Prepared Foods Exclusive: Advancing Omega-3s

By Claudia D. O’Donnell, Chief Editor, Prepared Foods

In the last decade, consumers the world over have come to better understand the health properties of omega-3 fatty acids...whether they be the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) or stearidonic acid (SDA), as found in nuts, seed oils or other plant material, or the very long-chain DHA, EPA and DPA as provided by fish, other seafood and algae fermentation.

Mintel's Global New Products Database (GNPD) shows that the number of new foods, including pet foods, drinks and dietary supplements that refer to "omega-3" in their product description, have increased greatly in the last decade in all regions of the world. In 2000, some 136 such product launches were reported globally. This number increased to 2,075 in 2009. However, in both Europe and North America, new omega-3 launches dipped slightly from 2008, likely due to several reasons, including a maturing marketplace, the anticipation of new regulations impacting functional foods and health claims, and a depressed economy (with new product introduction in general down in North America). For example, although omega-3 introductions decreased in absolute numbers from 781 in 2008 to 623 in 2009 in North America, their presence as a percentage of all products introduced remained steady. That is, omega-3 products were some 2.7% of all new products in 2008 but 2.8% in 2009.

Economic factors have had a similar impact on new product introductions in Latin American countries. “Earlier this decade, Argentina had a very low new product introduction rate for several years,” says Lynn Dornblaser, director of the Custom Solutions Group, Mintel International. “Several of the multinational food companies almost withdrew from the marketplace. Then, however, as the economy improved, we saw increased new product launches. This provides more success opportunities for products with specialized health ingredients, such as omega-3s.”

In Latin America, new foods, drinks and dietary supplements with omega-3s in their description increased from 213 in 2008 to 293 in 2009. Mintel's GNPD shows that, of the six countries tracked, Brazil leads with 130 such products introduced in 2009, followed by 60 in Mexico and 46 in Chile.

As in the U.S. and elsewhere, omega-3 products appear in the pet food and dietary supplement categories, in particular. Many products that inherently contain omega-3s, such as those made from fish or plant oils, have touted the presence of this fatty acid.

Health and Regulatory Updates
Years of clinical and epidemiological research support omega-3 fatty acid health benefits. They include cognitive development and health, reducing the risk of cancer, improving immune function and brain health, reducing rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and increasing cardiovascular health benefits, for which they are likely best known by consumers in North American. For one discussion of the “biological significance” of omega-3 fatty acids, see

Plant material--such as seeds of flax, walnuts and chia--and oils (such as canola and soy) are rich sources of the essential fatty acid ALA. In addition to the heart-health benefits, further nutritional value is realized when the body converts ALA omega-3 to the longer DHA and EPA omega-3 forms, which are readily found in marine sources. Bioconversion of ALA to DHA and EPA is limited and impeded by factors such as high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, typical of Western diets for adults. Some studies estimate conversion of ALA to EPA in the 0.2%-8% range, although a conversion rate of 21% was shown in young women (Burdge, G.C. and Wootton, PA. 2002. Br. J. Nutr. 2002. 88: 411-420.)  

One recent development in the market is SDA, an omega-3 soybean oil that that achieved GRAS status with notification to the FDA. Since SDA does not require the rate-limiting desaturase enzymatic step, it is converted at slightly higher rates in the body to EPA than the ALA found in traditional soy oil.

Although the percent of new products touting their omega-3 content appears to have leveled in the U.S. and Canada, several factors support continued or even increased interest in these ingredients. They include a steady stream of new research supporting their many health benefits and efforts to establish recommended daily intakes. For example, one consortium of nine organizations has petitioned the Institute of Medicine to establish dietary reference intakes (RDIs) for EPA and DHA omega-3s. See for details.

All in all, the future looks unusually bright for these nutritional components.

Other Web Resources
- Brownawell, AM, et al. 2009. Assessing the environment for regulatory change for eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid nutritionLabeling. Nutr Rev. 7:391-7.
Omegas to Protect Against CVD
How Much Omega-3 CVD Protection?
Growing Evidence of Fish's Benefits
Omegas in the Diet
Omegas Protect Against Prostate Cancer
Widespread Benefits from Omega-3s
Omegas May Protect Against Obesity-related Health Issues

From the February 1, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition