The Ahiflower pioneer is showing the world how plant-based omegas can provide needed nutrition, sustainably.
If Ahiflower oil seems too good to be true, that’s because it almost is. Imagine if the world found a way to increase population levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids like DHA and EPA—all without having to raid marine ecosystems? That’s the promise of Ahiflower, a complete and balanced plant-based source of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. It’s what Natures Crops International (Winston-Salem, NC), Ahiflower’s discoverer, believes makes this ingredient the world’s most important plant-based source of omega fatty acids heading into the future.
The company, founded in 2007, discovered Ahiflower quite by accident. Ahiflower oil is extracted from the Lithospermum arvense (syn. Buglossoides arvensis) plant. “Under the guidance of one of the inventors of Lorenzo’s oil”—a medicinal oleic acid and erucic acid mixture extracted from rapeseed oil and olive oil—“we were looking for specific plant species within the family Lithospermum because the published literature—this was before Google or Wikipedia was a thing—indicated that this family were predisposed to accumulating omega-3s, especially stearidonic acid, in their seed oils,” recounts Andrew Hebard, CEO and founder of Natures Crops International. “The mission simply was to find a plant-based alternative to fish oil that could be grown by farmers and scaled up globally and not cost-prohibitively. Purely by coincidence, one of the species, Buglossoides arvensis, happened to be a weed native to the UK, also known as stone seed or corn gromwell. We literally stumbled upon it growing in a hedgerow.”
What makes Ahiflower such a valuable find is that it contains both omega-3 fatty acids—primarily stearidonic acid (SDA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—and omega-6 fatty acids—primarily gamma-linolenic acid (GLA).
First off, SDA and ALA are precursors to the long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), meaning that the body naturally converts these plant-based omega-3s into EPA and DHA. As we know, EPA and DHA have been clinically shown to play critical roles in cardiovascular and neurological health, among other benefits. So by consuming Ahiflower’s plant-based omega-3s, you end up getting the studied health benefits of EPA and DHA in the end.
Moreover, Ahiflower isn’t just a source of these omega-3 fatty acids; it is the best source of these omega-3. For instance, SDA is the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid that converts most readily to EPA and DHA; it converts to EPA and DHA at four times the rate that the other plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, ALA, does. And Ahiflower just so happens to be the richest, non-genetically modified, plant-derived source of SDA.
Furthermore, unlike marine omega-3 fatty acids, Ahiflower also contains omega-6 fatty acids like GLA, which offers additional benefits for the skin, hormones, and inflammation. And although other plant-based sources of GLA exist, such as evening primrose oil and borage oil, the fact that you can opt for Ahiflower oil and get not only GLA but also the rich source of omega-3s SDA and ALA makes Ahiflower “a truly unrivaled omega source, naturally complete and balanced, containing more and healthier omegas than any other natural plant or seed oil on the planet,” the company says.
A critical question is why would someone choose a plant-based omega source like Ahiflower, whose fatty acids must first convert to EPA and DHA, instead of going straight for the preformed EPA and DHA fatty acids contained in traditional marine-based omega sources like fish oil? Simply put, sustainability. Already, the world is monitoring threats to the planet’s fish stocks and marine ecosystems. Industries like marine-based omega-3s have had to be very careful not to overfish and overtax these environments. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to tap into marine sources at all but were still able to get the omega fatty acids we need for health? Enter Ahiflower, gotten solely from regeneratively grown plants.
The next question is whether Ahiflower’s fatty acids convert well into the long-chain PUFAs EPA and DHA, which pose so many researched health benefits. One of the debates in the omega industry has been whether or not plant-based sources convert efficiently to EPA and DHA. Some automatically assume that preformed EPA and DHA from marine sources are superior. However, says Natures Crops, “Emerging preclinical and clinical science indicates that plant-based ALA and SDA convert to circulating DHA relatively rapidly and achieve adequate brain DHA levels, while significantly elevating circulating EPA levels especially from higher omega-3 SDA intakes. This challenges the accepted consensus that plant-based omega-3 sources don’t convert to DHA ‘efficiently.’”
The proof is in the science. Most recently, in 2022, for instance, University of Toronto researchers in Canada1 showed “controlled evidence in mammals that Ahiflower maintains DHA levels in key tissues like the brain and liver and converts (biosynthesized) DHA nearly as efficiently as marine-based DHA,” says Hebard.
