Nothing fishy about omega-3 science

The growing popularity of omega-3s is the result of solid science substantiation of health benefits and sophisticated technologies enhancing delivery and absorption. Omega-3s, particularly DHA, are poised for an unprecedented advance into the prescription and over-the-counter drug sectors even as they proliferate in foods and beverages. Functional foods and beverages already proven in Europe and in the rest of the world will soon be available in the US.

Multi-faceted mechanisms are responsible for the beneficial health effects of DHA. Anecdotal and epidemiological data first connected the dots between health and performance and fish oil; recent advances in modern nutrition and food science have taken the focus on wellness to a molecular level.

Consumers are concerned about certain types of cancer, type-2 diabetes, heart disease, brain and mental disorders, obesity, arthritis, and immune and inflammatory disorders in association with ageing and oxidative stress. That omega-3 fatty acids and algal DHA may help such conditions has propelled their sales in the supplements aisle, though the recession has not helped their transition into food and beverage aisles.

Formulators are packing omega-3 fatty acids into dairy products, juices, breads, pastas and bars, but most (58.2 per cent) of the omega-3 oils, by volume, are going into dietary supplements, with only 17.1 per cent streaming into functional foods. "Success comes to those foods that have high levels of EPA/DHA and which are positioned for beyond heart health," says Adam Ismail, executive director of GOED, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3. Pronova's Lovaza/Omacor success in the pharma aisle ($778 million in 2008, 60 per cent of it in the US) comes from harnessing the influence of physicians and nutritionists, and is bound to help the omega-3 connection with heart health.

Where is all of this heading? To the mental/cognition category — no surprise given the increasing numbers of seniors. Euromonitor predicts the cognitive-functional category will "be one of the hottest functional foods," making DHA, with its multiple implications for brain health, even more important. In Japan, where mental health is a leading category, Mochida's Epadel (pharmaceutical-grade omega-3s) fetched $87.2 million in sales in 2008.

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Concentration is important
Naturally occurring fish oils have a combined EPA and DHA concentration of approximately 30 per cent. Fish-oil concentrates, with concentrations ranging between 40-95 per cent (low=40-70 per cent; high=>70 per cent), are gaining popularity and are expected to take a significant share of the fish-oils market in the next five years up to 2014. The ethyl-ester concentrates (EE) dominate the American market, while triglyceride concentrates (TG) prevail in Europe and Asia. Consumers prefer the more expensive TG concentrates over their EE counterparts because that's how omega-3s exist in nature. The future is bright for concentrates, especially as consumer interest evolves from general and overall wellness products to condition-specific products and 'solutions.' Concentrate volume and efficacy will likely add to their boom in the pharmaceutical industry.

— Kantha Shelke

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