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Navigating Essential Fatty Acids


Bad press had its effect on fish oil product sales; now the industry is looking at more science, education, GOED and plant-based products to move the market along swimmingly.

With unfavorable reports on mislabeling and studies questioning their benefits, sales of fish oil supplements have declined this year, but suppliers say the state of the market for these products is still bright.

“True, it was disappointing to see the impact one negative article about omega-3 can have on the entire industry,” said Wael Massrieh, PhD, vice president, scientific affairs with Canadabased Neptune Technologies & Bioressources, Inc., referring to a 2013 report published in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute. “Especially when there is surmounting scientific evidence that has been collected over multiple decades regarding the health benefits of marine omega-3 fatty acids.” 

In reading the details of the study, Massrieh said it is evident that the authors make claims intending to sensationalize negative findings, which don’t actually hold water. “For example, they base their results on just a 0.2 percent difference in omega-3 levels between groups,” he noted. “In fact, plasma phospholipid fatty acids, as measured in this study, are not a good index of long-term intake and are influenced dramatically by a single meal or even timing of a fish oil dose. Also, if the findings were true, then prostate cancer would be rampant in any country with high seafood consumption (Scandinavia, Japan, etc.) and conversely, low level consumption should be protective. Clearly this is not the case.” 

Since the article appeared, sales for all omega-3 products decreased about 10-15 percent per month, adding up to about $100 million per year and approximately 12 million consumers. Krill oil sales were affected, but not as harshly as other omega-3 sources.

Dr. Rudi E. Moerck, CEO of Valensa International in Florida, which markets Neptune’s NKO product, said the company Primarily sells chia, perilla and krill oils, and 85 percent of these are used in condition specific formulations. “From IRI data we know that fish oil sales have declined about 30 percent and to a lesser extent krill oil sales have suffered,” Moerck agreed. “However, our condition-specific formulations formulated with mostly krill oil, but also perilla and chia oil, have actually shown a 35 percent growth during the past 12 months. When people buy our condition specific products for things like eye health joint health and cardio health, they are looking for functionality and performance and the negative press on fish oil does not seem to impact condition specific products at all,” he explained.

“It is no secret that the EFA (essential fatty acid) category saw some softening this year,” added April Lewton, category director—lipids, with Nutegrity (formerly Cyvex Nutrition), “but we believe that this is not the long-term direction and are looking to stronger sales in 2015,” she said.

Other industry leaders have a positive forecast as well.

“There are opportunities mainly on the premium side of the omega-3 market,” said David Hart, vice president of marketing with Qualitas Health. The company is headquartered in Israel and has its U.S. algae operations in Texas. “The popularity of algal DHA, krill oil, fish oil concentrates and indication-specific formulations are driving market growth. There is strong opportunity around next-generation omega-3s, especially vegetarian and sustainable sources.”

The EFA category is most definitely evolving, agreed Becky Wright, marketing director with Aker BioMarine Antarctic US in Washington. “There are many different omega-3 options on the market to date and various consumer preferences to cater to. As new sources and delivery forms emerge, this market will continue to grow and develop. Omega-3 companies are going beyond the traditional pill form and are introducing powders, emulsions and more. Today there is no such thing as onesize- fits-all approach.” 

Massrieh added that both consumers and the industry are becoming more aware of the health advantages krill oil has over other omega-3 sources. “Neptune was also able to strengthen its position in the krill oil market by signing royalty baring licensing agreement with the three major krill oil manufacturers,” he said. “The newly rebuilt plant, enhanced operations, and three new product formulas featuring NKO will continue increasing the momentum for the company.”

Lots of Studies = Lots of Good and Bad Results 

When determining the safety and efficacy of any ingredient, you must look at the preponderance of evidence conducted over a period of years—not one or two studies, said Bob Green, chairman of New Jersey-based Novel Ingredient Services, the distributor of GC Rieber omega-3 concentrates. “With any ingredients that have been researched as much as EFAs, there are going to be studies that have both positive and negative results. So you have to look at the big picture. A couple of research studies, which, in this case, include a dubious one, simply can’t negate years of positive research.” 

