Quality, science, sustainability and innovation have ushered in a brand-new age for omega-3s and essential fatty acids.
Carilyn Anderson, President, Carlson Nutritional Supplements, Arlington Heights, IL, https://carlsonlabs.com
Sarah Christianslund, Product Marketing Manager, EPAX, Lysaker, Norway, www.epax.com
Greg Cumberford, Vice President Science and Regulatory, Natures Crops International, Winston-Salem, NC, www.ahiflower.com
Sandra Gillot, CEO, Benexia, Santiago, Chile, www.benexia.com
Dr. William Harris, Founder, OmegaQuant, Sioux Falls, SD, https://omegaquant.com
Joy Hendler, Marketing Associate, Aker BioMarine Antarctic US, Issaquah, WA, www.superbakrill.com
Ellen Schutt, Executive Director, GOED, Salt Lake City, UT, https://goedomega3.com
Edward Shneyvas, Senior Vice President, R&D, Innovation and Business Development, Best Formulations, City of Industry, CA, www.bestformulations.com
While conservative predictors scrying the omega-3 market predict single-digit growth in raw material sales, Amazon.com data from ClearCut Analytics indicate that omega-3s showed a 45 percent growth spike between May 2020 and May 2021.
While explosive growth overall, and over the long-term is not assured or expected for any category, there are very clear signs that the pandemic-inspired renewed attention on vitamin D has been part of this, possibly a very big part.
Omega-3 manufacturing is one of a number of areas that have improved dramatically over the last several decades, with advances in technologies, sustainability and technologies emerging with increasing frequency.
Gone are the days of highly oxidized, unsavory-tasting oils. Consumers can rejoice that these ancient foodstuffs have entered into a new world of good-tasting oils, a growing number of which are of plant origin.
They can also enjoy the ever-expanding range of delivery forms, including gummies, and an ever-broadening interest in omega 3-6-9 essential fatty acid (EFA) blends.
Nutrition Industry Executive (NIE) turned to a panel of natural products industry experts for their insights into where the omega-3 market is today, along with insights into some oils that are growing in popularity among formulators.
NIE: What is the current state of the market for omega-3 (and EFA) ingredients?
Schutt: The market continues to be strong for EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) omega-3s. Demand is high, possibly fueled by consumers realizing the importance of prevention due to the pandemic. The positives are tempered by challenges in the supply chain—delays and cost increases in shipping, and unavailability of certain components like soft gels, bottles and caps.
Shneyvas: The EFAs market has largely been dominated by omega-3s for heart health and brain development. For many years the primary sources of EFAs had been fish and flaxseed oils. Over the past few years, many other sources of EFAs have entered the market, including a variety of previously obscure plant oils, and various algal DHA and EPA forms. Specifically, in recent years, there has been an explosion of various vegetarian/vegan forms of algal EPA and DHA meeting consumer desires for non-animal products, as well as purity and sustainability.
Hendler: In the past year, we have seen more and more brands focused on the emotional/mental wellbeing side of health due to the uncertainty and stress generated by the pandemic and the aftermath. This has caused consumers to look more into mood-management products. Consumers concerned about the long-term consequences of COVID-19, such as brain fog, can potentially benefit from DHA centric products.
Consumers are also turning to known ingredients and products that support immune health, as well as overall health and wellbeing. While krill oil is traditionally well-known for its heart health properties, research in recent years suggests that krill oil has far reaching benefits beyond heart health. In fact, krill oil’s phospholipid bound omega-3s and choline are important for brain, joint and liver health, and even have beneficial effects on skin hydration and muscle activation in sports performance.
Christianslund: We are seeing a continued strong interest in omega-3s. It is still one of the key categories within supplements that showed a 45 percent growth in U.S. Amazon sales from 2020 to 2021.
Anderson: There has been an increase in demand, especially for cod liver oil because in addition to EPA and DHA, it also provides vitamins A and D3, which support immune health. There’s also an uptick in demand for plant-based omega-3s, like algae products.
