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Essential Fatty Acids: Reaching Farther Than Fish

K2VITAL®
 
Albion Minerals®

Though fish oils remain top sellers, a number of challenges have manufacturers looking elsewhere for omega-3s.

The essential fatty acid (EFA) supplement is perceived as a natural products marketplace mainstay, and its popularity in recent years has branched out to the mainstream as more people begin to recognize the importance of adding these nutrients to their diets.

“While the macro-economic situation in the past year or two has been challenging, omega-3 fatty acids have been stable or grown in sales because, for one, consumers have a high awareness for omega-3 fatty acids and their health benefits, and will purchase omega-3 products in capsule or functional food forms,” said Patrick Luchsinger, North American marketing manager with Lipid Nutrition BV (Channahon, IL).

“Secondly, in the past two years, when the economy was challenging, consumers still made purchases of omega-3 fatty acid products because they wanted to maintain their health so they might offset a medical condition later which may cost more.”

Indeed, according to Elzaphan Hotam, CEO of Morristown, NJ-based Enzymotec USA Inc., the category remains strong because people simply understand and accept its value, partially due to retailers promoting their own store brands of omega-3 supplements, and therefore adding support to the whole category.

It seems like omega-3 is the veritable golden child of the natural products industry, espoused by science and even mainstream doctors, who traditionally tend to catch on to natural products’ benefits unwillingly and often late in the game. Still, while the popularity of omega-3s cannot be disputed, growth becomes a battle between quantity and quality.

According to a recent report coming out of business research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, a major challenge faces the omega-3 category as it relates to popularity. While consumers are still buying, it seems, according to researchers, that they have a limited knowledge of why they are doing so.

The firm’s latest omega-3 report, 2010 US Consumers’ Choice: Omega-3 Nutrient Products, found that 56 percent of American consumers still only have a vague understanding of omega- 3s, especially when it comes to plant sources. Also plaguing the category is the notion that adding omega-3 to a food will alter its taste, odor and tex-Ture, and the majority of Americans are wary of these potential changes, said the report. Though the taste challenge does not stop shoppers from consuming the products, it does affect which products they purchase. Frost & Sullivan found that shoppers were more likely to purchase eggs and dairy, followed by beverages, baked goods, clinical nutrition products, prescription omega-3 products and finally, infant formulas. When it comes to dairy and poultry products, eggs followed by yogurt are the most preferred sources; for baked goods, cereals followed by breads are the most preferred sources; within beverages, natural juices followed by nutritional drinks are most popular. When it came to a reason for purchase, Frost & Sullivan found the idea of overall health was considered to have the highest influence.

“This indicates the need for concerted efforts from manufacturers and other industry participants that are aimed at aggressive consumer education,” said the report. “It also indicates the need for ingredient and food manufacturers to focus on developing omega-3 fortified products with superior taste profiles.”

To Taste

“Natural products—particularly those that contain highly unsaturated constituents derived from animal or botanical sources—are subject to rapid oxidation and rancification if left unprotected,” said Dr. Rudi E. Moerck, president and CEO of Valensa International (Eustis, FL). “The normal solution to these problems—the use of traditional preservatives—is perceived negatively by consumers.” 

Given the fact that consumers are already wary of EFA-fortified foods and beverages because of taste concerns, companies are stepping up to ensure shelf stability and taste preservation.“Natural products—particularly those that contain highly unsaturated constituents derived from animal or botanical sources—are subject to rapid oxidation and rancification if left unprotected,” said Dr. Rudi E. Moerck, president and CEO of Valensa International (Eustis, FL). “The normal solution to these problems—the use of traditional preservatives—is perceived negatively by consumers.” Given the fact that consumers are already wary of EFA-fortified foods and beverages because of taste concerns, companies are stepping up to ensure shelf stability and taste preservation.

Valensa’s O2B Peroxidation Blocker system is 100 percent natural, non-GMO and designed to protect sensitive oils, particularly highly unsaturated oils that include those derived from fish and botanicals, from manufacture to consumption, said Moerck. “The O2B Peroxidation Blocker is a synergistic, proprietary formulation of powerful natural compounds including astaxanthin, natural phenolic antioxidants and natural tocopherols,” he continued. “O2B is an application- specific formulation that combines Highly effective botanical ingredients to prevent destructive oxidative, photochemical and rancification reactions. [The system] is useful for protecting expensive and sensitive compounds such as carotenoids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. It is highly effective in delaying the onset of oxidation and rancification in a variety of extraction processes. In tests, O2B has been shown to extend the shelf life of unsaturated oils as well as processed meat products.”

