Who Buys Omega-3s?

November 8, 2013
Aldo Bernasconi

A GOED survey evaluates the characteristics of omega-3 consumers in the United States and abroad.

For the purpose of strategic planning, companies working with omega-3 products must have a clear understanding of the characteristics and opinions of consumers of these products. The Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED; Salt Lake City) has an ongoing program of online consumer research surveys, dedicated to developing an understanding of precisely these characteristics and the ways they evolve over time. To date, we have conducted surveys in 11 countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Russia, Brazil, and several European countries. These surveys cover demographic and economic characteristics, types of products consumed, trusted sources of health information, factors that influence purchasing behavior, and health and wellness priorities.

In general, consumers in Westernized countries report high awareness of omega-3 fatty acids (table 1). Almost globally, fewer than 15% of respondents have not heard of these nutrients, except in Denmark (23%) and Japan (42%). At first, such high numbers in two countries with a rich history of seafood consumption may seem counterintuitive; however, having seafood as an important component of one’s diet can result in consumers not needing to be aware of the importance of omega-3’s, since their requirements are so effortlessly met.

In the United States, 98% of people surveyed declare that they are aware, at some level, of the existence of omega-3 fatty acids. Because of this, and because a sizeable percentage (~50%) of U.S citizens are active users of omega-3 products, the profile of these consumers differs from that of non-consumers only in subtle ways. There is not a clear and easily describable distinction between these classes. This article describes the differences and highlight the ways in which consumer behavior in the United States differs from
behavior in other countries.

Product Usage

U.S. consumers who use one type of omega-3 product are much more likely to also consume other omega-3 sources. For example, people who take omega-3 supplements are almost twice as likely to eat oily fish regularly as those who don’t take omega-3 supplements (53% to 27%). And users of other supplements (like multivitamins) are more likely to use omega-3 products as well. In this, Americans are like consumers in every other country surveyed: people who use omega-3’s tend to obtain them from multiple types of products, and users of other health products are more likely to consume omega-3’s. This suggests that consumers, globally, are aware of omega-3 products as a general category rather than as unrelated products, and that consumers have an understanding of omega-3 products as being “healthy” (like multivitamins).

There is considerable variation among countries, however, in the sources of omega-3s consumed. Of all countries surveyed, the United States has the highest rate of consumption of omega-3 supplements. Approximately 35% of U.S. respondents declare that they take an omega-3 supplement-a rate comparable to but slightly higher than that of China and Australia, and much higher than that of Germany (15%) or France (less than 10%).

In contrast, the U.S. consumption of oily fish (at under 30%) is among the lowest of all countries polled, ahead of only Canada (25%). The percentage of U.S. respondents who eat fish is about half of that in countries such as Brazil and Germany (around 50%) or Russia (over 60%). Similarly, U.S. consumption of omega-3–fortified foods is among the lowest observed-around 20%, which is similar to Canada, and about half that of Brazil and Russia (nearly 40%).

Within the United States, there are differences in usage patterns depending on geographic location, but the reasons behind these differences are far from obvious. While one might expect more people to eat fish in coastal states, this is not the case. Massachusetts and Rhode Island have fish consumption rates of about 17%, which is about half that of Florida and Arizona (35%). In terms of overall consumption, including supplements and fortified foods, the landlocked states Arizona and Utah, along with Florida, have the highest usage rates, at around 60%. Since Utah is a state with a large number of dietary supplement manufacturers, this may explain their above-average usage rates.

The complexity of these patterns makes it impossible to reduce them to simple comparisons between large regions of the country (East and West, for example). Instead, these differences are likely caused by a more subtle combination of geographic, cultural, historical, and social factors. In the complexity of its regional differences, the United States joins other countries, such as India (where religion and vegetarianism are influenced by location) and China (where population and economic growth are concentrated in coastal regions, and culinary traditions vary by region). In contrast, regional differences are minor in countries like France and Germany.

Gender, Age, and Household Size

On average, there are no differences in omega-3 usage between genders, as males and females make up about 50% of the consumption. In this, U.S. consumer behavior is like that of consumers in the rest of the world-gender differences, when they exist, are very minor.

On the other hand, there are clear differences in behavior, depending on age. In the United States, overall usage increases with age. Until respondents reach their fifties, usage is relatively flat, at close to 45%; but, after that, usage quickly climbs to around 60%. While this is to be expected (aging increases the incidence of chronic diseases, and omega-3 fatty acids are noted for their cardio and neuro-protective properties), not every surveyed country shows a clear increase in usage. France and Germany, for example, do not. An unusual feature of usage in the U.S. population is that the pattern of age-related increased usage is different between genders, and more pronounced among females. Male usage starts at about 50%, and slowly climbs with age to about 55%. Younger females have usage rates of about 45%, but this climbs to approximately 60% later in life.