NIE: What omega-3 research is the most exciting?
Anderson: A couple of recent new studies showcased the benefits of omega-3s for healthy aging, which is exciting. One study found regular exercise and omega-3 intake delays cognitive impact on the elderly. Another found higher levels of omega-3s in blood increased life expectancy by almost five years. We know omega-3s are particularly important for cognitive and cardiovascular health—and it’s great to see more studies supporting omega-3s and healthy aging.
Cumberford: In results that were presented this past May at the 2021 ISSFAL conference, Ahiflower oil, flax, and a purified marine DHA were compared for their effects on newly biosynthesized DHA. Ahiflower oil was shown to convert readily to new circulating DHA in mice—about 2/3 as efficiently as the pure DHA source and more efficiently than flax oil.
Gillot: In 2015, a study of 40 young and healthy pregnant women, age 22 to 35 years, received either 12 g of chia oil daily for nine months, from the third trimester of pregnancy until the first six months of nursing, or a placebo (Valenzuela, 2015). This study showed that the total omega-3 content in their blood increased from 6.8 percent to 15.6 percent, whereas the total content of unsaturated fatty acids remained constant. This means that the ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) omega-3 from chia oil replaced omega-6 fatty acids in the membrane, so that the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio improved from 4:1 to almost 1:1 for the mother and for the baby, as the blood is transmitted to the baby during pregnancy and then through the feeding through breast milk.
Christianslund: Fortunately, there is a lot to choose from in EPA/DHA research! COVID-19 has obviously triggered a raft of research on the immune health benefits of different ingredients, including omega-3, and we are seeing some exciting preliminary results from this. Moving beyond EPA and DHA, it is also worth mentioning that EPAX in 2020 was awarded a Norwegian Research Council grant—worth over $900,000—to research the potential of fatty acids, newly discovered by EPAX, for human health over a period of four years. The aim of this is to help conduct further biological research into the benefits of these “new,” very long chain fatty acids in areas such a brain health, eye health, skin health and fertility.
Hendler: Aker BioMarine was in partnership on a liver study led by The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and run within the public-private partnership ProLiver, a collaboration project made possible by Health-Holland.
The goal of the study was to evaluate the health effects of krill oil on obesity-associated chronic inflammation in the liver and fat tissue and to demonstrate the effectiveness of krill oil as a long-term treatment for obesity.
The study showed that:
• Krill oil positively affects fatty acid composition in blood, fat tissue and liver
• Krill oil alters oxylipins in fat tissue and liver leading to an anti-inflammatory environment
• Krill oil suppresses inflammatory pathways in fat tissue and liver; anti-inflammatory effects appear more pronounced in fat tissue
• Krill oil helps the fat tissue to store fat more safely
The outcome suggests that:
• Krill oil is rich in phospholipids and has a high content of omega-3 fatty acids, and these lipids can be stored in cells or converted within cells and act as direct inflammatory modulators.
• Long-term krill oil treatment improves the fatty acid composition in the circulation, fat tissue and liver and shows potential as an alternative treatment strategy to obesity and liver health.
Schutt: There is compelling work being done on omega-3 supplementation in pregnant women and the effect on preventing preterm birth, with an updated Cochrane Review on the topic expected to be published next year.
NIE: While a spoonful of cod liver oil may have stood the test of time—and caused uncomfortable memories for some of us!—what are examples of flavors and delivery forms that are the most palatable or tasty today?
Shneyvas: Many EFA-rich oils tend to be accompanied by unpleasant odors and memories of taking in “fishy” oil still linger. While soft gel encapsulation technologies reduced the negative connotation of taking EFAs for many consumers, some are still wary, with some experiencing aftertaste or unpleasant burps. To mitigate this effect several different techniques have been used. Proper distillation and purification techniques result in concentrated oils having minimal odor, and limiting the oxidation of oil during handling and encapsulation is critical.
