Companies across the globe continue to scramble to find ways to extract omega-3s from plant (or at least nonmarine) sources. Fish oil, and more recent arrival krill oil, have up to now led the omega-3s race, but a new breed of plant geneticists and food scientists are nipping at their heels.The high barriers to entry in the marine supply market are one impetus. Few companies have access to a fishing fleet, leaving cutting a deal with existing marine suppliers as the sole option for those ingredients. And there are persistent questions in consumers’ minds about the health of the oceans, marine sustainability certifications notwithstanding.
Another impetus is the decision of FDA to lump EPA and DHA – the long chain fatty acids with the strongest scientific backing – with other omega-3s such as ALA under a catch-all "omega-3s" label claim. This allows ingredients like flax and chia to bask in the reflected glory of marine oils.
Experts have taken a variety of paths toward the goal of find nonmarine omega 3 sources. Some have taken to hybridizing existing crops like rapeseed (canola) to boost their omega 3 content, some have identified heretofore obscure plants that can yield these coveted long chain fatty acids. DuPont researchers have genetically modified a yeast to yield omega-3s. And Maryland-based Martek and other companies have been deriving DHA and EPA from algae for years.
Recent news out of both the UK and Australia show that research in the vegetarian omega 3s sector is as lively as ever.
Common weed yields omega 3s
In the UK farmers have teamed up with chemicals giant Croda to cultivate a crop previously considered a weed after it was discovered to be rich in omega 3s.
Corn Gromwell (Buglossoides arvensis) contains high levels of stearidonic acid (SDA), a precursor in the biosynthesis of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Experts believe it offers significant potential as a commercial source of plant-based Omega 3 to rival the established Echium because it is much easier for farmers to cultivate. Echium needs specialized harvesting equipment, which restricts its production to a few growers willing to make the high levels of investment required.
NIAB TAG, an independent not-for-profit plant research body based in Cambridge, England, is now heading moves to undertake trials involving Corn Gromwell to establish optimum growing and harvesting conditions for the plant.
The trial, which is back by UK government funding, will take place with the support of Croda, which already markets Echium-derived Omega 3 ingredients, but which has also developed an oil extraction technique for use with Corn Gromwell.
The only stumbling block at present is that oil extracted from Corn Gromwell does not have Novel Food approval within the European Union. This will be required because the ingredient has no history of being marketed for food use in the EU prior 15 May 1997.
However, it is expected that approval will be granted without difficulty because Corn Gromwell is from the same family of plants as Echium, oil from which is already approved under the Novel Food Regulation following a previous application lodged by Croda.
Corn Gromwell was a well-known weed that grew alongside spring cereals until the extensive use of hardier winter varieties and herbicides virtually eliminated it.
Push to boost omega 3s from canola
In Australia a public-private partnership is pushing the modification of canola plants to yield higher ratios of EPA and DHA.
The partnership of oilseed company Nuseed, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the Grains Research and Development Corporation are cooperating in the project that seeks to bring the new oilseed varieties to market by 2016.
The goal is to derive ingredients for the human health market but also, and more importantly, to produce high-quality feed for future fish farms.
"This project is creating a new industry in Australia," Dr. Bruce Lee of the CSIRO told The Weekly Times, an Australian newspaper. "Farmers would be paid premiums for growing the canola. We think we can convert a considerable amount of the Australian canola crop to these premium varieties."