Emerging opportunities for omega-3s

Research has demonstrated that omega-3s are effective in improving health outcomes, reports Gunilla Traberg, Marketing Communications Manager, Epax Omega-3 Products, FMC Health and Nutrition

The use of marine omega-3s to improve overall health dates back hundreds of years. Before modern society was taking fish oil capsules, many older societies, with claims dating back to the Vikings, were consuming fish livers for their curative properties.

Even the industrial production of fish oil dates back almost 180 years, including FMC’s Epax omega-3 brand, which has a history dating back to the commercial manufacturing of fish liver oil on the west coast of Norway in 1838. Today, we know that the benefits of fish oil derive mainly from the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). In fact, omega-3s are among the most studied nutrients in the world, boasting approximately 28,000 published studies as scientists and product makers try to better understand how to utilise them to improve health.

Omega-3 production

EPA/DHA omega-3s were first offered as a supplement in the mid-1980s, followed by the introduction of concentrates. Since then, our understanding of their effects has greatly advanced, as have the processes by which the oils are refined.

Processes: The key to high quality fish-derived omega-3 ingredients is in the handling and processing of the oil, from boat to finished ingredient. The process needs to be airtight to avoid oxidation of this volatile raw material, with the central steps being purification and concentration.

All processing should be supervised by strict quality control systems and good manufacturing practices, underpinned by responsible and sustainable procedures. For the purity and overall quality of the ingredient, compliance with established regulatory standards is paramount. The initial concentration method was molecular distillation and, with time, methods have evolved for higher concentrations, such as urea concentration, enzymatic concentration, supercritical extraction and simulated moving bed (SMB) chromatography.

Concentrations: New '18/12' oils based on anchovy and sardines appeared in the mid-1980s, setting the standard for marine omega-3. The concentrated 18/12 oils were first introduced as a new category and a means to improve consumer convenience with smaller capsules — the Epax brand being among the first products to market. The new concentrated product proved to be even better than previous iterations with fewer impurities and gave consumers more of the good EPA/DHA fatty acids and less of the unwanted saturated fats.

In the late 1980s, the Epax 5500 TG was the first concentrate used in cardiovascular and rheumatism studies, which enabled supplements to address these areas. With improved technologies, concentrates also enabled isolation of EPA/DHA and, following scientific studies of these fatty acids, the creation of condition-specific supplements to address other health issues. In the 1990s, the first high DHA concentrate, an Epax product, appeared, aimed at meeting market demand for pre-/post-natal and infant health.

Incredible production gains have been made in the past 30 years, enabling greater purity and even higher concentration production, one of the main drivers of omega-3 retail growth. The first high concentration product had approximately 45–50% EPA/DHA and the main market today comprises 50–60% concentrations. The trend for higher concentrations has continued, with omega-3 EPA/DHA high-dosage concentrate oils comprising more than 40% of the value market share. In addition, concentrate production of more than 70% is projected at a 6.5% value share of the current total US omega-3 market and 9% of the EPA+DHA market.

High concentrations afford brand owners many benefits, including the following

  • consumers can compensate for a lack of omega-3, or an imbalance in relation to omega-6, in their diets with the intake of higher concentrations of omega-3
  • high concentrates enable consumer convenience with a greater delivery of the good EPA/DHA, fewer capsules to achieve a high level intake of EPA/DHA omega-3 and smaller capsules that are easier to swallow; in addition, capsules that use concentrates typically have less other fatty acids (saturated fats) and calories in each serving
  • higher concentrations save space in capsules, and larger sized high-dose capsules allow for the inclusion of other ingredients without diluting the EPA/DHA content per serving; this also delivers a finished capsule that provides more value than the omega-3s alone.

However, although omega-3 concentrates offer great opportunities for condition targeting, they are also more expensive to produce compared with less pure, less potent formulations. Therefore, the industry must educate consumers to reach an understanding of the value and efficacy that a high or ultra-high concentration supplement provides.

From a user perspective, the cost of a high and ultra-high concentration product is, for the most part, not more expensive in a true comparison. But to the consumer, they might appear much more expensive: a bottle of concentrated omega-3 costs considerably more than a low concentrate or non-concentrate. However, one concentrate capsule might be the equivalent of several less or non-concentrate capsules.

