The road to success for omega-3 functional foods

Omega-3s have been held out as a potential blockbuster ingredient since the beginning of the functional food boom in the 1990s, but some would argue that, despite all the positive research and their existing roots in the food supply chain, they have yet to take off

So the question remains, what will it take for omega-3 functional foods to succeed? To some extent, this is a bit of a misleading question. There is a wide variety of omega-3 fortified foods that have done very well in the world. We know of at least ten individual products that have sold more than $100 million per year, ranging from omega-3 milks to cooking oils to breads to juices.

These have largely been one-off successes and have not exactly led a trend to revolutionize the food world. There is a little natural conflict between ingredient suppliers and food companies that help to define this debate, though. Ingredient companies, for instance, may want to see every food category with multiple SKUs fortified with omega-3s, whereas food companies want to introduce new products that don’t immediately trigger the launch of a bunch of imitation products. The most successful omega-3 products have definitely led to competitive products and brands, whereas those that remain more niche have largely fended off imitators.

So, if the potential exists for products to be blockbusters, why aren’t more companies doing this yet? We hear a lot of reasons, but one of the most common is that there are some significant regulatory barriers in place in many countries. In the US, for instance, regulators have taken away the ability to claim a “rich source of” or “high in” EPA and DHA omega-3s.

This leaves food companies with a quandary: how much EPA and DHA needs to be added to make a claim? It is true that claims help to position products to consumers, but keep in mind that Europe is probably the most open market for omega-3 food innovation because they have both recommended intakes and claims established that allow EPA and DHA to be added to foods and for companies to market that fact in a way that aligns with the consumer. Yet, there have been no new blockbuster omega-3 products launched since these new claims and recommended intakes came into effect.

Claims are closely linked to a dosage issue. Foods are not supplements wherein you are trying to deliver nutrients in a single serving. Instead, the theory of nutrient fortification is based on the principle that consumers get their nutrients from a variety of dietary sources. As a result, most countries allow nutrition claims at dosages much lower than the recommended intake, usually around 20–30% of the recommendation.

This means the market may have products with what informed consumers perceive to be a low omega-3 content. For food companies, the masses only require the minimum level of fortification required to use a claim; so, again, this creates some natural conflict that may inhibit the success of omega-3 foods. Also, if nutrients such as omega-3s are not in enough food categories in the store, then there is little chance that consumers will eat the additional 3–4 servings required to actually be compliant.

Cost is another frequently cited challenge. Omega-3s are not a simple ingredient, especially when sold as a food component. Special technologies that add to the cost of the omega-3 oil are often required to make them suitable for use in foods without creating a poor sensory experience, including microencapsulation or blending with other oils to stabilise the omega-3s.

The general rule of thumb you hear is that a functional ingredient should not add more than a cent or two to the cost of a food. That does not sound like much, but consider that most foods have around 85% gross margins, which means the mark-up passed on to a consumer could be as high as $0.15 per serving or even more than a dollar per carton of milk!

This is why small increases in price for a functional ingredient are serious issues for food companies, especially when your product appears on the shelf next to a non-functional variety at a much lower price. The most successful omega-3 foods have put extra work into developing effective marketing strategies to overcome this issue and treat the price premium as an asset rather than a barrier.

Lastly, technical challenges are and continue to be perceived as difficult for food manufacturers to work with; however, ingredient companies have made great strides in recent years to help the food industry address these issues and find the right oils to use for specific food manufacturing processes.

Companies such as Cargill, BASF, DSM, Nu-Mega, Friesland Campina, Denomega and others have developed special oil blends or encapsulations for the food industry. However, not all applications are covered yet. For instance, nobody has figured out how to get EPA and DHA omega-3s into a deep-fried food, but incorporating meaningful amounts of EPA and DHA into high-heat baking applications is now achievable.

So, to go back to the original question, what will it take for omega-3 functional foods to succeed? The answer is complex. Foods must contain an appropriate level of EPA and DHA in each serving, with a reasonably priced ingredient that is tailored to the specific application in which it is being used.

Even if you overcome all those challenges, it would be nice to have a claims structure in place where you are marketing these products. Also, many of the products that have succeeded have had sophisticated marketing campaigns behind them to help grow consumer awareness and brand equity, which of course never hurts. Coincidentally, almost all of the major omega-3 functional food successes have met these criteria.