DHA on the Rise


Originally Published

Originally Published NO April 2010

Despite an ongoing recession, growth of the omega-3 market is showing no signs of letting up. Omega-3's popularity is soaring among consumers, as evidenced by an endless stream of health foods and product launches, and rising consumer approval. Last fall, ConsumerLab.com surveyed more than 6000 of its newsletter subscribers on their supplement choices, and found the outright leading choice to be omega-3 supplements. Omega-3 supplements were even used by respondents more than multivitamins (74% as opposed to 72%).

The omega-3 market normally conjures thoughts of fish oil. Krill and flax are other common sources. But a look at real market growth of omega-3–fortified foods and supplements shows a progressive lean toward another source.

The source is microalgae, which are touted for their high concentrations of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a nutrient that clinical studies have shown to be beneficial in several fields, including eye health, infant development, maternal health, and memory support. In fact, microalgae happen to be the primary source by which fish get their own DHA levels.

As an omega-3 source, fish do have the benefit of providing eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), along with varying levels of DHA. Flax and other vegetarian foods can provide alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), another fatty acid believed to have health benefits. Algal DHA sources don't provide EPA or ALA. However, according to Martek Biosciences (Columbia, MD), the world's leading supplier of DHA, DHA can have great benefit as a stand-alone nutrient.

"DHA is like the end of the food chain for omega-3s," says Martek spokeswoman Cassandra France-Kelly. While some omega-3s can convert into DHA, this conversion has been documented as occuring in only low amounts. Because of this, the most efficient way to get DHA in the diet is from a direct DHA source.

This argument is reinforced by a 2006 Martek-supported study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in which natural ALA, DHA, and EPA levels, and their conversion rates in the human body, were assessed. ALA and EPA were found to convert to DHA, but only in small amounts. The study's authors concluded that, "The most effective way to increase a particular n-3 fatty acid is to provide that specific dietary fatty acid, because interconversion of n-3 fatty acids is limited in humans."

The International Scientific Society of Fatty Acids and Lipids, a third-party group of more than 500 experts from more than 40 countries, shared this position in an official statement released this March: "With no other changes in diet, improvement of blood DHA status can be achieved with dietary supplements of preformed DHA, but not with supplementation of ALA, EPA, or other precursors."

So, if DHA is best received in the diet directly from DHA, and not DHA conversion, microalgae can make serious ground, here.

Company Love

Since Martek was established back in 1985, consumer demand for its DHA has come a long way. "In 2006, we had maybe two food and beverage launches with life'sDHA," says France-Kelly. "Now, we're in more than 200 products, worldwide." At the start of this year, the company claimed that its ingredient was in 95% of all U.S. infant formulas.

Life'sDHA is reaching a broader audience, too. Horizon Dairy, Silk Soymilk, Sara Lee, Smart Balance, and Minute Maid are a few of the companies to jump on the life'sDHA train. (For a look at some recent life's DHA product launches, see the DHA Launches sidebar below.)

Clinical studies have shown DHA to accumulate at greatest concentrations in the brain, nervous system, and retinal tissues of the eye. This makes DHA highly marketable in, among other categories, early infant development.

"We recognize the demand moms have for fortified kids' products," says Sara Loveday, a spokeswoman for Horizon Dairy, which has continually launched life'sDHA products since 2007. "Since DHA has been recognized for playing a role in supporting normal development in areas like the brain and nervous system, it made sense to launch children's products with DHA." This year alone, Horizon has already released a chocolate milk and toddler purées with life's DHA.

Dairy products like these have proven to be a popular application for omega-3s, but other products have also taken to DHA.

This year, Sara Lee expanded its Soft & Smooth bread line with a whole-wheat bread and a whole-grain white bread fortified with life'sDHA. "As we've seen historically, bread...is a great carrier for important nutrients and vitamins," says Heather Collins, director of marketing for Sara Lee Fresh Bakery. "As mothers transition their toddlers from liquids to solids, bakery products may not always be top-of-mind. The Soft & Smooth Plus Made with DHA Omega-3 breads provide moms with a nutritious and simple means of helping their children continue to receive the benefits of DHA omega-3 beyond formula."

Additional Benefits

While fish and krill oil control a large chunk of the omega-3 market, expect algal DHA to have significant staying power. The consistent increase of product launches with algal DHA is largely attributed to one key advantage: that it is a vegetarian source.

The ability to retain a product's vegetarian and vegan customers is a substantial selling point-so substantial, in fact, that Martek has plans for its own vegetarian source of EPA. The company recently announced a new strain of algae with a similar fatty acid profile to fish. Anticipated product launches with the new strain would contain DHA and EPA, and still be vegetarian-friendly.