Evidence like this will continue to be critical in convincing the world that plant-based sources can be an optimal source of the omega-3s our bodies need. “The implication of recognizing that most humans are naturally efficient plant-based omega-3 converters is profound,” the company states. “It could shift the present global reliance on wild-harvested forage fish oil to regeneratively farmed sources. Practically every temperate climate country around the world could participate in their production.”
The need for omega-3s is great. As has been so often reported, modern diets are severely deficient in omega-3s, and the high intake of omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) in Western diets additionally throws off the optimal omega-3:6 ratio, further reducing the efficient conversion of EPA and DHA.
Ahiflower continues to lead the pack of plant-based omega sources. “Until Ahiflower oil came onto the market in 2015, brands and consumers had basically three options in omega-3 supplements: ALA-based (flax, chia, perilla); wild marine-based (fish or krill); and algal-based (mostly DHA),” says Greg Cumberford, vice president of science and regulatory, Natures Crops. “In omega-6 GLA supplements, the choices were dominated by borage and evening primrose oils. Ahiflower oil’s unique fatty acid composition—it has the richest omega-3-6-9 levels of any natural omega source—combines the healthful attributes of flax, fish, evening primrose, and olive oils, all in one regeneratively grown plant source.”
It also offers formulation benefits. “Ahiflower is inherently more stable oxidatively than marine or algal EPA/DHA oils due to its shorter-chain omega-3 and -6 fatty acids,” he points out. “This translates to longer shelf stability and more diverse delivery system options, including in a range of food and beverage formats that longer-chain PUFAs are much harder to formulate with.” As such, he says, “Ahiflower oil’s clean taste and aroma allows companies to widen omega-3 applications and inclusion levels in more food-friendly food and beverage formats than is typically possible from marine or algal-based sources. Think: gummies, plant-based milks, squeeze-pouches, emulsions, snack bars, chocolates, and culinary oils.”
Natures Crops’ mission is to expand Ahiflower’s footprint in the omegas world. The company is making some traction, and it unleashed a host of innovations in 2022 that will expand the ways in which companies can use Ahiflower in health-promoting products.
For instance, at this November’s SupplySide West trade show in Las Vegas, Natures Crops introduced a dry oil version of Ahiflower, developed with CoreFX Ingredients (Evanston, IL), which ultimately gives product formulators a convenient powder form of the ingredient for products like protein and meal-replacement powders.
Says Cumberford, “Today, most consumer-facing brands are offering Ahiflower oil in health supplement formats, notably pourable omega-rich oils, vegan softgels, meal-replacement powders, and gummies. The most popular formats today are vegan softgels and gummies, with pourable or pumpable liquids following closely behind. With the recently launched CoreFX Dry Ahiflower 70GA powder making a fairly big splash at SupplySide West, we expect that a lot of innovation in foods and beverage preblend mixes and emulsions will launch in 2023-2024.”
Categories where he says the company would like to see Ahiflower “flourish” include refrigerated plant-based milks, ready-to-drink beverages in aseptic boxes, protein powder blends, kids’ squeezable fruit/veggie pouches and gel sticks, and pre- and post-exercise snack bars. “These are all examples of convenient, lifestyle-enhancing, non-pill formats in which Ahiflower oil can complement other functional actives like vitamins, minerals, probiotics, enzymes, and amino acids,” says Cumberford.
Another innovative partnership in 2022 took place between the company and algal omega-3 producer Algarithm Ingredients (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada) to create blends of Ahiflower oil with Algarithm’s DHA ingredients. “We partnered with Algarithm because their algal DHA products are of the highest stability and sensory quality, their DHA oils are fully traceable to source and processed without solvents (like Ahiflower oil), their company has zero infrastructure invested in marine omegas, and they are based in Canada just like Natures Crops for simpler end-to-end ingredient supply,” Cumberford explains. “We could not ask for more alignment on our companies’ core values and desire to make omega nutrition more regenerative, good tasting, and affordable. We decided to offer Ahiflower oil in DHA-enhanced blends to allow brands that want or need to state a DHA milligram amount on their labels an easier onramp, industry-leading sensory quality, and a simpler, more direct supply source.”
