In recent years, the omega-3 category has seen its share of big successes as well as market challenges. Although omega-3 supplements are still one of the most popular supplements in consumers’ medicine cabinets, the category has seen some sales struggles in recent years. Now, through education and research initiatives from the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED; Salt Lake City, UT), the stage is set to continue omega-3s’ comeback. Nutritional Outlook recently spoke with Ellen Schutt, GOED’s new executive director, about how, under her leadership, the organization plans to continue identifying market opportunities to take the omega-3 category forward.
Nutritional Outlook: What are some of the omega-3 industry’s topline struggles today?
Ellen Schutt: While the omega-3 industry is a category based on decades of science, there are still obstacles to growth, especially now that the U.S. market is somewhat mature. One of the issues is that consumers don’t realize they are not getting enough omega-3s. In the U.S., 95% of the population do not consume enough EPA and DHA to be cardioprotective, but consumers need to get this message. Additionally, we are still struggling to combat negative media headlines. Often even a neutral clinical trial is accompanied by the headline “omega-3s don’t work.”
What are some of the struggles GOED has been dealing with as an association? How has GOED worked to overcome these challenges?
GOED tracks media sentiment on a quarterly basis and the positive news consistently outweighs the negative, but it’s still the negative headlines that catch everyone’s attention.
On the regulatory side, one of our biggest challenges is the lack of a Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) [for omega-3] in the U.S. and Canada. GOED has been working on this since our inception 10+ years and it will remain a focus until we succeed.
GOED is extremely lucky to have a group of members who support our mission and understand that “a rising tide lifts all boats” for the industry. We were founded to promote and protect the omega-3 category and we think it’s important to point out that we are the one group out there every day talking about the importance of EPA and DHA omega-3s, and that’s why members join our organization.
What have been the biggest recent “wins” for the omega-3 industry and for GOED in particular?
When we look at big “wins” for the industry, I would say the above tidbit about positive media coverage is a key one. It’s all about making sure the consumer understands the benefits of omega-3s. To that end, we’ve also had good success leveraging a network of RD (registered dietitian) ambassadors to educate consumers about the benefits of omega-3s.
We also assisted in supporting a Codex fish oil standard and are working now on a Codex Nutrient Reference Value, which involves interacting with country delegations around the world and scientific bodies such as the WHO. In 2017, we also published two meta analyses, one on the link between omega-3s and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease and the other on omega-3s and reduced risk of cardiac death. We are working on another meta analysis on the effect of omega-3s on cardiovascular disease biomarkers to be published later this year.
Do you feel that consumers still have faith and interest in omega-3 products, and why do you feel this way?
I think omega-3s still have a very loyal consumer base, but because there’s no “instant gratification,” they need a reason to believe. Our consumer research has shown that, many times, consumers have the intention to take omega-3 supplements but forget or get out of the habit because they don’t “feel anything,” or they think they eat fish so that’s enough. We’re hoping that our education programs will help reinvigorate the category and bring in new and lapsed consumers. There’s also a need for the next level of education, beyond “take one fish oil pill” to help consumers understand EPA and DHA content, alternative sources, and dosages connected to a particular condition like lowering triglycerides or supporting cognitive health. In this era of personalized medicine, taking the education conversation a step farther is going to be important.
What are some of the market opportunities you see for omega-3s moving forward, including new types of customers, products, stronger scientific backing, new health claims, etc.?
In terms of market opportunities, there are many new sources of omega-3s that have recently come on the market or are about to be commercialized. There are more algae choices available than ever before and non-fish sources like herring roe, calamari and calanus are also opening up consumers’ eyes to new ways to consume omega-3s. In the pipeline are genetically-modified plants that express EPA and DHA and plenty of combination products, both of which should continue to grow the market.
What are you goals for GOED, under your leadership, in 2018 and beyond? Moving forward, what are the association’s biggest current priorities?
In 2018, we’ll kick off an education program for nurse practitioners, physicians’ assistants, and pharmacists. Our board has determined that education should be one of our key focus areas going forward and we’re investigating other education initiatives we could also implement.
In addition, we are building a searchable clinical study database that will allow us to access, at our fingertips, all omega-3 human research by outcome, type of intervention, patient population, study design, etc. We see many opportunities for this database once it’s finished to assist omega-3 researchers and academia and to further educate reporters and health care practitioners. We’re completing the first phase now and we should have some basic functionality by the end of this year.
Since keeping on top of the science is a key priority, it’s worth mentioning one particular study we're watching, which is VITAL or the VITamin D and OmegA-3 TriaL. This is a multi-year study out of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and we expect results to be published later this year. VITAL looks at the effects of Vitamin D and omega-3s on a large population of healthy people and it’s unique because of its size and because it’s looking at primary rather than secondary prevention. On one hand, we’re excited because the study addresses an important gap in the existing research, and because the number of subjects in the study are going to allow us to do future meta analyses with a much larger number of subjects so the results will be more reliable. Our concern, though, is that the current study does not have enough subjects, or use a high enough dose of omega-3s, to get the result the researchers were expecting when they designed this trial. While we do believe that the study will show a benefit, we’re concerned that the media will turn a positive but non-statistically significant result into “omega-3s don’t work,” without proper consideration of the study’s limitations.
In general, GOED will continue to concentrate on the objectives that have been part of our heritage since the beginning—promoting consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3s worldwide and protecting the category, both from outside negative influences like negative media, but also in terms of making sure our members are manufacturing quality products that consumers can trust. I feel very lucky to be entrusted with taking the organization into the future and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish together.