To boot, algal DHA differs from fish and krill sources in that it does not have the same effect on natural resources, nor a similar risk of water-borne contamination. Life'sDHA comes from microalgae harvested in Martek's manufacturing plant, where it can be made over and over again, without potential expense on natural environments.

Brain Potential

Existing science shows that DHA's benefits are numerous, but ongoing research suggests that the fatty acid could have other profound effects.

Nearly two decades of research has been conducted on the hypothesis that DHA could forestall neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer's disease. In 1991, the Journal of Neurochemistry published a study by Japanese scientists that found DHA to prevent Alzheimer's-related learning deficiencies in lab rats.

Last October, the Journal of Neurochemistry published an in vitro study by the same team of scientists, on DHA's mechanism of action. The scientists concluded that DHA may inhibit the formation of amyloid beta (Abeta) in the brain, a protein that has been linked to Alzheimer's. DHA was found to not only inhibit this formation, but also reduce the presence of individual Abeta oligomers, as well.

These findings on DHA's mechanism of action, coupled with longstanding existing science that suggests DHA can enhance memory and learning abilities, bode well for DHA and brain health.


By Chet Rao, PhD, Hormel Specialty Products

TO DATE, OMEGA-3 HAS BEEN USED successfully in a wide range of products: baby, bakery, and beverage products, as well as foods such as cheese, yogurt, condiments, sauces, crackers, cereal, eggs, and margarine and other spreads. Baby products (including infant formula), eggs, and pet-care products represent the largest market segments that claim omega-3s, with $4.6 billion, $654 million, and $170 million in annual sales, respectively, according to Hormel Specialty Products.

The market for functional beverages claiming omega-3 benefits grew 30% from 2008 to 2009, from $150 million to $200 million. However, sales in the overall beverage category dropped from $46 billion to $42 billion. This indicates that the subcategory of omega-3 functional beverages is a high-growth market segment.

To date, a majority of omega-3–containing beverages use formulations based on plant-based ingredients, such as flax seed. However, these formulations usually do not contain EPA and DHA, the two most-recognized health-promoting components of omega-3s. The reason for this is quite simple: EPA and DHA, despite having scientific credence, are difficult to formulate into beverages.

Functional beverages are typically low in fat, or nonfat, and EPA and DHA are lipids. The aqueous environment in functional beverages makes EPA and DHA unstable. Shelf-stable beverages are not generally fortified with EPA/DHA for three primary reasons: 1) the flavor profile of omega-3 EPA/DHA oils, which require purification to eliminate their taste and smell, 2) the tendency of the oils to oxidize and cause flavor instability, and 3) their insolubility in water-based beverages.

However, ingredient suppliers are seeking ways to overcome these obstacles. Recently, our company, Hormel Specialty Products, introduced Eterna OmegaSource ingredient solutions for beverages. These omega-3 ingredients use several patent-pending and proprietary technologies that enable incorporation of water-soluble EPA/DHA omega-3 fatty acids into ambient, shelf-stable beverage applications.

For example, light plays a critical role in destabilizing omega-3s in clear beverages, because light promotes photooxidation. By using proprietary processes to stabilize the flavor profile of omega-3 EPA/DHA oil, and by manipulating light, we were able to alter the degree of light-scattering in order to create a clear or turbid solution in a food or beverage. This is done by increasing the scattering of the light via emulsion, so that the oil inside is protected, and oxidation effects are minimized.

To control the clarity of a beverage formulation when formulating with omega-3, we were able to increase the total hydrolipophilic balance (HLB) of the EPA/DHA environment, resulting in reduced-oil properties and increased water properties of the EPA/DHA. By increasing the water properties of EPA/DHA, they become more water soluble and less visible.

These new omega-3 beverage applications will be beneficial for developers and consumers alike. The ability to move beyond strictly frozen and refrigerated food applications to working with an ingredient that has a proven shelf life of greater than six months will broaden the possibilities for developers, and increase product selection for consumers.

Chet Rao, PhD, is marketing manager for Hormel Specialty Products. He can be reached at csrao@hormel.com.



By Guy Devin, national science educator, Source Naturals

PURE, CONCENTRATED FISH OILS are one of the most important additions modern people can make to their daily health programs. Hundreds of studies show that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids supports the mind, heart, kidneys, immune system-the entire body. Of the 12 metabolic systems that we have identified as crucial, amazingly, eight are positively supported by omega-3 supplementation: cells/DNA, inflammation response, sugar regulation, liver/detox, circulation, cognition/nerves, immunity, and hormones/metabolism.