Addition of antioxidants and flavoring agents to oils, as well as soft gel shells have also been used to mask the unpleasant odors and tastes.
Lastly, enteric coated softgels have been marketed to ensure soft gels bypass the stomach, disintegrated in the intestines, therefore further minimizing the risk of unpleasant burp.
Schutt: There are a number of delicious ways to take a spoonful of omega-3s without creating uncomfortable memories! There are liquid omega-3 emulsions made with vegan DHA in a variety of flavors such as French toast, popcorn and s’mores. Some liquid fish oil products are flavored with fruit or citrus to make them more palatable.
Cumberford: Ahiflower is notable for its clean, mild taste and aroma without fishy after-effects in both the oil and micro-encapsulated powder formats. This is due to its naturally lower degree of unsaturation vs. EPA/DHA oils.
NIE: There was a brief time when omega-3 manufacturers were moving away from reverse esterification and other processing methods and moving toward more full-spectrum offerings, but it seems that very targeted levels of EPA and DHA have become all-important again. Please comment.
Christianslund: From our point of view, EPA and DHA never lost their traction, but there is definitely a strong motivation to understand the benefits of fish oils and marine ingredients beyond the EPA and DHA content. For EPAX, this is the main driver of our “Oceans of possibilities” initiative investigating novel, bio-active marine products. Ultimately, it will also be the foundation for the first products in the new EPAX NovusLipid range, which is currently in development. The range will include new EPAX-patented ingredients with benefits for conditions such as reproductive and skin health.
Shneyvas: While historically much of research was done on fish oils with roughly 3:2 ratio of EPA to DHA, over the years, research has shifted towards specific benefits of EPA and DHA rather than total omega-3s, and with that, various ratios of EPA and DHA tied to a specific health benefits. Targeted EPA:DHA ratios tied to a specific health outcome allow for brands to differentiate and stand out in a crowded market.
Schutt: The market for EPA and DHA includes minimally processed oils like salmon oil or krill oil, but also higher-dosage concentrate products in ethyl ester or triglyceride form and all are still popular. In many cases it’s a matter of a different marketing story depending on the offering. We have seen a continued interest in higher concentrate products at the expense of typical 18:12 refined oils and expect this to continue.
NIE: The question of omega-3 dosage has come up of late—that higher dosages may be needed for optimal effects. If this is true, is this a factor of recent study results or of new thinking in general?
Christianslund: Dosage is a very interesting topic, with recommendations showing huge variations from country to country and different health indications, as well as between supplementation dosages and pharmaceutical dosages. As an example, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has a range from 100 mg of DHA (normal visual development of infants up to 12 months of age) to 3,000 mg of DHA/EPA (maintenance of normal blood pressure) per day in their approved health claims. It seems it has proven difficult to show effect in the studies using lower dosages (200-500 mg EPA/DHA per day) and this may be why there is a shift towards higher dosages, which have a long history of studies with meaningful effect.
Schutt: We’ve often said that studies which show little to no effect on omega-3 supplementation were likely due to a dose that was too low to show an effect or to the fact that the baseline levels of the participants were already high, so additional intake did not show further benefit. The body of evidence supporting higher doses for cardiovascular health is large—the high-dose pharmaceutical product Lovaza for triglyceride lowering has been around since 2004—and dosage was the subject of at least two recent meta-analyses.
Cumberford: In collaboration with Dr. Richard Bazinet at the University of Toronto (Canada), Natures Crops has published a white paper in November that addresses the question of how much EPA/DHA is enough for optimal wellness in most healthy adults, excluding pre-natal supplementation, infant nutrition and traumatic brain injuries where supplemental DHA intakes are medically supported. Based on several recently published large cohort clinical trials and new RCTs (randomized controlled trials), the study demonstrates that the significance of elevated EPA intakes versus elevated DHA intakes is undervalued.
