In 1965, Rene Thomas, M.D., worked as an elementary school teacher and was concerned about low test scores, illiteracy and behavioral problems like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD) that led to violence at her school.

Today, she is a food formulator and CEO of Kids Need Us Now Inc. (Methuen, Mass.), a company she founded after stumbling upon a potential solution to learning disabilities in children. In 1996, while attending a lecture by Barry Sears, M.D., a health guru popular for establishing the Zone Diet, Thomas learned that eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are concentrated heavily in specific tissues of the brain and eye. A deficiency of these essential fatty acids (EFA) can delay cognitive development in children, reducing their capacity to learn. “We have high rates of children who have 'ADHD' when--really--these kids are severely deficient in EFAs and eat a high amount of carbs,” says Thomas.

In response, Thomas' company created Nature's Mighty Bites Soft Serve Ice Cream, a lactose-free dessert that substitutes as a nutritious meal complete with omega-3 fatty acids from pharmaceutical-grade microencapsulated fish oil and monounsaturated fat from canola oil. Nature's Mighty Bites offers over 200 flavors. This heart-healthy ice cream is appropriate for even diabetics, says Thomas.

“I wanted to find a food product that kids could eat as a meal,” muses Thomas. Since most kids like ice cream, Thomas made ice cream with a balance of protein, carbohydrates and the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. She says kids can (theoretically) eat Mighty Bites ice cream alone and still get all the nutrients needed in a “balanced” meal.

Many consumers today recognize omega-3 fatty acids as EFAs that are obligatory not only for eye and brain development in children, but also as a deterrent for cardiovascular heart disease and high blood triglycerides. Research points to omega-3 consumption as beneficial to adults with many other diseases such as: depression, Alzheimer's, psoriasis, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, stroke and obesity.

When consumers think about what is commonly known as omega-3 fatty acid, the types EPA and DHA seldom come to mind. Instead, fish, the most abundant resource of EPA and DHA, is the usual association made with omega-3.

The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) recent qualified health claim, announced on September 8, 2004, endorses supportive (though inconclusive) evidence of a link between a reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and the consumption of conventional foods that contain EPA and DHA. Both EPA and DHA typically are contained in fresh, cold-water, oily fish, such as salmon, lake trout, tuna, sardines, mackerel and herring.

The short-chain version of omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), most commonly is found in flax or linseed, canola, hemp, soybean and walnuts. ALA is the precursor to EPA and DHA, which are long-chain, poly-unsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA).

Hooked on EPA and DHA

Menhaden fish oil is directly FDA generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and certified for 32 different food categories including beverages, baked goods, yogurts, liquid egg products, dressings, nutritional bars, soups, confections, meat products and sauces.

“Nutritionally, it is far better to formulate with fish oils, due to the higher content of long-chain omega-3 versus the short-chain omega-3 in vegetable-based (non-algal) oils,” says Brian Langdon, a technical sales support manager at a fish oil supplier. The conversion of short-chain ALA to long-chain DHA and EPA in the human body is necessary to reap the nutritional benefits mentioned earlier. “This can be a very inefficient process, with as little as only 3% converted,” says Langdon. Therefore, significantly more non-algae vegetable oil would need to be added, which means more fat and calories.

Using high-quality omega-3 oil can reduce rancidity. “If inferior oil is used, then the odor and flavor problems will persist,” says Langdon. Some fish oil suppliers add other ingredients (like rosemary or mannitol) to increase the successful application of omega-3 fish oils.

Even the products of vegetable-based oils can exude the characteristic fishy smell of oxidation. The conditions that promote oxidation (excessive heat, light, air and metals) can be controlled with adjustments to processing methods and diligent care in the handling of the oils.

There are a number of ways to help stabilize the shelflife in finished food products. For one, processing omega-3 ingredients in a dry, powdered form helps to increase product stability because the oil is encapsulated in a protective encasing.

Careful handling and storage of the ingredient will prevent oxidation, as will strict compliance with recommended handling procedures. Adding omega-3 oils as far to the end of the ingredient stream as possible will reduce the amount of time the oil is exposed to excessive oxygen, metal catalysts and light.

Blending omega-3 oils with other oils prior to addition into the stream reduces oxidation, as does using enrobed mineral packets, blanketing the shear mixer with nitrogen when high shear mixing is required and/or adjusting the cook time/temperature.