Omega-3 and omega-6 are called essential fatty acids because they are not produced naturally by the body; you must obtain them from food sources. Most Americans get more omega-6 than they can handle, because omega-6 is from corn oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil, which are more than abundant in typical American diets. However, we have severe deficiencies of omega-3, which is from fatty fish and, to a limited extent, flax seed oil.

Most medical experts consider an optimal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio to be 2:1, or even 1:1. Americans' intake commonly ranges from 10:1 to 50:1. This unbalanced ratio has important consequences.

Omega-6s and omega-3s compete for the same metabolic enzymes that break down fats. If there is too much omega-6, byproducts are produced, including compounds called eicosanoids that are involved in inflammatory response: prostaglandins E-2, thromboxane A-2, and leukotriene B-4. Eicosanoids participate in the healthy immune-defense systems of the body, but an overabundance of these compounds can overstimulate inflammatory responses.

Omega-3, however, produces compounds that minimize inflammatory response. These are the long-chain compounds that have been found to have such positive effect in cardio, brain, and immune-function health.

A balance of omega-3 and -6 is needed. Sufficient quantities of omega-3 keep omega-6 acids in their proper healthy ratio.

View the full version of this article online at www.nutritionaloutlook.com/1003/guy_devin



By Adam Ismail, executive director, Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED)

EPA AND DHA OMEGA-3S WORK at the cellular level to make sure the body functions properly. They are incorporated in the body's tissue, where they help reduce inflammation and regulate the production of hormones such as prostaglandins. If tissue levels of EPA and DHA in your body are too low, it can lead to a host of inflammatory-related diseases, which is why omega-3s are so important in helping prevent cardiovascular diseases and other chronic conditions.

Given the increasing rates of obesity and chronic diseases in the United States and Canada, one could argue that omega-3 deficiency is the most important nutritional challenge facing these countries. However, the United States and Canada are the only developed countries in the world that do not have clear intake recommendations for EPA and DHA.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) is responsible for setting recommended intake levels for nutrients in both the United States and Canada, but it does not routinely review new science for various nutrients. GOED recently joined with eight other trade, scientific, and consumer advocacy groups, including the Council for Responsible Nutrition and the Natural Products Association, to petition the IOM to conduct a review of the plethora of new omega-3 science and set clear dietary reference intake (DRI) values for the nutrients.

These recommendations are important, even though many consumer research firms say that consumers do not read nutrition labels. When consumers do try to make food and supplement choices based on nutrition, the label is indeed the first place they look.

In addition, the omega-3 market has grown rapidly over the past 10 years because the benefits of omega-3s are widely recognized by the scientific and medical community. This has translated to widespread media exposure for the nutrients. However, one question remains unanswered in many consumers' minds: how much do they need to take? Expressing the omega-3 content of a product as a percentage of intake value answers that question.

In addition, if the history of the omega-3 market has proven anything, these values will become an important part of the discussion between consumers and the media, and between consumers and their healthcare providers.

How feasible is it that clear intake values will be set? IOM published its first-ever set of DRIs for all nutrients back in 2005. However, they had been working on the project for a few years and had only considered scientific studies on omega-3s published before 2000. Omega-3 research really began back in the 1970s, but the rate of growth in recent years has been so high that the number of randomized, controlled human clinical trials published since 2000 exceeds the amount published in the entire 30 years prior. In addition, much of this research has focused on the benefits of omega-3s in normal healthy populations, on which nutritional recommendations are based. Our belief is that the totality of this new science will justify the need for new, clear DRIs for EPA and DHA that are in line with the levels set in other countries that have conducted similar reviews.

EPA and DHA have the potential to play a vital role in reducing the burden of many of the chronic diseases that are crippling Western healthcare. One study found that only slight increases in the omega-3 intake of the population could prevent an average of 84,000 deaths from heart attacks per year-but this is only one small sliver of the health benefits for which omega-3s have been studied. DRIs for EPA and DHA are a first step in helping address our public health crises.



Minute Maid

Single-serving 12-oz bottles of Minute Maid's Pomegranate Blueberry 100% Fruit Juice Blend are now making their way into stores. Made from a blend of five juices, the drink offers 50 mg of DHA omega-3 per 8-oz serving. It also features choline and vitamin B12, which the company says play a role in brain and nervous-system signals; vitamin E antioxidant to help "shield the omega-3s in the brain from free radicals," and vitamin C, which the company says is highly concentrated in brain nerve endings.


