Omega-3 fatty acids are beginning to fulfil the hype afforded them in recent years by leaping out of the supplements aisle and into foods and beverages, thanks to improved formulation technologies, government-backed health claims and a friendly press eager to convey a seemingly endless stream of positive research.
The ingredient said to bolster the heart, brain, mood and skin, as well as benefitting breast cancer and Alzheimer?s patients, is finding its way into an expanding array of foods being consumed by a broadening demographic. The number of North American food products with omega-3 content more than doubled between 2002 and 2004, according to Datamonitor?s Productscan Online. It also noted a significant rise in European launches.
?Consumers are seeking omega-3 food fortification as a preference to supplements,? said Jerry Luff, executive vice president of business development at the UK division of Australian fish oils supplier Nu-Mega. ?This is due to a unique confluence of three factors. Technological development on the ingredient and formulation side; science-backed health benefits; and consumer interest, education and demand.?
Monica Johnson, sales and marketing manager at New Jersey-based ingredients supplier Pure World Botanicals, told FF&N omega-3s? newfound availability in powder form was permitting much of the development. ?As an oil it has limited applications. As a powder it can be utilised in many varying dosage forms, including most functional foods. This improvement is allowing more manufacturers to utilise this essential ingredient in their food products, thus bringing it to more consumers and improving overall health.?
Omega-3 presence in mainstream foods means consumers don?t have to make alterations in their diet to incorporate omega-3s. Recent heart-health claims approved in the US and the UK are accelerating the adult foods market, while research indicating omega-3 consumption benefits children?s brain function and mood is driving new products aimed at kids. ?Parents have had trouble finding products that are both nutritious and that their children will enjoy,? Nu-Mega?s Luff said. ?Many omega-3 foods overcome this problem.?
Maryland-based DHA-supplier Martek Biosciences is moving beyond its infant formula stronghold. ?We have had a lot of success in yoghurts, cheeses, bread, cereal bars,? said spokeswoman Beth Parker. ?We are formulating a product with Kellogg?s we expect on the shelf in late 2006. We are seeing a trend to incorporate DHA into foods for children, so they can follow onto them when they move on from infant formula.?
The spotlight on omega-3s has also focused attention on the different forms of the omega-3 fatty acids family — such as the fish vs vegetarian-source debate — where research indicates flax, a common source of short-chain omega-3 form ALA, may not be as bioavailable as other long-chain forms such as EPA and DHA.
?All the experts are saying this,? said Parker, noting Martek is the only mass-produced, micro-algae-derived, vegetarian source of DHA. ?Saying flax is a good source of omega-3s is like saying food is a good source of vitamins — it is not specific enough to be meaningful. The next step is greater definition of what the different omega-3s do and what their health benefits are. Packages will be labelled with the type of omega-3 contained within.?