Consumers now associate food with health and wellness and new studies and reports covered by the media have contributed to an increase in the purchase of functional food and natural supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids, vital nutrients to human health, are one of the most widely researched and documented functional ingredients. Major USA universities and public health institutions including the University of Maryland, the Harvard School of Public Health and the American Heart Association have highlighted Omega-3 fatty acids as playing a crucial role in brain function, normal growth and development, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and arthritis. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that Omega-3 is associated with a reduced risk of type-2 diabetes.

The number of people consuming Omega-3 for health reasons has increased dramatically over the past few years according to a report published this fall by market research firm Packaged Facts. The report states that the global Omega-3 market for packaged retail products in foods, beverages and food supplements was worth €5.57 billion (euros) in 2010, with a growth forecast of between 15-20% through to 2015. Food, beverages and supplements, excluding fish, grew by 17% over 2009, with the sector continuing to show strong expansion, although annual growth rates are slowing from the huge gains of 2004 and 2005.  In 2003, global sales of such products sat at €685m which jumped to €1.4bn in 2004 and then €2.4bn in 2005. The United States dominates with sales of $4bn (€2.78bn) in foods and drinks compared to $1.3bn (€900m) for dietary supplements, with much of the F&B figure accounted for by omega-3 fortified infant foods and formulas. The US food and beverage sector is expected to grow 14.4% annually between 2006-2014 compared to 18% growth in the supplements sector.

There are two major types of Omega-3 fatty acids in our diets: One type is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in some vegetable oils, such as soybean, rapeseed (canola), chia and flaxseed, and in walnuts. ALA is also found in some green vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, and salad greens. The other type, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is found in fatty fish. The body partially converts ALA to EPA and DHA.

Many people have a very low intake of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in far less foods than omega-6 fatty acids. Since omega-6 fatty acids compete with omega-3 fatty acids for use in the body, it is important to take these fatty acids in the proper ratio. “Vegetable oils that contain Omega 3 are selling much better than the others,” says Diego Garcia of Jules Brochenin S A, a France-based manufacturer of high quality organic extra virgin oils such as olive, sesame, sunflower, safflower and rapeseed oils. “But we warn the industry to focus not only in omega 3. It has to be in the right ratio, as too much omega 3 harms us also.” Mr. Garcia points out that the ratio of omega 6 fatty acids to omega 3 fatty acids in vegetable oils in Europe is very bad at around 10/15 to 1. The World Health Organization recommends a 5:1 to 10:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.  Recent studies suggest a ratio between 1:1 and 4:1 is optimal. Jules Brochenin always advises to avoid the marketing and/or ‘fashion on food. Mr. Garcia says this is a serious matter. “Omega 3 is part of it so the goal is a balance omega 6 and omega 3 and not ‘eat more and more omega 3.” At Jules Brochenin, the ratio of its organic certified oils is 4 to 5 parts of omega 6; to 1 part of omega 3.

Omega-3 fatty acids – ALA, DHA, EPA

The Packaged Facts report found that despite well-documented bioavailability issues for typically plant-sourced ALA (alpha linolenic acid), sales were not being impeded. “Even though research has shown the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is inefficient, the number of foods formulated with flaxseed and other plant-based sources continues to increase because of the relative ease of handling; ease of incorporation into cereals, pasta and breads; and stability in these environments.”

Whole foods rich in Omega 3 such as chia, hemp and flax seeds are experiencing great interest. Hemp Oil Canada of St Agathe, Manitoba has seen increased sales of about 25% per year. The company offers organic certified, GMO-free and conventionally grown, but free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides, hemp ingredients. But a major selling point is the omega-3 content in its hemp food ingredients.

“Demand for chia seeds have rocketed prices in the past two years, adding the fact that the last two harvests were not so great for many producers”, says Andree Hoeping of German firm Naturkost Uebelhoer, pioneer organic trader of this little Omega-3 rich seed and one of the few distributors in Europe under the brand Sachia.

For DHA and EPA, formulation improvements had been significant, as had regulatory approval, especially in the EU, a report said. “European Union rulings regarding health claims for products containing Omega-3s are expected to be favorable, and will affect the regulatory environment for such products in other major markets, including the US. Fish oil-based ingredients contain significant amounts of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and are suitable for formulating products that can carry a qualified health claim,” the report said.

The researcher concluded that the application of fish-sourced Omega-3s into different foods will increase both “as manufacturers and suppliers find better methods to mask or eliminate any lingering ‘fishiness’ and as consumers become more aware of the palatability such efforts have on the end products they purchase in stores”. Nordic Naturals, industry leader in omega-3 fish oil supplementation has developed and patented natural fruit flavored capsules in a variety of shapes and sizes and small chewable strawberry capsules. Formulation innovation has driven expansion for Nordic Naturals, especially in the children’s market. Nordic Naturals fish oil is molecularly distilled with the latest technology and low heat yielding positively zero trans fats. This process guarantees the removal of potential heavy metals (lead, mercury, etc.), PCB, and dioxins.  The use of nitrogen prevents oxidation and rancidity (free radicals).

Food versus supplements

Packaged Facts said there were advantages in gaining Omega-3s in the food supply rather than via supplementation: “The oils used to provide omega-3 fortification in foods and beverages must be of high quality – fresher and with less oxidative waste – because oxidation affects the smell and taste of the food.

“Allocating partial recommended amounts of omega-3 fatty acids into a variety of foods also benefits formulators of these products, because issues of taste or other challenges are more easily met with a lesser percentage of the Omega-3 ingredient included.”

The ‘time-release’ benefit of consuming Omega-3 fatty acids throughout the day in various foods and beverages may be more natural for the body. During Biofach 2012 Jules Brochenin will introduce a new system to preserve rich Omega 3 oils, while avoiding losses, keeping users clean and using minimum of fat: a new patented spray that does not introduce air on the oil to pump it out, while atomising/spraying it perfectly.

“For companies operating within the omega-3 food and beverage categories, even so, the market is far from reaching its saturation point. New types of foods and beverages with claims of ‘high omega-3’ or ‘high DHA’ continue to emerge, and there remains much room for innovation in both existing and new categories to meet rising consumer interest in omega-fortified foods.”

Packaged Facts says Omega-3 has widely accepted status as a ‘superfood’ and that a significant amount of nutrient-based new product development is driven by the concept of ‘superfoods’. Although the concept of foods with pharmaceutical-grade benefits flies in the face of a strong medical and regulatory community distinction between food and drugs, ‘superfoods’ has emerged as a powerful marketing concept, in part because it builds on age-old conventional wisdom and nutritional adages such as ‘an apple a day helps keep the doctor away’.

A number of marine and non-marine food sources inherently contain these omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish and fish oil, argan oil, chia oil, canola oil, soybean oil, flaxseed, sacha inchi and walnuts. Therefore, packaged food products such as fish, breads (particularly those with seeds and nuts), and nut or hemp milks may naturally contain high levels of omega-3. In addition, high omega-3 ingredients are commonly added to a range of packaged products to enhance their omega content.

Opportunity in this global $13 billion industry is far from reaching its saturation point. Consumer demand for omega-3 products will continue to grow over the 2011-2015 period, and will influence the activities of manufacturers and marketers worldwide in supplying omega-3 products across various categories and segments of consumer packaged goods, including private label products.