFAs, she said. Jamieson agreed, adding, Nutrients such as vitamins B, C and E, and antioxidants have been found to work synergistically with EFAs, enhancing their beneficial effects, such as counteracting inflammation, nerve damage and chronic disease. Research [also] indicates that absorption of certain nutrients, such as calcium and oil-soluble nutrients (e.g., lycopene, carotenoids, vitamin D and A) may be enhanced when combined with EFAs.

A Bright Future for EFAs

There is no doubt that consumer awareness of the health benefits of EFAs--particularly omega-3s--has increased over the past few years. Media coverage, government recommendations and health claims, and solid science all have played their part and will continue to do so as more and more research is done. Recommendations from the American Heart Association, an approved health claim from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and even a statement from the U.S. president will help promote the health benefits of omega-3 marine fish oils, Hjaltason said. The medical community has also started to speak out more, which is encouraging for those in the industry. This has got about two more years until it explodes, until there is a huge public demand and an acceptance for omega-3 rich foods, Chase said.

To reach their full potential, new delivery methods and technology to cut down on cost is the essential key, according to Zhong, and it is up to the industry to investigate such issues. Janice Brenner, product development scientist for Bioriginal, however, does not think cost is a major factor when formulating with EFAs. Since the health benefits and science behind EFAs are strong, companies are now sold on the idea of including EFAs in their products, and cost becomes a secondary issue, she said. Either way, new technology is being developed by a number of companies, such as Spectrum Organic and Marine Nutraceutical Corp., which are currently working on new delivery systems and omega-3 materials that will improve EFA stability and potency.

Along with new technology, education will also play a key role in maximizing the potential for EFAs as functional food and beverage ingredients. Awareness of the health benefits of EFAs--particularly the omega-3s--has been increasing year by year, without a doubt, according to Hjaltason, who attributes it to solid science reported by the mainstream media. FDAs approval of permitting nutrient content claims for foods containing DHA, EPA and ALA for reducing the risk of coronary heart disease is also a major accomplishment, and has been applauded by many in the food and supplement industry, as well as by health professionals.

Although the media has already publicized EFAs, both suppliers and manufacturers should help educate the public, as well as their customers--many of which do so already. Martek, for example, is currently doing advertising and public relations to help educate consumers about the differences in omega-3s, stressing the importance of DHA, as it is found in every cell in the body. The health benefits of EFAs, why they are necessary and the science to support this should all be a part of consumer education. And although suppliers and manufacturers may not directly do business with the consumer, they should still actively seek out educational opportunities, as it can add to sales, according to Miller. As a manufacturer, we are several steps removed from the end-user, but [still] put a significant amount of effort into providing our customers (the brand marketers) with condensed versions of current research, which in turn becomes an integral part of their marketing story to the consumer.

CLA: Part of the EFA Extended Family

Another beneficial fat which has also been getting a heavy amount of media attention is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)--a derivative of the omega-6 LA commercially produced through processing of sunflower or safflower. CLA is known mostly for its ability to aid in fat loss while maintaining (or even increasing) lean muscle mass. And it too has been gaining popularity as an ingredient in functional foods and beverages. Manufacturers are interested including (Tonalin) CLA to help consumers reduce body fat, maintain lean body mass, prevent fat regain and improve overall health, said Scott Backman, market development manager, Functional Food and Food Technology, for Cognis Nutrition & Health.

A 13-week study out of The Netherlands has shown appetite (hunger, satiety and fullness) is favorably, dose-dependently affected by CLA.1 Fifty-four moderately-overweight men and women were first prescribed a very low-calorie diet for three weeks, after which they started the 13-week supplementation period where they received 1.8 g/d or 3.6 g/d of CLA or placebo. Subjects receiving high doses of CLA also replaced lunch with a protein-rich, low-energy supplement. The average body weight loss was 6.9 percent; however, CLA supplementation did not have an effect on body weight regain. CLA has also been shown effective and safe for long-term use. In a 12-month double blind, placebo-controlled study, research showed supplemental CLA (as Tonalin CLA) reduced body fat mass (BFM) and increased lean body mass (LBM) by as much as 9 percent in healthy overweight subjects;2 it is the first study to establish the efficacy of CLA supplementation in reducing BFM and increasing LBM over an extended period without changes in exercise or diet. And when given varying amounts of CLA (as Clarinol CLA from Lipid Nutrition) ranging from 1.7 g/d to 6.8 g/d for 12 weeks to overweight or obese adults, body fat mass (BFM) was significantly reduced when compared to subjects given placebo.3 No differences were observed in lean body mass, body mass index (BMI) or blood lipids, however.

The richest natural source of CLA is beef and veal, and although more beef is eaten in the United States than fatty fish, most people dont get enough CLA from diet alone. Like other EFAs, supplementation can take the form of softgels or capsules, or by eating functional foods and beverages. Cognis manufactures Tonalin CLA in an oil form, a water-dispersable powder and emulsion form which is GRAS for use in yogurt, meal replacement bars and drinks, fruit juices, chocolate, milk-based beverages and coffee cream substitutes. Cognis powder and emulsion forms are formulated for water-based systems, its oil for oil-based systems and powder for yogurt and coffee cream substitutes. The oil form of Tonalin works best in chocolate, milk-based beverages and meal replacement bars, and the emulsion form of Tonalin works best in meal replacement drinks and fruit juices, Backman said. Our extensive line of Tonalin CLA products allows us to offer a product form best suited for the particular food or beverage.

According to OShea, another advantage of using CLA in foods and beverages is its ability to replace a component regularly used in a food product with a much healthier alternative with proven health benefits, (e.g., substituting some or all of the fat in a traditional nutritional bar with CLA oil). Clarinol CLA was self-affirmed GRAS (generally recognized as safe) in March 2004 and is available as a triglyceride form in both an oil and a powder. It will not affect the flavor profile of the end product, according to OShea, and has been approved as an ingredient in food categories such as nutritional bars (high protein, meal replacement, granola and power bars), milk-based meal replacement shakes, yogurts, salad dressings (low calorie and reduced calorie) and frozen or shelf-stable plate meals. When asked what the major challenge is in adding CLA to foods, OShea replied educating food manufacturers about its health benefits and the issues it address because the product is very new to them.


  1. Kamphuis MM et al. Effect of conjugated linoleic acid supplementation after weight loss on appetite and food intake in overweight subjects. Eur J Clin Nutr. 57, 10:1268-74, 2003

  2. Gaullier JM et al. Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) supplementation for one-year reduces body fat mass in healthy, overweight humans. AJCN. 79, 6:1118-25, 2004.

  3.  Blankson H et al. Conjugated linoleic acid reduces body fat mass in overweight and obese humans. J Nutr. 130, 12:2943-8, 2000.

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