Charting the rise of omega-3s as a functional food ingredient

One company takes a look at the historical and future growth of omega-3 fatty acids in food and drinks.

In the past decade, consumers have increased efforts to incorporate healthier ingredients in their diet. Omega-3 oils are essential fatty acids that are building blocks of life and key for regulating the functioning of all body cells. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, in particular, traditionally sourced from fish oil, are widely used in dietary supplements, as they offer a broad range of health benefits, including for cardiovascular, eye, and brain health. DHA is considered one of the most important supplements for infants and toddlers, for instance, to assist with cognitive development.

These oils have become popular additions to many consumer goods. More recently, there has been prominent focus on incorporating omega-3 oils as ingredients in functional food and beverage products rather than traditional dietary supplement pills and capsules.

The Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), which is the leading industry nonprofit trade association for omega-3 oils, has established a daily recommendation for EPA and DHA intake of 500 mg for healthy adults, 700-1000 mg for pregnant/lactating women, and more than 1 g depending on additional health conditions. However, to meet the recommended daily allowance, consumers need to eat oily fish 3-4 times a week. Since many people do not do this, omega-3–fortified products became a popular way for consumers to meet their nutritional needs.

Initially, the major application focus for omega-3 oils was infant and prenatal nutrition; however, as these ingredients became more popular, demand for omega-3–fortified food and beverages grew. According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database in 2020, more than 1800 commercial food products available in the market were fortified with omega-3 oils.

In western countries, even though omega-3 oils are considered popular nutritional ingredients, the process to incorporate omega-3s into different products has not been smooth. Omega-3 oils are typically extracted from fish oil and hence generally have strong off-notes that can be difficult to mask, hindering manufacturers from using them in products such as juices and other beverages. But with the advancement of flavor and off-notes masking technology, the industry is making progress.

Initially, in the early 2000s, a few of the largest FMCG conglomerates such as PepsiCo and the Coca-Cola Company included omega-3–fortified juices within their popular juice brands Tropicana and Minute Maid, respectively. The products were later discontinued due to consumer complaints of bad after taste, most probably from the fish oil. The usage of the omega-3 oils was hence mostly limited to snacks, similar processed foods, and a few regional dairy products.

The success of these omega-3–fortified food products can be mainly attributed to their ability to mask the off-notes without compromising the nutritional content of the product. In 2012, Horizon Organic, a U.S.-based organic milk supplier, was one of the first companies to launch DHA-fortified milk. Soon, many other companies followed suit launching milk and milk-based beverages fortified with DHA.

Another development happened in the oils space, where cooking oil manufacturers began fortifying their oils with omega-3 oils—particularly, DHA—to promote the products as a healthier alternative.

These days, DHA fortification is one of the key targets for food and beverage manufacturers. In eastern countries like China, Japan, and South Korea, DHA-fortified goods have been the norm since the 1990s. There are many products—particularly processed meat, bakery snacks, and yogurt products—which have been traditionally fortified with DHA. Products such as Yakult, a DHA-fortified yogurt beverage, are a staple among the consumers of the region and have witnessed product expansions into various flavors to meet the consumer demand for diversity. The demand for omega-3–fortified products has been relatively steady in the region and is expected to continue.

The Way Forward for Omega-3 Oils in Foods

Multiple concerns about taste, animal sourcing, and sustainability have led to a shift from fish oil–based omega-3 oils to a rise of algae-based cultivation and extraction of omega-3 oils. Algal oils are expected to be a popular choice ongoing within the growth of the plant-based foods market. In 2020, Silk, one of the world’s most prominent plant-based milk manufacturers, launched Silk DHA Omega-3 made with DHA algal oil and containing 32 mg of DHA per serving. The industry is expecting more such launches in the future.

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in a variety of green leafy vegetables, some types of nuts, canola oil, flaxseed oil, and flaxseed supplements, is another emerging contender in the space as it can be converted to omega-3 fatty acids in the body. There are not many commercial functional foods in the market that are based on ALA, but that could change as the plant-based sector is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years.

Omega-3 oils are not a new ingredient, and their popularity has risen and fallen across the years. Nonetheless, the future growth of this ingredient category seems promising in the functional foods domain.

Sreedevi Kakkad (sreedevi.k@chembizr.com) is a consultant, food and nutrition, for ChemBizR. ChemBizR is a boutique business research and consulting partner of chemical companies globally, involved in addressing companies’ critical business challenges and strategic growth initiatives to help them transform their enterprise for sustainable growth in a highly competitive and rapidly evolving environment. For more information, e-mail connect@chembizr.com.