In the world of finished products, fish, krill, algae and plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids are all competing for the same terrain. Issues of supply limitations and production costs all affect which types of products are best suited to which source of EPA, DHA or ALA.
That said, the amount of competitive rivalry between the different ingredient sources is on the wane, particularly within the EPA/DHA sector, Frost and Sullivan's Christopher Shanahan said. With the growth of industry association GOED, and as more companies have diversified their omega-3 ingredient holdings, cooperation has grown.
New products are hitting store shelves. According to Innova, omega-3s claimed 12.5 percent of new launches in the United States from January 2009 to November 2010. Worldwide, 895 food and beverage launches contained omega-3s in the first half of 2010, versus 597 in the first half of 2008.
The food industry's dirty little secret
When it comes to whether these products contain EPA, DHA or ALA, here we have the food industry's dirty little secret: Labels in the United States don't have to say! And most consumers don't realize that in the realm of heart-health research at least, the science backs the benefits of EPA and DHA, but not ALA.
"The Food and Drug Administration did a real disservice to consumers," said Ian Newton, principal of Ceres Consulting. "Food or dietary supplement labels can say they are a ‘high source' of omega-3s, but they don't have to state what type of omega-3 they actually contain."
FDA's timing of the nutrient content claim and its qualified health claim couldn't have been worse from a consumer-confusion perspective.
First, in May 2004, FDA approved a nutrient content claim for foods rich in omega-3s, which had been submitted on behalf of Alaska General Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods and Trans Ocean Products. The notification permitted the terms "good source," "high source" and "more" on food labels of ALA-rich products; and the term "high source" of omega-3s for foods with certain levels of EPA or DHA.
Then, only four months later, FDA issued its qualified health claim for conventional foods. But here, a product claim making an association to the reduction of coronary heart disease only applied to products containing EPA and DHA – not ALA. (An earlier qualified health claim for dietary supplements had been issued by FDA in 2000.)
That only EPA and DHA have been proven to reduce risks of heart disease is lost on the average consumer. While ALA also shares the "omega-3s" banner, it does not have the same proven benefits.
"It is much easier to formulate a food with ALA than with EPA or DHA," Newton said. "You don't have taste masking issues, and ALA-rich oils can be added to a food product for a fraction of a cent. So why would finished product companies not use ALA when they can use the same nutrient label claim as EPA and DHA on their package?"
EPA vs. DHA sources
It is just a matter of time before the FDA – or the American public – wises up to the situation and starts caring about the type of omega-3 in fortified foods or dietary supplements. In the meantime, people who do understand the difference still have to choose between different sources of EPA and DHA. And product manufacturers must weigh carefully the pros and cons of these different marine and non-marine sources.
Ocean Nutrition Canada, in the business of fish oil supply, not surprisingly comes down on the marine side of the equation. "Both marine and non-marine will continue to grow in the future, but we feel that fish oil will continue to be dominant for several reasons," explained Linwood Riddick, vice president of marketing.
"The first is that it contains both EPA and DHA fatty acids; research shows that both are essential for good health. Another reason is that fish oil is significantly more cost effective than algae oil, because fish is a natural resource that is harvested and algae is grown in fermentation plants that require significant capital investments. Fish oil is also perceived as more natural than algal sources."
Fish oils do have their limitations, however.
"Food and beverages are a great market for marine-based omega-3s, but it's one dominated by really large players who command strong bargaining power in pricing," Frost & Sullivan's Shanahan said. "The fish oil guys see a limited supply to these products, due to the limitations of harvest. For that reason, they are increasingly focusing on quality, pharma and clinical nutrition."
Newton of Ceres Consulting said that in time, different products and global regions will use different EPA and DHA sources.
"Fish oil will be the domain of Europe because they are afraid of all things GMO," Newton predicted. "Fish may become the primary form for human supplementation over there."
"Algae and yeast EPA and DHAs will eventually start utilizing GMO technology because it will be the only way to meet the increasing rise in consumer demand for these oils. Those oils will increasingly be used in aquaculture – in place of fish oil, which is what is being used now. Aquaculture uses the vast majority of all EPAs and DHAs being produced in the world right now, but supplies will become too limited. Thus in the interim, fish oils will be used by human nutrition since the value will be better than feeding them for aquaculture.
"As for American consumers, they will turn increasingly in the longer term to non-GMO algae and yeast sources for their food fortification and dietary supplementation," Newton said.
"The sustainability of fish-based oil is simply not feasible," Newton said. "The only solution in the future for meeting demand for long-chain fatty acids will be to create land- or algae-based alternatives."
Consumers wary of omega-3 fortified foods
Even for an ingredient with such widespread consumer acceptance as omega-3s, entry into the food space is still in its infancy, said Robert Orr, chairman of Ocean Nutrition Canada, in an interview with Nutrition Business Journal in November 2010.
"We have had a lot of success in the dietary supplements space, and we quite frankly underestimated how much more complex and complicated it was going to be in mainstream food," Orr said. "That's why I keep telling people, omega-3s are in their infancy."
Where finished product manufacturers have found the most success is in the dairy aisle.
In an interview with NBJ, Sterling Rice Group Managing Partner John Grubb explained: "SRG was involved in the launch of Horizon's DHA-fortified milk, which was an extremely successful launch and is a big SKU for them today.
"At that time, the idea of fish oil or algal-based DHA in dairy was really disconcerting to people. But in our most recent batch of research, we found that omega-3s are an exception to [consumer reluctance to seeing functional oils in their foods], and for some reason, [omega-3s] have permission to be in dairy."
"I think that has to do with the tremendous amount of consumer education that has occurred around the benefits of DHA and its nearly ubiquitous presence in all sorts of food forms. Omega-3s are now a staple nutrient," Grubb said. "Also, formulation challenges have been overcome so that people can expect the food to not have a fishy taste."
Martek is one company to have found great success in the diary aisle. The Maryland-based company has differentiated itself because it has been able to manufacture a highly concentrated product for specific applications. First Martek's life's DHA ingredient took over the infant nutrition niche; now it is moving into animal feed. The introduction of algae-based DHA into chicken feed has enabled "high source of omega-3s" content claims on eggs and milk products.
Algae-based ingredient innovations
The fact that algae sources tend to contain only DHA, and little to no EPA, led to one of the greatest – and most debated – ingredient innovations of recent years: a new yeast-based EPA unveiled by DuPont in 2010.
Whether you call the consumer supplement, New Harvest, a biotech innovation or a genetically modified organism, one thing is clear: it is the first all-vegetarian oil rich in EPA on the market.
The EPA is derived from Yarrowia lipolytica yeast, not algae, in a "fermentation process" developed by the chemical giant. Each capsule of New Harvest offers 600mg of EPA for every 1,200mg softgel.
As for how its sales are faring, both DuPont and the supplement manufacturer, FutureBiotics, are keeping mum.
A second innovation on the ingredient front is an algae-based ingredient that has been selectively bred to have higher EPA content. Called life'sDHA plus EPA, the new ingredient by Martek will be available in May 2011.
Fishing for answers?
This feature is an excerpt from the new Ingredient Intelligence Monograph Series. The series is an in-depth report on everything you'll want to consider when deciding whether to use a particular ingredient: historic sales info, current pricing info, business landscape outlook, regulatory hurdles, ingredient options pros and cons, case studies, interviews, charts and graphs. Find out more about omega-3s.