When it comes to the taste barrier, Ocean Nutrition Canada Ltd.
(Dartmouth, NS, Canada) believes it has found a solution in its Powder-loc microencapsulation technology.

“Powder-loc is a superior technology because the oil is protected within a multi-shell inner matrix and a protective outer shell surrounding it,” said the company in a statement, noting that the technology has double the nutritional density of competing technologies because of the loading capacity of the double shell matrix. “Powder-loc creates double protection for the oil from both oxidation and the stress of food processing.It can withstand high temperatures even during pasteurization.”

Powder-loc enables omega-3s to be introduced to breads, milk, yogurt, tortillas, orange juice, nutrition bars and confectionery products.

“Marketers and entrepreneurs want to add omega-3 or omega-6 oils to any type of food that can be imagined: candies, beverages, salad dressings, dairy products and pet foods,” explained David Chance, MS, RD, manager of marketing with Sanmark, LLC (Greensboro, NC). “Omega-3, -6 or -9 oils are easily oxidized, and so must have some production when exposed to manufacturing processes and long shelf life.” According to Chance, microencapsulation of the oil as a powder solves some of these issues; however, the manufacturing process for oil powders must feature a low surface oil content or there can be odor and flavor issues when it comes to oxidation.

Sourcing Woes

Though taste remains one of the biggest challenges in the EFA category, sourcing is yet another hurdle that manufacturers and suppliers must navigate.

According to Sanmark’s Chance, the primary issue the company faces is the shifting market for raw seed, in order to make its bulk oils, primarily flaxseed oil.“As with all agricultural markets, the oilseed market fluctuates depending on weather during the growing season, and commodity prices in general,” he said.

“The farmers tend to plant what is the most profitable, and if that is not oilseed, then a scarcity of seed may occur which drives up the price. To avoid potential supply issues, it is necessary to source raw material from around the world and to monitor agricultural conditions on a regular basis.”

Ocean Nutrition Canada sources crude fish oil from wild caught fish. “As such, the EPA/DHA profiles naturally occurring in the wild fish may vary, depending on a variety of factors including season, weather conditions, availability of food supply, etc.,” said the company’s vice president of marketing, Linwood Riddick.“This must be carefully managed by our purchasing department.”To avoid some of these pitfalls, suppliers are turning to new sources of EFAs.

Thrill of the Krill

“The most dramatic growth in this category has been with krill oil, which is growing at a rate of 225 percent, compared to 2009 data,” said Moerck, noting that it is making inroads into the market for conventional fish oil in cardiovascular health, joint health, ADHD, glycemic index control and more.

Further expanding its popularity, said Moerck, is the fact that krill oil provides the benefits of EPA and DHA at a lower dosage level than fish oil. “Unlike fish oil, the omega-3 fatty acids in krill oil are absorbed and carried to the body’s cells in phospholipid form, enabling far greater bioavailability. Studies show that human cells will readily absorb 95-98 percent of phospholipids,” he said, which allows krill to offer health benefits at low dosages. Especially for elderly shoppers who might have trouble swallowing a large pill, krill can allow for a smaller soft gel and a lower pill burden, Moerck added. “This is another factor driving the growth of krill oil because it allows smaller pill sizes compared to conventional fish oils,” he said.

Valensa’s new Deep Ocean Krill combines krill oil with astaxanthin, derived from farmed freshwater algae, extracted via a clean carbon dioxide solvent-free process. “It then adds its proprietary, natural botanical O2B Peroxidation Blocker technology to create a product with maximum stability,” Moerck explained. “As a result, the Deep Ocean Krill formulation provides effective omega-3 and astaxanthin health, antioxidant protection and stability in a small dose.”

Enzymotec’s Hotam cited krill oil as a factor in the category’s growth, in that it is an attractive option for manufacturers who want to create a high-end brand and establish market differentiation.“This therefore increases the overall value of the market,” he said.

According to Hotam, Enzymotec’s approach to the krill oil market has been to provide its customers with the freedom to choose which strategy will fit their business models best; Enzymotec’s clients can choose from pure krill oil, highest potency krill oil and customized blends. “Fish phospholipid complexes offer a cost-effective alternative to fish oil by providing more nutritionally balanced supplements and their main effect as a delivery system of EFAs to essential organs,” he said.