Consumption of omega-3 products is very strongly influenced by variables such as relationship status and household size, and particularly by whether there are children in the household, and by the number of children. About 50% of respondents who live in households without children consume omega-3s, and this rate increases to almost 60% in households with two children. As the number of children increases beyond that, usage starts to decline to levels around 40%. This is consistent with the idea that having children increases people’s interest in making healthy choices (including using omega-3’s) for themselves and their families; but, for large families, budgetary and other socioeconomic pressures reverse this trend.

Looking at relationship status, the lowest usage is among single and divorced people (45%), and the highest is among married, separated, and widowed respondents (55%). Part of these differences can be explained by other factors. For example, married people tend to be older and have a higher income than singles. They are also more likely to live in households with children, and they are less likely to be students. While all of these factors increase the likelihood of using omega-3’s, none of them, by themselves or in combination, is sufficient to explain the differences observed. This leads to the conclusion that relationship status is, independently, an important determinant of usage.

There are marked differences in usage depending on race and ethnicity, and usage patterns differ depending on which type of omega-3 source is examined. In general, Native Americans (including Alaskans), Pacific Islanders or Hawaiians, and Hispanics are more likely to consume omega-3s than the rest of the U.S. population. African Americans and Caucasians are, more or less, equally likely to eat oily fish or fortified foods, but African Americans are much less likely to use omega-3 supplements (29% of African Americans vs. 35% of whites).

These differences are more related to differences in attitude towards supplements in general, rather than attitude towards omega-3 supplements specifically because there is an equally striking difference in multivitamin usage (59% of Caucasian and only 43% of African Americans). Interestingly, the difference in omega-3 usage is largely generational: while younger (millennial and generation X) blacks are slightly behind whites in consumption of both overall omega-3 products and supplements, the difference for baby boomers is large (40% of white baby boomers use some source of omega-3, compared to only 28% of African Americans of the same age group.)

Socioeconomic Factors

The likelihood of using omega-3 products is very strongly influenced by socio-economic factors, including income, employment status, and education. The usage rate for supplements, for example, is markedly lower in people with low income, although there are no differences between middle and upper class consumers. This dependence on income coincides with the behavior of Chinese and Indian consumers, but contrasts with the consumption habits of Germans and the French, for whom income is largely irrelevant.

Employment makes a difference, with consumption higher among those with full-time work, and, not surprisingly, lowest among the unemployed, homemakers, and students. Education level also has an influence. College-educated respondents are more likely to use omega-3 products than people who only finished elementary school or high school. The differences due to employment status and education can only be partially explained by resulting differences in income.

Influencers on Health Decisions

Different people have different health and wellness priorities, and some of these priorities affect their choices of whether to consume omega-3s. The most influential priority is “general wellness,” which increases the likelihood of consuming omega-3s from 46% to 53% of respondents. In contrast, the fact that a consumer is concerned about “enhanced energy” or “family health” as a priority has little or no effect on omega-3 consumption. This is quite surprising. As mentioned, relationship status and the presence and number of children in the household very strongly influence omega-3 consumption. It seems reasonable to assume that putting a priority on family health would be a similar influencer, but this does not appear to be the case.

Respondents were asked about their most trusted sources of information, and about what factors are most likely to influence their decisions to purchase health/wellness products. In the United States, the source of information that is most frequently quoted as being the most important is the opinions of healthcare providers. This is more or less typical-in the countries surveyed, the opinions of doctors and pharmacists and of friends and family are normally the two most trusted sources of information. In the United States, the second most trusted source of information is the Internet-ahead of friends and family-which is atypical.

Likewise, the factor most frequently mentioned as influential in the actual purchase is the opinion of a doctor or pharmacist, followed by the product’s “quality” and price. While price is only listed as the third most important influencer of purchase decisions, it is the factor that most affects the choice of whether to buy omega-3 products: only 46% of people who declare price to be an important consideration when making a purchase are consumers of omega-3’s, as opposed to 59% of responders who declare that price is not a consideration.

Less important factors include taste, sustainability, and safety-although safety is considered important in Russia and China, which is not surprising, considering China’s recent history of highly visible food contamination episodes.

The most surprising finding of GOED’s survey of U.S. consumers is that political affiliation makes a difference when it comes to the use of omega-3 supplementation. About 40% of self-identified Republicans use omega-3 supplements. This is significantly higher than Independents (37%) and Democrats (31%). Many different factors that modify supplement usage also influence political affiliation-including state of residence, race, age, marital status, and income-yet none of these variables, independently or in combination, is enough to explain the large differences in consumption rates between Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.

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