The market for omega-3-enhanced products appears to be strong, with the potential to grow even further.

Worldwide, omega-3 product introductions grew at a 27% compound annual growth rate during the past decade, according to Packaged Facts' report "Omega-3: Global Product Trends and Opportunities." Packaged Facts said the U.S. accounted for 41% of new product activity. The firm estimated the global omega-3 consumer packaged market at $13 billion in 2011. For its part, Euromonitor International estimates the U.S. omega-3-6-9 supplements category at $400 million.

What is prompting the growth in omega-3 sales and new product development? Multiple reports tout the benefits of omega-3 consumption, whether in the diet or via supplementation. One recent study sought to measure associations between omega-3 levels and anxiety, depression or sleep, but in an unintended consequence, it discovered strong associations between cognitive flexibility and executive function. The research, published in Nutritional Neuroscience, measured red blood cell levels of EPA and DHA and found, “The diminished cognitive reserve observed in the lowest quartile HS-Omega-3 Index might compromise performance of mission-essential tasks, specifically those requiring dual-tasking."

The report continued, "Clearly, ingesting more EPA and DHA can increase the HS-Omega-3 Index, whether from food or fish oil supplements. If it could be shown that a higher omega-3 intake improved executive function and cognitive flexibility, mission effectiveness, and overall military operational and medical readiness should also be enhanced."

The research follows a 2011 study appearing in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, finding male military personnel on active duty between 2001 and 2008 with the lowest DHA levels had a 62% increased risk of suicide than their colleagues with higher omega-3 levels.

An Ohio State University study found fish body oils may reduce the proteins that cause inflammation linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Study participants, all either overweight or obese, ingested either supplements in different doses or placebos. Both higher and lower omega-3 doses resulted in reduced inflammation, per the study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

In addition, recently released research found omega-3 fatty acids could reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The study in Neurology established an association between omega-3 consumption and lower blood levels of a biomarker related to memory.

Some health benefits of omega-3 supplementation have been well documented, but one recent study explored its effects on damage from exposure to airborne pollution. Exposure to particulate matter in the air increases cardiovascular disease risk and related deaths. A study at the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found omega-3 fatty acids reduced the lipid changes brought on by breathing particulate matter. Further, the results suggest omega-3 fatty acids may relax blood vessels, lower blood pressure and impact the nervous system signals that control heart rhythm. Published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the study supplemented the diets of 29 healthy, middle-aged participants in a randomized, double-blind trial with either an omega-3 supplement or a placebo for four weeks prior to exposure to either filtered air or ultra-fine particulate matter for two hours. After exposure to the high levels of particulate pollution, the placebo group experienced a significant decrease in heart rate variability. Those taking the omega-3 supplement exhibited little change. The placebo subjects also showed an immediate increase in two types of lipids in the blood after exposure, compared to the omega-3 group.

Adults are far from the only market for omega-3s, however. Children, or at least their parents, are the targets for Nordic Omega-3 Jellies from Nordic Naturals. The fish-shaped jellies have a tutti frutti flavor and 250mg of EPA+DHA per jelly. Made from purified fish oil sustainably sourced from anchovies and sardines, the jellies have been specially formulated for children ages 2 and over, according to the company.

"When formulating this product, we focused on a chewable omega-3 that delivered on dosage and taste, plus convenient packaging that would delight parents," noted Dr. Keri Marshall, Nordic Naturals chief medical officer. "Children want a fun product that tastes great, while parents want concentration and convenience."

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has ruled that up to 5g of omega-3 is safe, extending the typical recommended upper limits of roughly 1-1.5g daily. "The Panel considers that supplemental intakes of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid combined at doses up to 5g/day, and supplemental intakes of alone up to 1.8g/day, do not raise safety concerns for the adult population.”

“Long-term supplemental intakes of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid combined up to about 5g/day do not increase the risk of spontaneous bleeding episodes or bleeding complications even in subjects at high risk of bleeding (e.g. taking acetylsalicylic acid or anti-coagulants).”

Certainly, with more and more studies confirming a variety of health benefits from omega-3 consumption, as well as regulatory agencies increasing permitted consumption guidelines, the market remains ripe for omega-3s.

From the August 20, 2012, Prepared Foods E-dition