Green said he looks to the DHA/EPA Omega-3 Institute (www.dhaomega3.org) as an excellent source of objective, science-based DHA/EPA omega-3 information, which reported that the last five years have seen “a flurry of exciting new developments in the area of omega-3 fatty acids for optimal human health, disease prevention and complementary care.”

Another blow was a January 2014 report in The New York Times, which found that many supplements do not actually contain the level of omega-3s that are stated on their labels. “As an industry, we have to face facts,” Green added. “And that is that there have been many, many nutritional supplements that have not contained the ingredients in the potencies listed on their labels. This issue has been true for products in every category, not just EFAs. But the good news is that the new cGMPs (current good manufacturing practices) address this problem head on, and reputable manufacturers will certainly comply. So we’ll just be left with a few unscrupulous manufacturers and marketers who always try to cut corners.” 

Omega-3 Fatigue?

Though there’s a lot of teaching and learning to be done regarding EFAs, Green pointed out that research indicates that consumer awareness of the benefits of omega-3s is at an all time high: 98 percent in the United States (Marine Ingredients Conference, September 2013). “I’ve even read that bakery customers are more interested in foods with added benefits like omega-3 fatty acids than they are in low-fat products Convenience Store Decisions, August 6, 2014). And the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has recently approved omega-3 drugs.” 

But both consumers and the media are concerned about sustainability and adequate supply, he added, noting that GC Rieber also ensures reliable, sustainable supply by sourcing fish oils exclusively from oceans managed by international and government agencies that enforce meticulous quality assurance and sustainability programs: IFFO Global Standard for Responsible Supply (IFFO RS), Friend of the Sea (FOS) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s code of conduct. “So, is there consumer fatigue? I don’t think so,” Green said. “Media fatigue? It does look as though the media is tired of reporting the good news about EFAs. I haven’t seen any recent articles about the proven EFA benefits regarding brain, eye, joint, heart and skin health in mainstream media. Negative news sells, and today, there is a 24-hour news cycle to fill. So, the industry absolutely needs to get out in front of any confusion and misstatements about EFAs with the facts to ensure the viability of this category going forward.”

Massrieh said, from a global perspective, the industry is in the early phases of consumer awareness about how beneficial it is taking omega-3, “particularly from NKO. For example, NKO contains a powerful antioxidant, astaxanthin, giving it a longer shelf life, as well as other health benefits. Most other omega-3 sources don’t have a naturally occurring antioxidant and, therefore, have a tendency to oxidize and reduce their benefits.” 

GOED (Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s) with the collaboration of several organizations, including Neptune, formed a coalition to address the present and future effects of negative press coverage. The coalition is in advanced stages of developing a campaign initiative, and has started raising funds to support four objectives: public relations; advertising; research and measurement and retail activation.

GOED Executive Director, Adam Ismail, who stressed that the campaign is not a GOED campaign, but a coalition of companies from the industry, said they recently finished a test market in Charlotte, NC and are aiming for a national launch in January and February. “We are still trying to raise money for the effort though and need more partners from the industry,” he said. “So far we have raised nearly $4.5 million and need to hit a minimum target of $5 million. We do not have the full data back from the test market yet, but the initial indications are very positive. In the first full week of the campaign, we know from retail scan data that the market growth saw a 6.5 percent improvement in Charlotte and that is better than the 21 other cities from which we have data … and 18 of those cities saw declining rates during that week. Also, a number of retailers and branded supplement companies were tracking Charlotte during the test market and had very good results over the course of the whole month, some even reported growth rates over 20 percent. We are definitely excited to roll the campaign out nationally based on how the test market went.” 

“I would encourage retailers to emphasize education,” Massrieh added. “They need to make sure their staff members have the sufficient knowledge. Also, they can implement their own public relations campaign and advertising strategy to promote the wealth of health benefits for humans taking omega-3, particularly from krill oil. They can also get involved in marketing strategies such as the one GOED is leading.”

GOED and Plant-based EFAs 

Valensa’s Moerck pointed out that there are only two actual EFAs as seen by the FDA and the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), and these are ALA and LA omega-3 and omega-6 from plants. “If you do not get these you will die, even if you are taking EPA and DHA,” he said.

Moerck takes issue with GOED because he said he feels the organization has “propagandized” the EFA with incorrect information about the need to take fish oil and the like. He noted it is beneficial to take EPA and DHA as a supplement, “but we prefer krill oil and our new caviar for the heart oil we call Deep Ocean Caviar (caviar oil made from fish eggs is high in EPA and DHA phospholipids), because phospholipid forms of DHA and EPA are far better absorbed than fish oil and far more effective. Also they are far less likely to go rancid. We recommend that you take 300 mg to 600 mg per day depending on body size and no more.

“We believe that Americans need to have more ALA in their diet but no more than 4 grams a day,” he added. Valensa’s Kerilla product is a formulation of perilla or chia oil (EFA, ALA) and krill oil (EPA and DHA phospholipids) that contains algae-derived astaxanthin.

Moerck added that ALA converts to EPA and DHA in the body on demand, but argued that GOED ignores this fact. “There is a somewhat lowering of the conversion efficiency with age and that is why Valensa recommends combining ALA oils with krill or Caviar oils.” 

In response, GOED’s Ismail said that there are a number of misperceptions about the organization that are shared by many people “who do not look at what the organization actually does. First of all, we focus on the need for the nutrients EPA and DHA, not fish oils alone,” he noted. “We always say that seafood is the best dietary source for EPA and DHA because that is true, but there is a very large EPA and DHA oil industry that exists because many consumers in the market either have specialized needs or will not eat fish and they should have access to high quality products that allow them to get EPA and DHA into their diet. These could include pharmaceuticals, vegetarian sources, or even forms that have not yet been invented today.”

Ismail added that GOED never made the claim that EPA and DHA can be substitutes for ALA and LA in the diet. “ALA and LA are the only fatty acids that are considered essential in the diet by nutritionists because it is impossible for them to be made by your body. EPA and DHA can be converted by the human organism from ALA, but the rates of conversion are low and depend on many factors including your genetics, gender, background diet, base omega-3 status, etc.”

Ismail pointed to ISSFAL, the leading academic society of fatty acid scientists, who analyzed all of the evidence and concluded that the average rates of conversion today, from ALA to DHA, are around 0.5 percent (www.issfal.org/statements/pufa-recommendations/ statement-5). “As one example of what this means practically, a pregnant mother needing 200 mg of DHA in the diet daily would have to consume 40,000 mg of ALA to achieve sufficient intakes, which is quite high,” he said. “This is part of the reason GOED exists, EPA and DHA intakes are too low in the world, especially in Western nations, and we are trying to address this. While most countries do not have similar deficiencies for ALA and LA, it is important to recognize that they are still essential in the diet and have roles beyond conversion into other fatty acids. GOED has never claimed otherwise.”


The EFA category is impacted by some of the same macrotrends that are seen throughout the natural products industry. Consumers are concerned about taste, convenience, sustainability, non- GMO (genetically modified organism) and the source of their food, among other things, said Nutegrity’s Lewton. “Consumers are faced with the daunting decision of choosing which product is right for them, and that decision process involves wanting a product that is not only great tasting and easy way to consume, but also something they can feel good about purchasing.” 

Wright agreed, stating that as omega-3 consumers become more selective and sophisticated, the need for different sources, concentrates and delivery vehicles is crucial. “Savvy consumers are seeking out products that are non-GMO verified, traceable and sustainable. Krill is a pure and sustainable source of omega-3s that has gained considerable traction among consumers over the past few years.” 

