Supply issues loom over omega-3s category

Supply issues loom over omega-3s category

I’m not a gifted mathematician. If I were, I well might be doing something other than writing this column.  But even my limited math skills are enough to know that if you multiply 500 by 7 billion, you come up with a really big number.

That result, 3.5 trillion (I hope I got that right), is the number of milligrams of omega-3s that would be needed every day to supply all of the world’s people each with their recommended daily intake of 500 mg of EPA and DHA.

The world’s daily output is nowhere near that number. But the science backing omega-3s is ramping up steadily, and consumer awareness is rising in lockstep. So the output of omega-3s is rising, too.

There are potential problems with the supply of this ingredient, though. Even with the development of alternative sources of omega-3 supply, like krill and algae, the vast majority of today's omega-3s come from anchovies and sardines, caught mostly off Peru. This lone, albeit abundant, source supplies more than three grams of omega-3s for every one gram from all other sources combined.

The anchovies have been intensively harvested for decades, and enough seems to be known about this fishery to continue at this level into the future in a sustainable fashion, some recent warning bells notwithstanding.  But it’s extremely unlikely that production can rise much beyond this level.  Untold billions of anchovies and sardines are hatched every year, but it is a finite number.

Looming over this supply source is the demand to supply omega-3 for pharmaceutical drugs.  GlaxoSmithKline has for years marketed Lovaza, a prescription-only fish oil drug that is clinically proven to lower blood triglyceride levels. Pronova, the Norwegian company that supplies the raw material for this drug, is also—not coincidentally—the world’s largest fish oil omega-3s supplier. The fish oil in Lovaza is concentrated to yield 900 mg of omega-3s per gram of oil.  That means a huge amount of raw material goes into each capsule, compared to garden-variety fish oil products. Fish oil suppliers are jockeying to secure supply for the upcoming generic drug bonanza. The first of GSK’s Lovaza patents is set to expire in 2013.

Higher concentrations

But even in the dietary supplement space, ever-higher concentrations are the order of the day. A 30 percent concentration is the baseline standard (300mg of omega-3s per gram of oil), but concentrations of 40 or 50 percent are now common, with some ranging up to 80 percent. These yield smaller pills, which resonates with consumers.

All of this put fish oil supplies under increasing pressure, creating opportunity for other players, most notably krill oil and oils from algae, but also for some niche players deriving oil from the parts of Alaskan pollock or squid left over after those species are prepared for sale.

The omega-3s picture will continue to evolve. You’ll see a lot more about it here on newhope360 and also in the pages of Functional Ingredients magazine. For a comprehensive look at the omega-3s category, check out the newest Engredea Monograph on omega-3s.  You can buy your copy here.

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