Omega-3 oils offer well-substantiated benefits to human health (especially heart health), but the majority of people consume less than experts recommend. Ellen Schutt of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) explains why these fatty acids are so important and discusses what can be done to increase consumption.
The benefits of omega-3s are widely known. Credited with improving cardiovascular health, cognitive function and inflammatory conditions, to name a few, these fatty acids have long been touted as something of a wonder nutrient.
Of course, it pays to exercise caution when confronted with far-reaching health claims. But with more than 30,000 scientific papers published to date – including over 3,700 randomised controlled trials – their nutritional value is reasonably well established.
Barely a month goes by, in fact, without omega-3s making the news. In January 2017, a research review was published, suggesting that omega-3s consumption reduced the risk of of heart disease, even for those in high-risk groups. In February, a different study found a link between high levels of omega-3s in the blood and lower mortality risk over the study period. And in March, it was suggested that omega-3s might help offset the damage caused by air pollution.
According to one school of thought, many of the health ailments prevalent in Western societies can be traced to a dietary imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The theory suggests that humans have moved from a diet where the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 was around 1:1, to one where omega-6s outweigh omega-3s around 16:1. This may lead to an increase in inflammation.
Heart of the matter
While this hypothesis is open to debate, it does appear that most people would benefit from increasing their omega-3 consumption. Since 2004, EPA and DHA omega-3s have had ‘qualified health claim’ status in the US, with the FDA stating: “supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of [these] fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease”.
“The main body of science is around heart health benefits,” explains Ellen Schutt, communications director at the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). “Omega 3s have been shown to lower triglycerides, reduce blood sugar, lower the risk of coronary heart disease and reduce the risk of cardiac death. There are a lot of things which omega 3s haven’t been shown to do or where the science isn’t there, but in those four areas, the science is really strong.”
As the non-profit trade organisation for omega-3s, GOED works to increase the consumption of omega-3s around the world. It recommends that the average person should consume 500mg of EPA and DHA a day for general health, and higher quantities for specific life stages or health conditions.
It also aims to protect the category, both from outside influences like negative media, and from poor practices within the industry.
“We want to make sure our members are producing quality products that consumers can trust and feel confident about,” says Schutt. “As a condition of membership, all our members have to adhere to a quality monograph we’ve created, which is one of the strictest standards in the international omega-3 industry. So we take quality pretty seriously.”
The organisation represents around 200 members across various segments of the omega-3 supply chain. These include processors, refiners, manufacturers, distributors, marketers, and retailers, among others.
It is not concerned with other omega oils, such as omega-6 or ALA (alpha-linolenic acid, a shorter-chain omega-3). Rather, it focuses exclusively on eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – the two forms of omega-3 thought to confer the most health benefits.
“EPA and DHA are the two main fatty acids from marine sources, and most of the products that are available contain both,” says Schutt. “So if you eat a piece of salmon you’re getting both of them. Likewise with almost all the supplements on the market.”
In nature, EPA and DHA are found predominantly in oily fish, such as salmon, sardines and anchovies. Because it can be hard to consume such foods in large quantities (the NHS, for instance, recommends people eat no more than one portion a day due to the risks of mercury and other pollutants), many people prefer to supplement with omega-3 capsules.
“A variety of different fish provide the oil that goes into supplements, but the largest source is anchovy, largely from the Peruvian anchovy fishery,” says Schutt. “Then in addition to that there’s cod liver oil, which has a long heritage of use, there’s salmon oil, there’s tuna oil. Krill is a more recent addition to the market, along with algae.”
Kelp is on its way
Algae and kelp, she points out, are coming to prominence as the only true vegetarian sources of EPA and DHA. While the likes of flax seed oils, hemp seed oils and walnuts do contain omega-3s, this is in the form of ALA, which may not have the same effects.
“The conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA in the body is really low, so it’s not really possible to get the EPA and DHA that you should just from eating ALA,” she says.
So with its dietary importance reasonably clear, how is the omega-3 market faring? Schutt feels it’s difficult to talk about the market in its entirety, given that the industry is so variegated – it really depends on what category you’re interested in, and what part of the world.