Algae for All

“Fish oil, a popular source of essential fatty acids, has issues with sustainability, contaminants and reliable ratios of EPA to DHA,” added Cassie France-Kelly, director of corporate communications at Martek Biosciences Corporation (Columbia, MD). “As more attention is paid to the environment and sustainability, consumers, manufacturers and retailers are demanding to know where ingredients are sourced and if they are sourced responsibly.”

According to France-Kelly, the trend to watch is marine EFAs—DHA and EPA—because research has shown DHA especially to provide real benefits to the body; ALA, on the other hand, must be converted to these long chain fatty acids in the body, and through what France-Kelly contends is an inefficient process in humans. “Another trend is the demand for sustainable sourcing,” she continued. “Fish oil sources of fatty acids are under the microscope as unsustainable in the long term, so manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike are looking for alternative sources.”

That alternative source that many are searching for today is algal oil, and Martek produces vegetarian life’sDHA from algae. “Because it’s not from fish, there is no risk of ocean-borne pollutants,” said France-Kelly, noting that it is also non-GMO, kosher and halal.

“life’sDHA is accepted by the FDA for use in US infant formulas, and is the only DHA currently used in US infant formulas,” she added. Sourcing oil from algae is one way to overcome the challenges of seed shortage and profile variations. “There has been a lot of headlines about unacceptable levels of contaminants found in some fish oil sources,” said France-Kelly. “In addition, as different stocks of fish are used to source fish oil, it has been increasingly difficult to source fish oil with reliable ratios of EPA to DHA. Life’sDHA is from algae, so it is sustainable and free of ocean borne contaminants, and because it is produced in a controlled environment, you can rely on the amount of DHA it provides from lot to lot.”

GPR120 Receptor Key to Anti-Inflammation 

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have identified the molecular mechanism that makes omega-3 fatty acids so effective in reducing chronic inflammation and insulin resistance. The discovery could lead to the development of a simple dietary remedy for many of the more than 23 million Americans suffering from diabetes and other conditions, said the university in a statement.

Writing in the advance online edition of the September 3 issue of the journal Cell, Jerrold Olefsky, MD, and colleagues identified a key receptor on macrophages abundantly found in obese body fat. The scientists said omega-3 fatty acids activate this macrophage receptor, resulting in broad anti-inflammatory effects and improved systemic insulin sensitivity.

Macrophages are specialized white blood cells that engulf and digest cellular debris and pathogens, said researchers. Part of this immune system response involves the macrophages secreting cytokines and other proteins that cause inflammation, a method for destroying cells and objects perceived to be harmful. Obese fat tissue contains lots of these macrophages, producing lots of cytokines. The result can be chronic inflammation and rising insulin resistance in neighboring cells overexposed to cytokines.Insulin resistance is the physical condition in which the natural hormone insulin becomes less effective at regulating blood sugar levels in the body, leading to myriad and often severe health problems, most notably type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Olefsky and colleagues looked at cellular receptors known to respond to fatty acids. They eventually narrowed their focus to a G-protein receptor called GPR120, one of a family of signaling molecules involved in numerous cellular functions. The GPR120 receptor is found only on pro-inflammatory macrophages in mature fat cells. When the receptor is turned off, the macrophage produces inflammatory effects. But exposed to omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA and EPA, the GPR120 receptor is activated and generates a strong antiinflammatory effect.

“It’s just an incredibly potent effect,” said Olefsky, a professor of medicine and associate dean of scientific affairs for the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “The omega-3 fatty acids switch on the receptor, killing the inflammatory response.” The scientists conducted their research using cell cultures and mice, some of the latter genetically modified to lack the GPR120 receptor. All of the mice were fed a high-fat diet with or without omega-3 fatty acid supplementation.

The supplementation treatment inhibited inflammation and enhanced insulin sensitivity in ordinary obese mice, but had no effect in GPR120 knockout mice.

A chemical agonist of omega-3 fatty acids produced similar results.

“This is nature at work,” said Olefsky. “The receptor evolved to respond to a natural product—omega-3 fatty acids—so that the inflammatory process can be controlled. Our work shows how fish oils safely do this, and suggests a possible way to treat the serious problems of inflammation in obesity and in conditions like diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease through simple dietary supplementation.” However, Olefsky said more research is required.

For example, it remains unclear how much fish oil constitutes a safe, effective dose. High consumption of fish oil has been linked to increased risk of bleeding and stroke in some people.

Should fish oils prove impractical as a therapeutic agent, Olefsky said the identification of the GPR120 receptor means researchers can work toward developing an alternative drug that mimics the actions of DHA and EPA and provides the same antiinflammatory effects.

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