The rise in popularity of omega-3 fatty acids is due to the number of research studies performed on these essential nutrients in areas including cardiovascular and brain health, and inflammatory disease. Sales have been growing in the food, drug, dietary supplements and mass-market channels. Manufacturers have been striving to develop dietary supplements, baked goods, beverages and functional foods that can deliver these star nutrients to their consumers.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been so popular that 150 million units of the omega-3 fortified Columbus eggs have been sold world-wide by the Belgium company Belero.1 Companies are fortifying eggs, as well as meats such as lamb, with omega-3 fatty acids by adding fish oil to the animal feed. Still, many people find it difficult to consume enough on a daily basis. Foods naturally rich in omega-3s include salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, and plant sources such as flaxseed oil, wheat germ oil and walnuts.
Education on the importance of omega-3s has motivated some consumers to consume fish oil at all costs. These consumers will actually pour cod liver oil onto a tablespoon and drink it every day. Others will take flaxseed oil the same way or will pour a tablespoon of it into a blender with protein powder, fruit and other compounds. It may nauseate them to consume any type of oil alone, but blending them with a combination of other ingredients may help to eliminate the problems of the sight, mouth feel, odour or taste of oil.
Although sales are rising, there still remain problems in formulating with these oils in a food or pill form. Issues run the gamut from working with the oils to consumer experience. These include stability, rancidity and mixing oils together with dry ingredients, as well as the unpleasant smell, taste and aftertaste that sometimes lead to regurgitation, which can further cause nausea and an upset stomach. Also, consuming large pills is not appealing, but to deliver an effective level of omega-3s, large softgels are necessary.
Some companies have been experimenting with methods to improve these undesirable effects so the consumer is more likely to make repeat purchases. They have also developed ways to deliver these key nutrients in foods and supplements.
- Reducing rancidity risk: The double bonds in the structure of omega-3s makes them more susceptible to oxidation and rancidity, causing a taste and smell worse than even the fish odour. To reduce rancidity of these fragile oils, companies have added antioxidants such as vitamin E to help prevent oxidation and increase shelf-life. In addition, companies such as Sk?nemejerier in Sweden have added oat or oat bran oil to protect the omega-3s when adding the oil to milk products.1 Omega-3s have also been used to fortify ice cream—it is believed that the cold temperature protects against oxidation.2
- Something smells fishy: Some consumers prefer consuming fish oil in its liquid form because it appears to be more in its natural state and they have no desire to consume large softgels or multiple pills to deliver their essential fatty acids daily.
A proprietary process called ?molecular distillation? removes the fishy taste. The odour is removed so that it is more appealing to smell and to the taste buds. Some companies have also added flavours to the oils such as orange, mint, apple or a hint of lemon to provide a more appetising taste. These oils actually taste good, but some consumers still may have a difficult time with the mouth feel and perception of consuming an oil on a spoon.
- From an oil to a powder: Another way to increase the acceptability of omega-3s and remove the poor taste and odour is to microencapsulate the oil into a powder so it is compatible in a beverage, food or pill form. The omega-3s are delivered in a dry form, a powder coating that may be a more palatable way to sell the product. Bioriginal Food and Science Group is one of a number of companies that has developed microencapsulated powders to deliver fatty acids. The omega-3s can be emulsified in a mixture with other ingredients and coating compounds, microencapsulated, and then dried into a powder form that can be quickly and evenly dispersed into bars, powder mixtures, capsules and tablets.
- Enteric coating: Omega-3 fatty acids can be enteric coated to by pass the stomach and get delivered and slowly released in the small intestines where they are absorbed. This has shown to improve the tolerance of the oils, protect against oxidation and improve stability. It also is believed that by delivering the oils directly into the small intestines, the omega-3s may be more beneficial to those individuals with gastrointestinal inflammatory disorders. If individuals have an existing gastrointestinal problem, consuming a product that will cause further stomach upset will not only reduce tolerance and compliance, but it will also reduce the absorption of these key compounds to be used for their important function in the body. In one double-blind, placebo-controlled study conducted in Italy, 50 patients with Crohn?s disease were administered 500mg of a fish-oil product either in an enteric coating or in uncoated capsules.4 After six months, half of the individuals who consumed the uncoated capsules had stomach upset, belching, reflux or other upper gastrointestinal discomfort, versus no problems in the group taking the enteric-coated product.
The downside is that more powder is needed to deliver an effective dose compared to a straight fish-oil product. This delivery system still may be a better option because taste and smell is a critical selling point to the public. Remember, the objective is for the consumer to continue taking the product on a regular basis.
Other companies are manufacturing granulates that combine the essential fatty acids with a water-soluble carrier and a solid pulverulent filler and binder. These are capable of being used in food preparations as well as in dietary supplement tablets.
Roche is one of a number of companies that produces a broad range of omega-3 fatty acid products in powder form for baked goods and baby food under the name ROPUFA. They are considered to be stable, and highly dispersible in cold water, and to have a neutral taste and smell.
Microencapsulated products operate so that they slowly release in the intestines, avoiding any release in the stomach. This reduces the risk of oxidation and gastrointestinal problems such as nausea, belching and stomach upset. However, there is concern that the microencapsulated product may not be absorbed and utilised as well as the straight fish oil softgels or straight oil delivered on a tablespoon.
The bioavailability of the microencapsulated fish-oil has been shown to be just as effective as fish oil delivered in a capsule. One study compared the bioavailability of microencapsulated fish oil in a milk shake to an omega-3 fish-oil capsule. The study discovered no difference in bioavailability between the two products. Therefore, the microencapsulated delivery form provides an appropriate option to increase the level of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.3
The other way to go is to formulate with vegetarian plant sources such as flaxseed seed, flaxseed oil, perilla seed or perilla seed oil; or fungal and algae products rich in omega-3s. Of course there are still issues of rancidity with the seeds and oils, but they are worth investigating further.
There are products that deliver omega-3 fatty acids in flours appropriate for baked goods, functional foods and bars. They have been made so that they are quite stable with a suitable taste. The flaxseed flour in a product called BakOmega, from Bioriginal Food & Science Corp in Saskatchewan, Canada, can replace up to 20 per cent of the flour in the recipe and provide more than 450mg of alpha-linoleic acid, which is comparable to a 500mg flaxseed-oil softgel.
The demand for omega-3 fatty acids is rising and it is becoming easier to overcome some of the formulating problems with these oils. Market news, education and research studies—as well as health claims that are predicted to pass in some markets—will increase sales on the horizon. There are now many ways to deliver the goods and omit the undesirable effects.
Judi Quilici-Timmcke, MS, is president of Q-Tech Services and a product formulator in the dietary supplements industry. She has developed unique omega-3 products, has written monographs and has been a spokesperson for omega-3 products.
1. The FoodlineWeb Newsletter. Leatherhead Food International Limited. 2002 March.
2. Rudolph MJ. A scoopful of nutrition: enriching ice cream with fish oil. Innov in Food Tech 2001;(13):69-70.
3. Morrissey PA, et al. Use of microencapsulated fish oil as a means of increasing n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake. J Hum Nutrit and Diet 1999;12(4):265-71.
? 4. Belluzzi A, et al. Effects of new fish oil derivative on fatty acid phospholipid-membrane pattern in a group of Crohn?s disease patients. Dig Dis Sci 1994;39(12):2589-94.