Taking the 'fishy' out of fish oil

Thanks to micro-encapsulation, formulators are now able to incorporate omega-3s into breads, juices and other foods, without compromising taste. Patrick McGuigan explores the impact this is having on the market segment

Oily fish may be rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but it is off the menu for many people because of its strong flavour. While this has proved a boon for the fish oil supplements market, functional foods companies have struggled to take advantage. Consumers may be looking for omega-3-enriched foods, but not ones that smell or taste like sardines.

In the past two years, however, ingredients companies claim to have caught up with demand. The turning point came with the introduction of micro-encapsulation technology, which traps the fish oil and releases it once the food is in the digestive system. Ocean Nutrition, in Nova Scotia, Canada, for example, launched its Meg-3 powdered fish oils last year. Its micro-encapsulation system sees fish oil contained in a tiny gelatine sack, within which there are hundreds of other smaller sacks. ?Companies have been trying to solve the problem of the taste of fish oil in food for 15 years without success, but this was the breakthrough,? says the company?s vice president of marketing and new product development, Ian Lucas.

Most of the major fish oil suppliers, including Nu-Mega, Denomega and Bioriginal, also have launched micro-encapsulated products in the last 18 months. This leap in technology has prompted a steady flow of fish-oil enriched foods and drinks in the US, Europe and Australia, as well as Asia. Applications have included bread, fruit juice, yoghurts, milk and bars, with food companies generally emphasising heart or brain health benefits.

In the US, the heart benefits of EPA and DHA omega-3s found in fish oils have been the main focus, partly because the FDA approved a qualified heart-health claim last year. In the UK, promoting the benefits of omega-3s to young minds has been more popular.

Deciding which health message to highlight is no easy matter for companies. Beyond the heart and brain, research has shown that EPA and DHA have a beneficial effect on numerous health complaints, from asthma to arthritis, obesity to bad behaviour in children, and failing eyesight to Alzheimer?s. They have even been shown to improve complexion. So is there a danger that consumers might get confused about what omega-3s are good for?

?It is simpler to give a single message to consumers, but you can?t control the research that is coming out,? says Lucas at Ocean Nutrition. ?We advise our US customers that with the FDA claim, heart health is a great place to position a product. Heart health is number one, but brain health is very active.?

At Denomega Nutritional Oils (formerly Denofa) in Norway, which supplies oils, powders and liquid fish oil ingredients, Jan Haakonsen says there is room for generic and specific health claims for functional foods.

?There are many health benefits to EPA and DHA omega-3, and it can be confusing,? he says. ?I think you will see a dual approach from companies. Many will focus on specific health benefits to simplify the message and target niches in the market place. On the other hand, there is data that indicates those companies who take a wide approach, like ?omega 3 is good for you? are growing faster than those focusing on niches. I believe there is room for both.?

At the European office of Australian fish oils supplier Nu-Mega, Jerry Luff, executive vice president of business development in Europe, says that the range of health benefits attributed to fish oils is to its advantage. ?This is an essential nutrient no matter where you are in the life cycle,? he says.

Nu-Mega?s encapsulated tuna oil, under the Driphorm brand, has been included in breads and orange juice in Europe. He says these types of staple foods are the best vehicles for fish oils.

?Mainstream foods that are eaten everyday are the most effective way of returning omega 3 to people?s diets,? he says. ?Also, the manufacturers of these types of foods are looking at ways of differentiating themselves. Nutritional differentiation can justify price premiums.?

Adrian Hughes, director of new business for Canadian ingredients company Bioriginal, adds: ?Sensitive fish oils are suitable for foods with short shelf life. EPA and DHA are sensitive to oxidation and when this happens, you get fishy flavours developing. So it makes sense to put them into products that have a high turnover on the shelves, like bread, or in chilled products, like dairy.?

Hughes adds that one of the challenges of incorporating fish oils in functional foods is achieving a meaningful dose of omega-3s per serving. Bioriginal has therefore developed a range of powdered EFA products suitable for a variety of food applications.

Regulatory impact
Functional foods companies using fish oils are also benefiting from clearer regulatory guidelines over health claims and daily intakes. Apart from the FDA?s heart health claim, the Joint Health Claims Initiative (JHCI) in the UK has approved a heart claim for long-chain fatty acids such as DPA, DHA and EPA . It recommends people consume at least 450mg per day.

Back at Nu-Mega, Luff says the JHCI?s guidelines are being adopted by countries throughout Europe. He adds that as well as making things simpler for functional foods companies, these also help draw a distinction between very long-chain fatty acids found in fish oil and the shorter-chain fatty acids like ALA (found in flax oil), which cannot use the claim. ?Tightening of regulations clarifies things for consumers,? he says.

This is important because people understand that omega-3 is good for the heart and brain, but not that there are different types of omega-3s or that fish oils are the most effective source of EPA and DHA.

Marketing activity surrounding the launch of new fish oil-enriched products will also improve understanding, and fish oil suppliers are doing their bit to boost awareness with websites, promotional literature and branded ingredients. Once this starts to filter through, we can expect to see many more functional foods containing fish oils.

Fish oils by the numbers
According to Frost & Sullivan, the US omega-3 and omega-6 poly-unsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) ingredients market is valued at $204.5 million. The market is forecast to grow to $524 million by 2011 at a compound annual growth rate of 14.4 per cent. Marine oils comprise more than 65 per cent of the total market in terms of revenues. Meanwhile, Ian Lucas at Ocean Nutrition says the US fish oil supplements ingredients market is worth more than $300 million and is growing at up to 25 per cent a year.?

In Europe, Frost & Sullivan says the total market for marine oil ingredients was worth just over $264 million in 2004 in Europe. The total market for omega-3 PUFAs (including flax and algae oils) is expected to grow by eight per cent on average every year till 2010.

Latest product launches
Launched in the UK this year, IQ3 Brainstorm cereal bars are made by Biomedical Laboratories using Nu-Mega?s Driphorm powdered fish oils. The fruit-flavoured bars, which contain 150mg of DHA/EPA, are already listed in Waitrose and Superdrug, as well as health food stores. They are marketed as a way to improve children?s performance at school.

MD Chris Szymanski says it took a year to get the right recipe. ?There were small issues with flavour at first, but we found the fruit sugars helped mask these. We tested the bars with 180 school kids and not one of them mentioned the word ?fishy,?? he says.

US supermarket chain Wegmans introduced three omega 3-enriched breads this year, using Meg-3 encapsulated fish oils from Ocean Nutrition. Two slices contain 80-90mg of DHA and EPA, marketed as improving heart health.

?We didn?t use the FDA heart-health claim because we felt it was too long and cumbersome. Instead we explained how scientists discovered that native Alaskans had very few heart attacks, despite a diet of whale blubber and fatty fish, and how their investigations led to the view that omega-3 fats protected against heart disease,? says Wegmans? corporate nutritionist, Jane Andrews.

Spanish dairy company Puleva launched Omega 3 milk in 1998 and a range of drinking yoghurts in 2002. According to marketing director Fernando Gonz?lez, there was little understanding of omega-3s when the milk was first launched, but this has now changed. ?The company invested strongly to perform different clinical trials with the Puleva omega-3 milk,? he says.

Puleva makes its own omega-3 oil. ?This has allowed us?to overcome the main handicaps in omega-3 functional foods: taste and stability,? says Gonzalez.

Sales of Puleva?s omega-3 products are showing double-digit growth, with the company selling 100 million litres of functional milk a year.

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