NIE: Talk about the boom in omega-3s for pets and other animals (such as horses)—how big are these markets? Are the self-regulatory hurdles and costs to get into these markets very high?
Hendler: There is no question that pets today are part of the equation as family members and pet owners are seeking out only the best ingredients and products for their beloved animal companions. One trend we are seeing a lot of is, “What’s good for me is also good for my pet.” This motivation is helping to fuel the functional pet food ingredients market. We foresee a rise in the number and variety of pet food choices highlighting the inclusion of nutraceutical ingredients such as omega-3 fatty acids. Including ingredients that are of high quality or even those of human-grade level will be a competitive advantage in this category.
Schutt: Global sales of pet food containing EPA/DHA oils are estimated to have reached $6.4 billion in 2019, with strong growth predicted in 2020-2021, but this does not include the equine market.
NIE: Seed-oil omega 3s are getting more popular every day—is this due to ethical or sustainability concerns or other factors? What are some of the newest entrants, or existing oils with new science?
Shneyvas: Seed-based omega-3s and EFAs have increased with the growing trends of vegetarian/vegan/plant-based and sustainable products. Flaxseed oil has been around for years but is getting more notoriety as ahigh source of omega-3s. We are also seeing walnut, hemp and chia seed oils becoming more prominent in products as consumers become more educated on the plant sources of omega-3s. All of these oils are good sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Prior to commercialization of algal DHA and EPA, alpha-linolenic acid has been the only source of omega-3 fatty acids for vegetarians. In order to exert its biological effects similar to seafood sources of omega-3s (EPA), such as reduced platelet aggregation, alpha-linolenic acid has to be converted to EPA. Humans only convert alpha-linolenic acid to EPA to a relatively small extent (<10 pervent), therefore the effect of consuming omega-3 rich seed oils is more modest than the effects of seafood sources of omega-3s.
Since alpha-linolenic acid and EPA are not biologically equivalent, product claims mentioning total omega-3 fatty acid content must clarify the individual omega-3s present in the product.
Shneyvas: Seed-based omega-3s and EFAs have increased with the growing trends of vegetarian/vegan/plant-based and sustainable products. Flaxseed oil has been around for years but is getting more notoriety as a high source of omega-3s. We are also seeing walnut, hemp and chia seed oils becoming more prominent in products as consumers become more educated on the plant sources of omega-3s. All of these oils are good sources of ALA.
NIE: Some studies suggest that Americans continue to be low in omega-3s, despite the fact that eggs and many other foods are either fortified or come from animals fed omega-3s. Please comment.
Anderson: The amount of omega-3s found in fortified foods are typically very low, so we would either need to eat a diet rich in fatty fish or take a fish oil supplement.
Schutt: Americans are getting enough ALA omega-3s, but not enough EPA and DHA omega-3s—the most recent data shows that 95 percent of Americans do not get enough EPA and DHA to be cardioprotective. That’s because to get enough EPA and DHA, you need to be eating fatty fish (not just any kind of fish—shrimp and tilapia are poor sources of omega-3s) at least twice per week. On average. Americans eat half as much fish as is recommended, and not always fatty fish. An omega-3 supplement with EPA and DHA omega-3 is a more potent way to ensure you’re getting enough.
NIE: Some reports suggest that 70 percent of omega-3s for supplements come from anchovy fisheries off the coast of Peru—if true, doesn’t this make fish-oil supplies incredibly vulnerable? Are other sources being developed?
Schutt: The vast majority of oils for supplements does indeed come from the Peruvian anchovy fishery but there are plenty of other options that help balance the supply. Algae is becoming increasingly popular, and more readily available, but there is also krill, salmon, tuna and cod liver oils, not to mention newer sources like calanus, squid and herring roe oil.
Cumberford: Yes—it is a real point of vulnerability. Not just in terms of EPA/DHA supply capacity, but also in terms of marine ecosystem health. With climate change dynamics well underway, there is no compelling moral or ethical reason why humans should derive omega-3 supplements from wild-harvested forage fish species that form the base of the food chain for many marine mammals, fish and birds.
