Representing the rise of omega-3s as a functional food ingredient

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Over the past decade, consumers have made increased efforts to include healthier ingredients in their diet. Omega-3 oils are essential fatty acids that are the building blocks of life and the key to regulating the function of all body cells. In particular, the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, traditionally derived from fish oil, are widely used in dietary supplements because of their wide range of health benefits, including cardiovascular, eye, and brain health. DHA is considered to be one of the most important nutritional supplements for infants and toddlers, for example to support cognitive development.

These oils have become popular additions to many consumer products. More recently, the focus has been on the inclusion of omega-3 oils as ingredients in functional food and beverage products rather than traditional dietary supplement pills and capsules.

The Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), the industry’s leading nonprofit trade association for omega-3 oils, has a daily recommendation for EPA and DHA intake of 500 mg for healthy adults, 700-1000 mg for pregnant / breastfeeding women and more than 1 g, depending on additional health conditions. However, to achieve the recommended daily allowance, consumers need to eat fatty fish 3-4 times a week. Because many people don’t, omega-3 fortified products have become a popular way for consumers to meet their nutritional needs.

The main focus of application of omega-3 oils was initially in infant and prenatal nutrition; However, as these ingredients became more popular, the demand for foods and beverages fortified with omega-3 increased. According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database in 2020, more than 1,800 commercial foods on the market were fortified with omega-3 oils.

Although omega-3 oils are popular food ingredients in western countries, the process of incorporating omega-3 fatty acids into various products has not been smooth. Omega-3 oils are typically derived from fish oil and therefore generally have strong side notes that are difficult to mask, preventing manufacturers from using them in products like juices and other beverages. But as the technology for masking flavors and off-notes advances, the industry is making headway.

In the early 2000s, some of the largest FMCG companies such as PepsiCo and the Coca-Cola Company added omega-3 fortified juices to their popular Tropicana and Minute Maid juice brands, respectively. The products were later discontinued due to consumer complaints about bad aftertaste, most likely from the fish oil. The use of omega-3 oils was therefore mostly limited to snacks, similar processed foods, and some regional dairy products.

The success of these omega-3 fortified food products can largely be attributed to their ability to cover up the off-notes without compromising the nutritional value of the product. In 2012, Horizon Organic, a US organic milk supplier, was one of the first companies to introduce DHA fortified milk. Soon many other companies followed suit, launching DHA fortified milk and milk-based beverages.

Another development took place in the oils sector, where edible oil manufacturers began fortifying their oils with omega-3 oils – especially DHA – to promote the products as healthier alternatives.

Today, DHA fortification is one of the most important goals for food and beverage manufacturers. In eastern countries like China, Japan and South Korea, goods fortified with DHA have been the norm since the 1990s. There are many products – especially processed meat, bakery snacks, and yogurt products – that have traditionally been fortified with DHA. Products such as Yakult, a DHA fortified yogurt drink, are a staple for consumers in the area and have seen product additions in a variety of flavors to meet consumer demand for variety. The demand for omega-3 fortified products is relatively constant in the region and is expected to continue.

The way forward for omega-3 oils in food

Several concerns about taste, animal origin, and sustainability have led to a shift from fish oil-based omega-3 oils to an increase in algae-based cultivation and extraction of omega-3 oils. Algal oils are expected to be a popular choice as the plant-based food market grows. In 2020, Silk, one of the world’s best-known manufacturers of plant-based milk, launched Silk DHA Omega-3, which is made with DHA algae oil and contains 32 mg of DHA per serving. The industry expects further market launches in the future.

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is found in a variety of leafy green vegetables, some nuts, canola oil, flaxseed oil, and flaxseed supplements, is another emerging competitor in the world as it can be converted into omega-3 fatty acids in the body. There aren’t many commercial functional foods based on ALA in the market, but that could change as the vegetable sector is expected to grow exponentially in the years to come.

Omega-3 oils are not a new ingredient and their popularity has risen and fallen over the years. Still, the future growth of this ingredient category in the functional food space looks promising.

Sreedevi Kakkad (sreedevi.k@chembizr.com) is a food and nutrition consultant for ChemBizR. ChemBizR is a boutique research and advisory partner to chemical companies worldwide addressing the critical business challenges and strategic growth initiatives of companies to help them transform their businesses for sustainable growth in a highly competitive and rapidly evolving environment. For more information, send an email to connect@chembizr.com.

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