Of course, what brings home the story of Ahiflower ultimately is its enduring message of sustainability. Further cementing this, Natures Crops this fall announced the company achieved coveted B Corp certification attesting to its high standards for both social and environmental performance. Of this landmark achievement, Hebard says, “Honestly, it’s one of the highlights of my 35-year career in the agricultural, food, and natural products industry because it speaks so clearly to our ‘why,’ as Simon Sinek has encouraged us to think about. We pursued it for various reasons but primarily to demonstrate that we walk the talk as well as talk the talk when it comes to trying to be a better business and to give social and environmental matters a voice and accountability alongside, and in many cases ahead of, profitability.”
And while Ahiflower is still a newer ingredient, Natures Crops is working hard to spread awareness and teach the world about its value as a critical omega source for the future. “For me,” says Hebard, “Ahiflower is about leaving a legacy behind that in its own small way can improve human health and nutrition, provide a valuable new crop with really important environmental benefits for farmers to grow, and greatly reduce the pressures on our oceans from the unnecessary harvesting of millions of tons of small oily fish. How many people or businesses get to really pioneer something like this and leave it behind for future generations? Our moonshot is to eventually have over 1.0 million acres of Ahiflower cultivated globally as a regenerative and terrestrial solution to addressing the huge omega imbalance that commodity agriculture and fast food has created. We have started to build something that I feel will be so impactful in the future, and I must say that without the support of our brand partners who have helped us move forward, and the belief, passion, and ability of my team at Natures Crops, we wouldn’t be here. Although ambitious, I hope we can be an exemplar of how to build a business combining human and planetary wellness whilst providing a meaningful return to all stakeholders.”
Nutritional Outlook asked Andrew Hebard, CEO and founder of Natures Crops International, and Greg Cumberford, vice president of science and regulatory, some additional questions about Ahiflower.
How has the Ahiflower market, and Natures Crops’ Ahiflower business, grown over the past two decades?
Hebard: We’ve gone from "Ahi-what?" and a crop that we sowed more than we reaped to now having a little bit of traction in the healthy oils category (especially omega-3s) and a prolific crop that farmers have really embraced growing. I think we have achieved quite good visibility in the North American B2B supplement space, but we’ve got a long way to go before we reach our target of ubiquity in the consumer space! I feel like we are transitioning from being pioneers of a new generation of plant-based omegas to being recognized as a genuine alternative to marine lipids and really helping address the deficit of omega-3s in our diets.
What patents does Natures Crops International hold on Ahiflower?
Hebard: We use Plant Variety Rights (PVR) protection instead of conventional general utility patents. These allow us to breed and protect our own proprietary plant genetics and unique varieties, such that wherever the trademark Ahiflower is seen, the products came from Natures Crops’ unique and protected crops.
Where and how in the world are Ahiflower crops grown?
Hebard: All crops are grown under strict identity-preserved contracts with our farmer partners, and all are grown following regenerative-agriculture practices and cultivated under our agronomic team’s direct supervision. Currently, commercial production is in the UK, but we anticipate growing in the Canadian maritime region in the future and in some strategic southern hemisphere regions once our oil demand requires it.
What are the health benefits of Ahiflower oil for body and skin? What are the key health markets for Ahiflower?
Hebard: We are seeing two distinct yet overlapping health areas. One is the condition-specific health areas widely associated with omega-3s, such as supporting inflammation management, immune function, gut health, cardiovascular, and cognition; the other is all round nutritional health and vitality through having a better, complete, and balanced fat intake. Where I think the whole omega-3 industry agrees and should converge is that our diets are completely out of whack regarding omega-3, and our mission at Natures Crops is to find sustainable, affordable, and effective ways to address this.
Are there any business partners that Natures Crops wants to mention, partners it works with on Ahiflower?
Hebard: Gosh, there’s quite a few, but broadly they are all our UK farmer partners who have done an absolutely sterling job of helping us take a somewhat diminutive weed where we sowed more than we reaped and transformed it into a regeneratively grown, valuable, and profitable rotation crop (and reaping more than we sow)—and all our many brand and distribution partners who have trusted us with their brands, who share our vision for a plant-based omega future, and who have taken the time to dig into the science and challenge the status quo about omega nutrition. I really want to give a callout to some of our first pioneering brands like Clean Machine, Greens First, and Plexus who have courageously and successfully pioneered this value proposition. I’d also like to recognize consumer need-state pioneers like Nouri (gut health), Forest Remedies (immune health), R3SET (anxiety/sleep), Braini (cognitive), and Wiley’s Finest (overall wellness) for advancing innovative delivery formats that respond really well to consumer demand.
Ahiflower has been a player in the plant-based ingredients scene for a while. Why does this ingredient still command interest even in a broadening plant-based ingredients space?
Cumberford: In the 50+ year life of the EPA/DHA omega-3 supplement market, Ahiflower oil is still relatively new and achieving wider mass consumer awareness in the past couple of years. Food and beverage markets have vast white space opportunities, to say nothing of rapidly rising pet-supplement opportunities. Many mainstream omega-3 supplement brands still have not complemented their marine-based omega supplements with Ahiflower oil, so significant market growth potential exists. Ahiflower oil commands growing interest because its emerging science is so compelling as a no-sacrifice alternative to marine omegas and its versatility across a wider range of food-friendly, non-capsule formats. On every point of trending consumer demand— regenerative, plant-based, vegan, clean tasting, complete and balanced, supporting overall wellness—Ahiflower oil products deliver exactly that with no ocean extraction, genetic modification, or omega-3 conversion efficiency downsides. In 2023-2024, consumers and practitioners will see many more Ahiflower-based offerings boosted by ever-stronger clinical science validation, all of which points to people getting all the daily omegas they need for optimal wellness from plant-based sources, led by Ahiflower.
What are some of the key research findings on Ahiflower this year?
Hebard: With our research partners, we completed three very impactful studies that are further shaping and leading the plant-based omega movement. They are: 1) Controlled evidence in mammals that Ahiflower maintains DHA levels in key tissues like the brain and liver and converts to new (biosynthesized) DHA nearly as efficiently as marine-based DHA.1 2) Randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled evidence in humans that Ahiflower oil plays a unique synergizing role in cognitive wellness—boosting executive function, cognitive flexibility, and reaction times in only 28 days.2 3) Controlled evidence in total parenteral nutrition (TPN) in mice that Ahiflower oil, due to its uniquely high omega-3 SDA and omega-6 GLA levels, promotes ‘immuno-nutrition’ and boosts circulating anti-inflammatory IL-10 that in turn supports immune function, insulin sensitivity, and gut microbiome balance favorably versus fish and soya oil–based TPN emulsions. This publication could have significant future benefits for millions of people who must rely on enteral nutrition.3
This year, Natures Crops continued to push Ahiflower’s innovation forward. Can you comment on how Natures Crops plans to continue innovating with Ahiflower?
Hebard: Absolutely! We really appreciate and benefit from our brand partners challenging us to be better—better solutions, better innovation, better value. Only 20% of the seeds of Ahiflower are oil, and we are learning that the plant has some most unusual (peculiar!) and interesting properties that we are looking to commercialize. For example, and really quite extraordinarily, the seed coat of Ahiflower is almost exclusively comprised of calcium carbonate (i.e. limestone, just like oyster shells and eggshells). Perhaps this is why it has the colloquial name ‘stoneseed’. Anyway, we are working with cosmetic companies to explore the seed coat’s utilization as an exfoliant in body scrubs. We are also looking at the dog treat market and plant-derived calcium market. Strategically, we initially targeted the supplement market because it allows a higher degree of consumer education and awareness. We felt that was the right entry point, and now we are actively looking at the healthy food and beverage markets, including in companion animal supplements and feed additives.
What other ingredient blends are promising for Ahiflower?
Cumberford: Any oil-soluble or mid-polar nutraceutical actives in liquid delivery formats are promising as innovative springboards for product differentiation that meet consumer need states. Endocannabinoids, carotenoids, bioflavonoids, peptides, vitamins, pro- and prebiotics, amino acids, and immune-modulatory polysaccharides are all promising candidates. Thinking towards delivery system innovation, vegan milk and spreads, protein powders, gummies, gel tabs, gel sticks, duo-caps, micro-beads, emulsions, and even chocolates all have excellent potential. This on top of simple oil blends.
Have there been any notable recent brand launches featuring Ahiflower?
Cumberford: Among the most impactful recent brand launches are Forest Remedies’ Ahiflower immune softgels and gummies, Nouri Health’s new prenatal probiotic plus omegas & B6, Purina’s OmegaMatch equine oil, R3SET’s calm and sleep-supporting microbead capsules, and the JimmyJoy Plenny Shake 3.0 meal replacement powders. But watch this space because more exciting brands are launching in early 2023!