A reality of fish and krill oil manufacturing is that they are extraction industries. There is no replenishment and it’s hard to argue exactly what a sustainable catch rate really looks like, or even if there is one. As transparency around supply chains increases, consumers are not going to fall for greenwashing or false equivalency, and just trying to demonstrate that something is sustainable using creative but insincere and unsubstantiated methods will not stand up to the scrutiny and high level of account that reputable brands are holding their suppliers to.
Shneyvas: It is true that a majority of omega-3 oil supplement products on the market use fish oil, the bulk of which comes from fish off the coast of Peru. This is primarily due to favorable ocean conditions, resulting in fish with higher omega-3 levels than in other fisheries.
Lots of work has been done to ensure future sustainability of those fisheries, with companies working with governments and non-governmental agencies to establish fishing quotas and responsible practices.
At the same time, improvement in manufacturing technologies resulted in significant growth of sustainable algal omega sources, which in my opinion will eventually reduce the pressure on fish oil fisheries.
Anderson: Sustainable sourcing is extremely important to us. Since we started importing our first high-quality omega-3 fish oils from Norway in the early 1980s, we have always product our fish oils from wild-caught, sustainably sourced fish.
Today, we hold Friend of the Sea (FOS) Certification. FOS is a global certification standard for products and services that respect and protect the marine environment. They’ve recognized Carlson for our commitment toward sustainability in the production of omega-3 products. Consumers can find the FOS icon on Carlson fish oil labels.
NIE: What are the biggest growth drivers for omega-3s right now—cognition, joint health, something else?
Schutt: Cognition and mental health are hot topics for omega-3s right now. People want to be living not only longer, but better. Given that DHA omega-3s are concentrated in the brain, there is promising research on the nutrient’s role in learning and mental health, to include ADHD and depression.
Christianslund: The main growth drivers vary greatly between different markets, but some key categories include pre/post-natal health, healthy aging, sports nutrition, silent inflammation and eye health.
NIE: Last year, there was word of a couple of drug trials of omega-3s not producing the desired effects—aside from the question of drug companies poaching on supplements’ turf, any comment on these studies?
Shneyvas: It’s been a common theme lately with drug companies poaching on dietary supplements. Overall, “failed and/or inconclusive” drug studies do not necessarily imply there are no benefits of supplementation. There is long track record of well-established benefits of omega-3 supplementation. Schutt: We don’t necessarily agree that drug companies are poaching on the supplement industry’s turf—if the goal is to increase consumption of EPA and DHA globally then there’s room for both.
As to the STRENGTH trial, this was a high-dose cardiovascular trial that was ended early because the researchers were not seeing a benefit. There are certainly questions about this trial that remain unanswered but one trial is an anomaly in the huge body of evidence around cardiovascular benefits.
NIE: Where do you predict the market will go over the next one to five years?
Schutt: Our current forecast shows the global market at the raw material level growing 2-3 percent on a global volume basis. The majority of the growth will come from Asia and developing countries.
Shneyvas: We will definitely see a significant increase in vegetarian/vegan forms of EPA and DHA in the market in the next few years tending to both consumer desires for more sustainable sources as well as to alleviate concerns about purity of fish sources. Products with targeted ratios of EPA and DHA tied to a specific health benefit will also likely become more prominent. Lastly, a continued growth in variety of plant oils will likely occur for years to come.
Hendler: The sustainability imperative is also on the rise. There is no question that the need for health-related products has increased, and this has also accelerated the rise of brands with a strong sense of purpose. Society, planetary welfare and collaboration are all at the heart of recovery and the sustainability imperative is more important than ever.
Krill oil is a great option for overall wellness, checking all of the boxes for various health benefits, and it is also a sustainable ingredient. Consumers recognize that the health of the planet is as important as, and naturally linked to, the health of an individual. NIE