Langdon suggests it is easier to formulate omega-3 into frozen foods, refrigerated items and other products with a shorter shelflife. The applications best suited for omega-3 fish oil in terms of shelflife and healthy formulations include: yogurt and other dairy products, juices, smoothie beverages, liquid eggs, salad dressings, baked goods, soups, cheeses, frozen foods, sauces and dips.


A large following of industry manufacturers choose flax oil as the vehicle of choice for omega-3 fortification. “It would take 30g of flax to convert ALA to 1g of EPA and 0.1g of DHA,” explains Thomas. Nevertheless, flax is clearly the ingredient of choice for omega-3 fortification of organic and vegetarian products.

Despite flax's higher ratio (1:4 [LA/ALA]) of ALA to linoleic acid (LA) than most all other non-algal vegetarian sources of omega-3 (perilla oil may be similarly high), Dennis Barker, president of a sprouted flax supplier, says that favored manufacturing practices do not put nutritional components in flax to good use. “When you press the seed for oil and process it, you are left only with essential fatty acids. You are missing most of the nutritional value of flax.”

Digestion inhibitors inside the seed reduces the body's ability to elongate ALA to EPA and then DHA. When the seed is sprouted, those inhibitors are destroyed.

He maintains that dried and milled, sprouted flax not only improves the nutritional value of foods, but also improves their functionality and shelflife. “We add nothing to it, and take nothing away,” says Barker. “We give it to you just the way nature intended.” Of significant importance is sprouted flax's extended shelflife. “Unless antioxidants are added for stabilization, milled flaxseed will become rancid in the presence of oxidation catalysts,” he says.

Alternatively, antioxidants are formed in the sprouted flax, meaning rapid rancidity is no longer a concern. Standard milled flaxseed needs refrigeration or vacuum sealed packaging, while sprouted flax is a shelf-stable product. “Sprouted flax moisturizes and hydrates bread and will extend the shelflife of an organic loaf up to two days,” says Barker. “That is pretty huge in the organic bread market.”

Competing with Omega-6

“Today, the American diet has an omega-6/omega-3 ratio of 40:1 or greater. The proper ratio should be down to 4:1,” says Langdon. While everyone quotes a different ratio, the point is, large amounts of omega-6 fatty acids in the diet will reduce the metabolism of omega-3 in the body.

“A diet high in omega-6 fatty acids results in a physiological state that has the balance tipped more towards inflammation and platelet reactivity,” informs Harold Aukema, a professor of Human Nutritional Sciences at the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada). Flax's 1:4 (LA/ALA) ratio increases the probability that more omega-3 will be converted to EPA and DHA.


Canola oil is beneficial because it has extremely low saturated fatty acid content, contains an appreciable amount (11%) of ALA and a favorable 2:1 balance of omega-6 to omega-3, explains Shelley Hiron, the program manager of canola utilization at the Canola Council of Canada (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada).

“In most food applications, canola oil is used where the oil is protected, such as in mayonnaise, salad, dressing or canned oil,” says David Forster, director of research at a canola and soy oil supplier. However, canola is not easily used in all applications. For example, it does not support the structure of baked goods. “You need some solids,” he says. Many times, more structure and shelflife is required for functionality, often compelling processors to hydrogenate canola oil.


In February 2004, a federal appeals court decided the U.S. cannot ban the domestic sale and consumption of hemp foods made from the seed of non-psychoactive hemp plants cultivated primarily in Canada. When the Drug Enforcement Administration later declined to appeal this decision, the door to distribute hemp-based foods in the U.S. swung open for international companies such as Ruth's Hemp Foods (Toronto), with an extensive line of retail hemp foods. Although it is still illegal to grow hemp or sell raw seeds capable of germination in the U.S., the formulation possibilities for hemp in foods are likely to grow wildly in the U.S., speculates Ruth Shamai, president of the company.

The levels of residual delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component in marijuana, are minute in foods like hemp nut and oil products. Nevertheless, at certain levels it can produce a false positive in workplace drug tests, as is seen with trace opiates in poppy seeds commonly consumed on bagels. To prevent consumer distrust, many North American hemp product manufacturers have initiated the TestPledge Program. This industry-regulated initiative strives to keep THC levels in hemp oil and hemp nut below 5ppm and 1.5ppm, respectively (a false positive drug test would require the consumption of more than eight tablespoons of oil or 14oz. of nuts daily).

