Omega-3 innovation is high, from plant-based options to better delivery, boosted bioavailability, and higher concentrations made easier.
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Serious research on omega-3 fatty acids has been ongoing for the last 40 years—but omega-3s really started gaining mainstream attention and interest from consumers around the turn of this century, which is when the market started to take off big time.
In two short decades, the long-chain omega-3s eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which found fame in simple fish oil–based formulations, have achieved nearly universal awareness all over the globe. This is in part due to the high-profile publication of some major clinical trials but also because of the technological advancements underpinning the actual adoption of these fatty acids—a fact often underappreciated.
It is these technological advancements that paved the way for omega-3 concentrates, powders, gummies, emulsions, and much more. And if it weren’t for these innovations, consumers today wouldn’t be able to enjoy these important nutrients in such a variety of different ways.
Chris Gearheart, director of member communications and engagement for the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED; Salt Lake City, UT), offers his perspective on some of the trending applications.
“Global supplement consumers are driving demand for concentrated omega-3 products, drawn by the convenience of getting more EPA and DHA in a single dose. Demand in the infant formula market is also growing as consumers in some geographic markets switch to higher-end DHA-fortified formulas. Omega-3 ingredients in pet foods are also seeing growth in volume and value,” he notes.
“Lastly, omega-3 pharmaceutical products have huge growth potential, both in terms of the number of omega-3–based drugs in the pharmaceutical pipeline as well as the potential market growth after currently available pharmaceuticals are approved for use in high-population markets like China,” Gearheart adds.
Omega-3s See Heightened Health Interest
Interest in omega-3s appears to be growing in these extraordinary times when global health is of chief concern. During a June 23, 2020, Natural Products Insider SupplySide webcast1, presenter Tracy Landau, founder of marketing agency MarketPlace (St. Louis), said immunity and prevention are currently the top purchase drivers for U.S. supplement users. In 2019, immunity ranked fifth on the list of consumer demands, but updated research following the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, saw immunity move to third place, after disease prevention/overall wellness and gut/digestive health, she said.
As a result of the heightened focus on prevention and staying well, Renee Yoder, senior director of specialty nutrition, DSM North America (Belvidere, NJ), says ingredients such as vitamin D, prebiotics, probiotics, and omega-3s have climbed the ranks usually dominated by nutritionals like vitamin C.
“While omega-3s have traditionally been best known for providing benefits for brain, heart, and eye health, a report from FMCG Gurus2 exploring how the current global health situation has impacted consumer behavior identified that, surprisingly, 79% of consumers associate omega-3s with supporting immune function,” Yoder says.
According to GOED’s Gearheart, in the initial days of the COVID-19 outbreak, omega-3s experienced a surge in demand from consumers seeking out ways to bolster their health.
But will interest in omega-3s increase long-term? “During the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers increased their use of supplements, including omega-3s, for overall wellness. Sales did spike during March and April but have reportedly returned to pre-pandemic levels,” Gearheart says. “Future consumer spending on supplements is hard to predict; however, consumer research firm Toluna reported at one point during the pandemic that 29% of supplement users in 10 countries in the Americas, Europe, and Asia intended to consume fish oils or other omega-3s in the following two weeks.”
Some of the Latest Omega-3 Innovations
Industry innovation will play a large part in sustaining consumer interest. The omega-3 market continues to evolve to meet consumer demand, including expanding plant-based options. Other innovations stem from the need to improve the sensory characteristics of omega-3 oils so that their inclusion in applications like food and beverages is a bit more seamless. Bioavailability also continues to be a focus for some companies, while others continue to explore certain ingredients that pair well with omega-3s, such as lutein, cannabidiol (CBD), and lycopene.
Demographically speaking, experts like Greg Cumberford, vice president of science and regulatory for Canada-based Nature’s Crops International, which sources plant-based omega-3s from ahiflower (Buglossoides arvensis) to create its proprietary Ahiflower ingredient, are noticing that younger consumers, notably the youngest Gen Z consumers who are just now becoming adults, are factoring their eco-social concerns into their purchasing decisions.
“We call it the ‘ReGenZerative’ opportunity for natural products,” he says. “More generally, plant-based omegas are definitely seeing growth versus the underlying omega market. It is difficult to say whether this is ‘new demand’ or ‘preference demand,’ however.”
DSM’s Yoder echoes these thoughts. “With plant-based diets here to stay, omega-3 alternatives derived from plant-based sources are helping the category appeal to a new consumer demographic—one that cares not just about their own health but also that of the planet,” she says. “While these essential fatty acids have traditionally been associated with fish oils, omega-3 consumers are increasingly seeking out plant-based omega-3 alternatives; in fact, 62% of omega-3 users say they would prefer plant-based options.”
With plant-based omega-3s in high demand, ADM’s (Chicago) Greg Dodson, vice president, health and wellness, says his company has responded by introducing a new line of EPA/DHA blends containing omega-3, -6, and -9.
“Onavita Algal DHA and Almega EPA blends, developed in collaboration with Qualitas Health [Houston, TX], support cognitive, heart, eye, and immune system health,” Dodson explains. “Supported by a reliable, vertically integrated supply chain, these solutions are derived from algae we grow and are suitable for use in products where a clean and clear label is the objective.”
Another plant-based omega-3 contender is Ahiflower, which is a truly regenerative omega source in terms of putting more back into the soil, into pollinator health, and rural farmland biodiversity than it takes out.
“While this is not a conventional innovation, in that Ahiflower crops have been grown according to regenerative practices for years, it is an innovation in the broader spectrum of omega-3 sourcing options,” Cumberford says. “We have also partnered with Stratum Nutrition to deploy the VitaSperse technology for making fully dispersible liquid emulsion systems that complement Ahiflower’s existing 50%-payload microencapsulated powders made by The Wright Group.” Stratum Nutrition (Carthage, MO) is a distributor of 3i Solutions’ (Wooster, OH) VitaSperse technology. Nutrient premix specialist The Wright Group is based in Lafayette, LA.
DSM’s life’sOMEGA ingredient also delivers the same omega-3 health benefits as fish oil via a plant-based source, which also means that those following plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan diets don’t have to compromise when it comes to getting their intake.
Expanding the Formulator’s Toolbox
Innovation is also happening to help formulators. Focusing on organoleptic qualities, AlaskOmega (Coshocton, OH), a Wiley Companies brand, is continuously improving the sensory experience of its concentrates through technological advancements in its refining process and by developing innovative delivery systems that allow formulators to include the benefits of omega-3s in a variety of convenience products.
“AlaskOmega recently launched a new, high-potency omega-3 powder that delivers more than 200 mg/g EPA and DHA,” says Greg Lindsey, vice president of marketing for Wiley Companies. “This innovation will allow for omega-3s to expand beyond capsules and stick packs and be included in growing consumer convenience categories such as nutrition bars and sports drinks.”
Algal omega-3s like DSM’s life’sOMEGA can also help mitigate many of the key challenges formulators face when developing omega-3 solutions and offer an appealing alternative to those derived from fish oil. For instance, algae has a more neutral taste, reducing the risk of fishy smell or aftertaste that can be off-putting for some.
Bioavailability and Concentration Get a Boost
On the bioavailability front, a new study3 published in the European Journal of Nutrition demonstrated that AquaCelle, a patented self-microemulsifying delivery system, increases total absorption of omega-3 (EPA + DHA) ethyl esters in humans by sixfold. AquaCelle is supplied by Gencor Pacific (Irvine, CA) in partnership with Pharmako Biotechnologies (Australia).
Explaining the significance of this study, George Kokkinis, cofounder and technical director at Pharmako Biotechnologies, said in a press release: “It is commonly known that omega-3 absorption is best achieved with a high-fat meal. However, because many individuals require low-fat diet restrictions, oral bioavailability is incomplete and requires higher doses. This study highlights the superiority of AquaCelle as a delivery system for significantly improved absorption of lipophilic ingredients.”
Another innovation from Pharmako Biotechnologies is compressible powdered oils. These specialized powders are rigid, making them easily tabletable, unlike spray-dried powders. They also do not contain gelatin, making them a real alternative for the vegan/vegetarian market. Finally, they contain a high active payload of oil/omega-3 and feature impressive real-time stability, according to the company.
At Epax (Alesund, Norway), the current focus is on implementing new black box distillation technology. “This was developed to enable us to further up-concentrate EPA/DHA content with distillation only,” says Sarah Christianslund, product marketing manager. “We developed this technology to protect the oil from excessive heat and processing, enabling us to continue to deliver extremely clean products as the market for very high concentrates continues to grow.”
Another key trend is the increasing potential of compositions that combine omega-3 with other nutrients, such as carotenoids.
“Last year, we were granted a U.S. patent for our omega-3 compositions,” says Karin Hermoni, PhD, head of science and nutrition at Lycored (Secaucus, NJ). “They combine omega-3 with our standardized tomato extract, Lycomato, which contains carotenoids, tocopherols, and phytosterols. Recent research has demonstrated the potential of this synergistic combination for cognitive health. There are therefore exciting new opportunities for carotenoids to enhance omega-3 products, which we’re currently exploring.”
Epax’s Christianslund also notes the rising importance of combination products. “We are seeing several combination products being explored. As an example, Epax provided study medication for CARES (Cognitive impAiRmEnt Study)4 by Rebecca Power et al., which was published in the Journal of Personalized Medicine in May this year, highlighting the importance of EPA/DHA, carotenoids, and vitamin E in improving cognitive performance in individuals with MCI (mild cognitive impairment).”
What Lies Ahead
As consumers continue to prioritize their health, omega-3s will keep finding favor with those who consider them essential to their health and wellbeing. Any lift to dietary supplements in general during the COVID-19 pandemic will surely spill over into ongoing demand for omega-3 products of all kinds.