Overall, though, the global market is worth $1.2bn at the raw materials level, and $31.4bn for finished products (figures from 2015). The largest application, by far and away, is dietary supplements, accounting for 77.9% of market volume. Over the last few years, manufacturers have found ways to concentrate higher doses of omega-3 within each pill, meaning consumers are ‘trading up’ to higher dose, higher price products.
Pet foods are the second largest application at 9.6%, followed by food and beverage (4.6%) and infant formula (4.1%). However, the proportions are somewhat different when you look at market value. Measured that way, infant formula is the second largest category (18.9% of market share) followed by pharmaceuticals (18.0%).
“The pharmaceutical market is interesting because although there are only a few countries with pharmaceutical EPA and DHA products, there are more than 30 products in the drug discovery pipeline,” says Schutt. “We’re watching that to see how that will impact the market in general, especially the supply of raw materials.”
Drop of oil
Surveying the industry geographically, you can see a clear split between mature and emerging markets. While sales in the US and Europe have contracted slightly in recent years, growth is continuing apace in most other regions.
“China, South East Asia and some African and South American countries are growing faster, while sales in the US and Europe are pretty much flat,” says Schutt. “At the retail level, the US has actually been declining for the last few years, although now we’re back at zero, or maybe a little bit of growth.”
The drop in US sales, she believes, was largely due to omega-3s receiving some negative press, along with a lack of compensatory positive attention. One paper, published in 2013, drew a link between high levels of omega-3 in the blood and the risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer. This was reported, in typically sensationalised form, by various media outlets. At the same time, positive news stories declined significantly between 2011 and 2014.
In 2015, GOED (along with the Omega-3 Coalition) ran a consumer marketing campaign intended to change the tone of the conversation. While GOED is not traditionally a consumer-facing organisation, and does not have a huge budget for such purposes, it was mildly successful in its aims, noting a consequent growth in sales figures.
The organisation has also established an Executive Council on Education and Outreach, which invests in additional omega-3 research to address the present areas of contention. It funded the meta-analysis published this January, and has another paper coming out this year on how omega-3s can lower cardiac death risk.
“We’re always worrying about what the media is going to say because it’s so influential for consumers,” says Schutt. “Recently on the cardiovascular side, a few neutral studies have come out, and that leads the media to say omega-3s don’t work. It’s a big frustration for us that the science is not being presented properly. So we’re trying to make sure that we’re shoring up the science around omega-3s to keep supporting what’s already out there.”
Another factor influencing sales is the recommendations of health practitioners. As GOED research demonstrates, consumers around the world are heavily influenced in their supplement choices by their doctor’s advice.
“We’re trying to do more to talk to that community to make sure they understand the benefits,” says Schutt. “Right now we’re trying to figure out which doctor community we should talk to and what the message should be. And we don’t care if GOED is in the news, but we want the science to be at the forefront so consumers can hear omega-3s are good for this or good for that.”
All the fish in the sea
Beyond consumer awareness, another key issue is sustainability. After all, if everybody in the world were to consume as much EPA and DHA as GOED recommends, it would have a severely depleting effect on the ocean.
Schutt feels that alternative sources will definitely become necessary. Although all the fisheries used at present are managed sustainably, issues relating to climate change can reduce the available biomass of fish. Since this is likely to become more of a problem in the years to come, non-fish sources (e.g. algae and kelp) have been pegged as a useful solution.
“A lot of companies are developing algae products but aren’t yet commercial, and the algae market has huge potential because it’s totally sustainable,” says Schutt. “Right now it’s very expensive compared to most of the fish sources, but if anchovy becomes less easily available I think algae will become a more attractive alternative.”
Whatever the fluctuations in sales, omega-3 products are undoubtedly a staple of the natural products industry, and will continue to be so in the years to come.
“We were just last week at a very big trade show in California, and talking to our members it feels like there’s more optimism now than there has been,” says Schutt. “It feels like the market is turning around a bit in the US, and, knock on wood, the news in the media is looking relatively positive too.”
This article appears in the 2017 vol 1 edition of Ingredients Insight