Omega To Go

Omega To Go is touted as "a vegetarian way to help you get omega-3 fatty acids that you need every day to support optimal brain, eye, and heart health." Sold in individual packets (two servings per packet), the add-to-water, orange-creamsicle–flavored product is designed to be convenient and easy to use on the go. Each packet offers 100 mg of life'sDHA omega-3. It is low in fat, carbohydrates, and sodium; contains no artificial sweetener; and is a fiber source. Antioxidants include vitamins A, C, D, and E.


Omega Milk




Effervescent Omega-3

Earlier this year, Nordic Naturals introduced Omega-3 Effervescent, an orange-flavored water-soluble drink mix that offers both EPA and DHA from fish oil. "This revolutionary delivery system is clean on the palate and offers all the amazing health benefits of omega-3s and vitamin D3, such as heart, brain, joint, and bone support, without any hint of fish," says the company.

Thanks to its effervescent format, the product is designed to be absorbed quicker. "In traditional delivery systems like soft gels, the omega-3 in cod liver oil need to be gradually broken down by stomach acids in order to be absorbed in the small intestine," explains Bradley West, ND, Nordic Naturals' research advisor. "With the effervescent technology in place, the omega-3 can be absorbed and enter the bloodstream faster-in as little as five minutes." The product is also designed to be easy on the stomach.

Each serving offers 500 mg of EPA and DHA, as well as 1200 IU of vitamin D3. Designed for on-the-go use, the product is sold in single-serving packets.

Straight from the Spoon

Barlean's new Omega Swirl omega-3 supplement was created to offer customers a sweet-tasting omega-3 alternative with "the creamy taste and texture of a fruit smoothie." The emulsified product can be eaten straight from the spoon. The fish oil version of Omega Swirl comes in a Lemon Zest flavor and offers 730 mg of EPA/DHA per 10-ml serving.

The company says that there are no concerns with separation of the emulsified product, thanks to a unique mixing process and complex emulsifying system that maximize the dispersion of omega-3 oil in the water phase.

Omega Swirl's emulsified format also makes the omega-3 more bioavailable, says Barlean's. The company says that its "proprietary Swirl" technology significantly reduces the size of fish oil molecules, allowing the oil to more efficiently pass through the intestinal wall and into the bloodsteam.

The company also reports that a small bioavailability study conducted by the Centre for Nutritional Studies comparing Omega Swirl emulsified fish oil supplement with conventional liquid fish oil showed that the total percentage of oil that reached the bloodstream was 10 times greater with Omega Swirl than the same dose in fish oil form. "Theoretically, it could take up to 20 standard fish oil gel caps to equal the amount of omega-3 delivered to the bloodstream by just one 2-tsp dose of Omega Swirl," says Andreas Koch, marketing director for Barlean's.

Omega-3 Sour Cream

Smart Balance has introduced a new line of sour cream with omega-3s, calcium, and vitamins D and E. Available in regular and reduced-fat versions, the sour cream's omega-3s come from an omega-3 oil blend of fish oil and sunflower oil. The company has already launched milk, extra-virgin olive oil, and butter spread products with fish oil omega-3.

"Our new sour cream is an alternative to regular sour cream in a heart-healthier form," says Greg Venner, executive vice president and chief consumer officer for Smart Balance.

Fortified Frozen Yogurt

Turkey Hill's limited-edition frozen yogurt contains the MEG-3 brand of fish oil ingredients. The frozen yogurt provides a ½-cup serving of 32 g of EPA and DHA in a "Pomblueberry" Chocolate Truffle flavor. The MEG-3 brand of omega-3 ingredients is supplied by Ocean Nutrition Canada.



In March, news broke of a lawsuit filed over polychlorinated biphyenyl (PCB) in fish oil supplements. Rest assured, many regulatory measures are observed in the fish and krill oil markets to maintain a high level of safety from harmful toxins, and to protect our planet from environmental impacts of big fishing.

EPAX AS (Aalesund, Norway), a bulk supplier of omega-3 oils, is one company that employs several fish-safe procedures. Last November, EPAX AS was awarded certification from Friend of the Sea, a third-party surveillance organization focused on sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. Previously, EPAX's sister company, the Austral Group in Peru, had also received the certification.

Friend of the Sea certification is awarded to companies whose fishing methods do not involve catching fish from stocks considered to be overexploited by regional fishery bodies; do not discard more than 8% of total catch; and do not impact the ocean seabed, along with a host of other qualifications.

EPAX AS has also built its own traceability system for Peruvian anchovy fishing to monitor that all fishing practices are done in qualified fishing zones and on qualified fish populations.

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