In 1994, Shamai first began working with hemp fiber for clothing. However, after learning that hemp contains a 3:1 balance of omega-6 to omega-3 (considered by some an optimum ratio for human nutrition), she realized that her hemp enterprise had provided her with the unique opportunity to provide an alternative for vegetarians and consumers concerned with the dangers of heavy metal contamination of fish sources. “For vegetarians, the sources of omega-3 are slightly more limited,” she says.

Hemp is used in the form of toasted and shelled seeds (soft hemp) or cold-pressed oil. These seeds cannot germinate and, therefore, are suitable for sale in the U.S. Depending on formulation techniques, hemp can connote a nutty flavor or be imperceptible in prepared foods. High heat destroys the omega-3 in hemp oil, but gentle heat is not damaging.

Generally, hemp ingredients are used in breads, cereals and salad dressings. Shamai adds xanthan gum to her salad dressings to prevent the oil from separating. Hemp oil is not soluble in water, but adding hemp oil to smoothies can create a creamier mouthfeel, and she suggests that hemp be added into a milk formulation such as is done with soy.

Like Mighty Bites ice cream and fish oil, there are many options available for formulators to make products that would beneficially increase omega-3 consumption in western diets. “We tested 120 children at the Harriet Tubman Charter School (Bronx, N.Y.) and each one was severely deficient in EFAs and already showed indications of cardiovascular and diabetic tendencies,” says Thomas.

She feels her studies have proven that processed foods formulated with omega-3s can, in some cases, reverse the symptoms of children with learning difficulties. Hers is an example many other American companies can follow, as there are many more patterns of malnutrition to correct.

Side Bar:
Going Global

From October 2001 through October 2004, nearly 790 products globally have espoused the words “omega-3” in their product description, with some 386 and 75 products noting the presence of “DHA” and “EPA,” respectively, reports Mintel's Global New Products Database (GNPD, Chicago).

A majority of these omega-3 product introductions are in the international arena. Wonder Pan (Azcapotzalco, Mexico) de Linaza (linseed bread) launched October 2004 by Bimbo is said to contain DHA-omega-3 from a vegetable source. Nestle launched several products with omega-3 in other countries, but without an American equivalent. Nestle's (Casilla, Chile) omega-3 milk powder is formulated with 700mg of omega-6 and 87mg of omega-3 from canola oil to help heart health.

With 7g of total fat and 3g of saturated fat, Kumho Foods' (Qingdao, China) Vanilla Pie is a mild, soft cake with a sweet vanilla cream filling and added DHA. The ingredient legend does not reveal the source of the DHA, although eggs are listed. Eggs have recently become a popular source of omega-3 around the world. Some companies feed chickens algae to increase the DHA and EPA in eggs.

Australia-based Freedom Foods (Cheltenham) introduced vegetarian-suitable Omega Bars in August 2004. The GNPD notes that the bars contain 1.24% EPA/DHA powder; however, only flaxseed oil was listed on the ingredient label.

Of the 19 RTD juices and juice drinks with omega-3 introduced between January 1999 and October 2004, only one, California Day Fresh Foods' (Glendora, Calif.) Naked Juice was launched in the U.S. Glockengold's (Laucha, Germany) Balance Tropic Cherry with omega-3-fatty acids is the newest of four German juices which have all debuted in 2004. Eight of the 19 were launched in 2004. Riobella from German company W. Kirberg (Paderborn) is unique in that fish oil is used in this chilled grapefruit and elderberry-flavored drink.


Sidebar #2 Oil Change

Before attempting to increase the omega-3 content in food applications, Brian Langdon suggests processors consider the following points.

  • Does it make nutritive sense to fortify the product with omega-3? Is the application appropriate?

  • Is the product pure indulgence? Does the sensory appeal of this product trump a potentially less tasty, but more nutritious product?

  • Can the consumer accept a more nutritious and more desirable product at the cost of a shorter shelflife?

  • Will normal processing conditions destroy the omega-3 in the final product?


Nature's Path Food Inc. (Richmond, British Columbia, Canada) launched FlaxPlus Raisin Bran in July 2004. The cereal contains

organic flaxseed to achieve an omega-3 count of 600mg. It also incorporates natural

vitamin E to enhance freshness.