Many new offerings are emerging, including products aimed at children, products for vegetarians and EPA-only products, added Qualitas Health’s Hart. “Research suggests that high-EPA products may offer a variety of significant health benefits.”

To help meet this demand, Hart said the company founder and CTO, Dr. Isaac Berzin, has led Qualitas Health’s efforts toward development of a commercial manufacturing process for a natural strain of microalgae that produces a vegetarian, EPA-rich omega-3 LCPUFA, recently launched as Almega PL. Almega PL has a polar-lipid structure, with phospholipids and glycolipids, giving it similar characteristics to premium krill oil products.

At Neptune Technologies & Bioressources, the company added three Products to their flagship krill oil (NKO):

• NKO Beat—with Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) among other ingredients to support heart health and healthy circulation. Combined with NKO, Neptune’s study showed CoQ10 had 25 times better absorption rate when compared to a generic CoQ10.

• NKO Flex—Neptune added vitamin D to NKO along with other ingredients to support bone and joint health. Combining high potency vitamin D with NKO results in up to two times increased digestion of vitamin D.

• NKO Focus—To support brain and vision health, Neptune formulated a blend that includes thiamine and lutein among other ingredients. When combined with NKO, Neptune’s studies show lutein’s absorption is improved by as much as eight times.

A Look at Research 

There has been a great deal of research conducted in the past decade and thousands of studies published on omega-3s. And as the category continues to evolve, science continues to reveal more information about the different sources available. “In the last four years, Aker BioMarine has published 15 studies contributing to prove that krill is a healthy and sustainable source of omega-3s,” said Wright. “Most recently the company helped underwrite a whitepaper explaining the advantages of krill oil in regard to raising a person’s Omega-3 Index. Committed to research, Aker has several additional clinical studies underway.” 

Massrieh pointed to a study published in May 2014 in Nature called, “Mfsd2a is a transporter for the essential omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid,” which he said supported Neptune’s assertion concerning the advantage of omega-3 fatty acids being attached to phospholipids. “This study showed that a unique receptor allows for the specific transport of phospholipid bound DHA to the brain, demonstrating another advantage of krill oil over traditional omega-3 in supporting cognitive health,” he said.

In addition to brain health, omega-3s have shown to be beneficial to the heart, joints, eyes and the treatment of depression and mood, noted Hart. “Perhaps most widely researched has been omega-3’s effect on cardiovascular health. It’s well established that omega-3s with high levels of unopposed EPA have significant benefits for heart health. A key finding is that omega-3s high in EPA help support healthy triglyceride levels, without raising low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol. A 2011 meta-analysis by Sublette, et al., provides strong evidence that unopposed EPA supports positive mood and maintenance of mental well being,” he said.

Also, a study published in 2013 in Lipids in Health and Disease (Kagan, et. Al) found that gram for gram, Almega PL offers better EPA uptake into blood plasma than krill oil. The cross-over study compared the appearance of fatty acids in blood plasma of healthy humans after consuming a 1.5 g dose of total omega-3’s from either Almega PL algal oil, which contains EPA conjugated with phospholipid and glycolipid polar lipids, or krill oil, which contains EPA and DHA conjugated with phospholipids.

“Study researchers found that, even taking into account the different EPA contents of the two oils, the algal oil resulted in a statistically significant and greater concentration of EPA in plasma than krill oil,” Hart added.

Researchers postulated that the difference relates to the different chemical constituents of the two oils, namely the presence of glycolipids. “Another possibility is that n-3 PUFAs within glycolipids, as found in algal oil but not krill oil, are an effective system for delivering EPA to humans.” 

Lewton said research across the lifespan continues to be of interest to Nutegrity’s partners. “They are looking for science that helps them speak to their consumers in language that is impactful, but also clinically supported. For us, the omega-3 DPA, which has a growing body of research supporting its benefits, has been of great interest to our partners.”

Non-GMO Project

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