Condition-specific formulas

Thanks to the concentration and isolation of EPA and DHA and, following clinical work, condition-specific concentrations were first introduced in the late 1980s and 1990s, enabling brand owners using Epax to promote products targeted at specific health concerns. Condition-specific omega-3 ingredients are science-driven and the body of science behind omega-3s provides the most support for their role in both maintaining and optimising heart and pre-/post-natal health, and also demonstrates their effect on brain, cognition and eye health.

EPA and DHA can help to reduce several cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors and many national organisations recommend the consumption of omega-3s to support heart health. Understanding of the role of omega-3s, especially DHA, in infant cognitive and visual development led to the fortification of infant formula on a global basis. Research has demonstrated that poor memory is associated with low levels of DHA, so condition-specific ratios that are high in DHA support brain health in ageing brains. A ratio high in DHA also supports eye health, as DHA is the raw material used to make the protective compounds that help to prevent retinal cell damage.

New areas of opportunity are emerging as science explores the impact of omega-3s on inflammation and inflammatory conditions, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, etc. Further new and intriguing areas are emerging, with the latest science showing that EPA and DHA are transformed into derivatives in the body, becoming far more bioactive than either on their own.

Also, the role of omega-3 in gene expression seems to be very important. Through this process, the omega-3 fatty acids seem to be able to activate the production of proteins that affect, among other things, the body’s metabolism. It proves that the role of omega-3 in the body is far more complex than first thought.

EPA/DHA omega-3 health claims offer opportunities to address certain health areas. This, in turn, sparks consumer awareness, trust and interest in omega-3 dietary supplements. There are health claims such as the EFSA claims, the US heart health claim, the Chinese claim as part of the Blue Hat Food registration and the foods with functions claims in Japan, that substantiate the benefits of omega-3. In addition, there are claims in the pipeline with the GOED qualified health claim petition on blood pressure reduction for EPA and DHA having an expected conclusion in the autumn of 2015. We can anticipate additional claims to be approved in the near future.

What the future holds

As research continues, we expect the areas of opportunity for omega-3s will continue to expand. As the baby boomer generation continues to age, concentrations targeted at conditions typical in older populations, such as high blood pressure, dementia and heart disease, will remain important. Cardiovascular health continues to be the driver and is projected to have a market value of $8 billion by 2018. In addition, the global omega-3 nutrition gap is far from covered.

However, the industry has great a opportunity to not only continue to address the ageing population, but also to bring more attention to and provide education on other user segments. A focus can be placed on omega-3s for younger and more diverse populations, both lifestyle and activity based. New retail outlet patterns should also be embraced.

The opportunity for supplements targeting vision and brain improvement is potentially valued at up to $500 million through 2018. There are many ongoing trials that focus on new clinical indications and several prescription drugs have been launched based on omega-3 concentrates. Doctors and healthcare professionals are thus increasingly aware of the health benefits that EPA/DHA omega-3s offer.

The industry, through the GOED coalition, is making efforts to educate consumers in the US on omega-3s and, especially, heart health. Current, and hopefully new, EPA/DHA omega-3 health claims offer good opportunities to provide education, raise consumer awareness, build trust and increase interest in omega-3 dietary supplements.

Consumer awareness of health benefits continues to increase, which is expected to boost the future growth of the omega-3 market. Consumers are becoming more informed and interested in health and wellness. They seek to understand the benefits of omega-3s and products that improve health; but, further, they’re looking for education, transparency, sustainability and ethical conduct from their brands. The industry must work harder to support these practices as well as continue the efforts to establish recommended daily intake levels in more countries and on a broader global level.

Conclusion

Research has demonstrated that omega-3s are effective in improving health outcomes. But there’s more to learn. We’re only just starting to understand the importance of the role of omega-3 in gene expression. Omega-3 fatty acids seem to be able to activate processes that affect cell metabolism, along with a variety of other processes. Clearly, the role of omega-3s in the body is incredibly complex.

As new areas emerge, it is increasingly important that members of the omega-3 industry continue to support the research and development of omega-3 science. But also, and most importantly, prioritize providing necessary, and simplified, consumer education and guidance of attributes and claims for a broader understanding of omega-3 benefits and use. This, in addition to transparent practices in terms of EPA/DHA product content, species, purity, sustainability, etc., will lower the threshold for uncertain consumers to make good and educated choices — for the betterment of the industry. Even today, the average diet in most countries does not provide enough EPA and DHA. Much progress has been made, but much work remains to be done.

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