However, a mature omega-3 market has encountered significant challenges in recent years. For example, some highly publicized studies failed to demonstrate previously reported health benefits, but succeeded in getting significant mainstream media coverage. As a result, sales have dipped, compelling a coalition of companies under the guidance of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), Salt Lake City, UT, to launch a public relations campaign focused on correcting the record and communicating positive news.
Challenges & Solutions
Despite some sizeable challenges, experts remain positive about the long-term future of the market. “After three decades of strong growth, the omega-3 market hit a speed bump in 2014, declining about 2% even as the overall supplement and functional food markets grew modestly,” said Sam Wright IV, CEO, The Wright Group, Lafayette, LA. “We feel it will be a temporary pause in momentum. Demographics and the flood of positive science are strongly favorable for continued growth longer term.”
Becky Wright, marketing director, Aker BioMarine Antarctic US, Issaquah, WA, said the omega-3 market currently faces a perception problem, which has severely impacted sales. “Over the past couple of years, the results of some studies and high profile negative opinion pieces have questioned omega-3s’ health value. As a result of this and lack of positive news and/or messaging prompting consumers to take their omega-3s, sales have dipped quite dramatically, particularly for fish oil.”
However, the good news, she added, is that the decline will slowly reverse itself over the course of the next five years, according to Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ), Boulder, CO, which predicted sales will increase more than 2% by 2020.
“The silver lining is that omega-3s are strongly supported by a wealth of research, and doctors—the top gatekeepers of health information—continue to recommend them to patients,” said Ms. Wright. “In research sponsored by Aker BioMarine in July 2014, more than 90% of physicians said they continue to recommend omega-3s, despite the recent negative publicity. In fact, almost 30% are recommending them more since the first of several negative studies and stories surfaced in mid-2013.”
The Omega-3 Coalition governed by GOED has been proactively communicating positive news and studies while helping to debunk myths, correct false information and tone down sensationalized headlines and stories, Ms. Wright continued. “This effort has helped stem the sales decline in the category, while also carving out a better, more substantive relationship with journalists.”
The omega-3 industry has profited from decades of education, robust growth and consumer interest, according to David Hart, vice president of marketing, Qualitas Health, Jerusalem, Israel. “On one hand, the benefits of omega-3s are well proven and millions of individuals regularly consume them. On the other hand, this category is now a ‘Goliath’ that is targeted on multiple fronts. Omega-3s are very mainstream now, and the challenge is guiding the narrative and helping the industry navigate the new dynamics of a more mature category.”
The GOED coalition continues to provide proven and proactive messages to increase consumer awareness and acceptance of omega-3s, he added. “This has brought the whole industry together to create a consumer-oriented program that benefits the omega category.”
Joseph Moritz, PhD, scientific marketing manager, BASF Nutrition & Health, Florham Park, NJ, said damaging media coverage, sensory perceptions and raw material sustainability are among the largest market challenges. “Typically, damaging media coverage is presented in a study-by-study fashion that ignores the massive body of scientific literature supporting supplementation of omega-3s. Our challenge is to educate consumers on efficacy of omega-3s, and to help our customers design the most clinically effective and clinically validated products possible.”
Mary Ann Siciliano, national sales manager, Arista Industries, Inc., Wilton, CT, said the major market challenge for the industry involves continuing to educate customers about benefits without being able to make substantive health claims, while also addressing products on the market with unlisted ingredients or those that don’t meet the claimed potency. “Education and positive publicity are the key,” she said, acknowledging the work GOED has done on these fronts.
Steve Dillingham, global director of the AlaskOmega ingredient line at Organic Technologies, Coshocton, OH, said re-establishing credibility in the eyes of the consumer and rebuilding strong public awareness for the positive benefits of omega-3s will be an ongoing challenge.
Consumers often get confused about how much omega-3 they need, he added. “Not many consumers know how to correctly read an omega-3 supplement nutrition label, to understand what the actual levels of EPA + DHA they are getting in the recommended serving size—or what they should actually be taking, based on supporting clinical data.”
Additionally, the concept of an optimal EPA/DHA ratio is a complex issue for many consumers to understand, Mr. Dillingham said. “That really goes back to the ongoing problem of not having an RDI established for omega-3s. It’s downright confusing for the consumer, and there is a lot of work left to do in this area.”
Getting accurate, unbiased information on the positive benefits of omega-3s into the hands of key influencers like doctors and homeopaths will be important long-term, he said. “It’s not uncommon for a doctor to recommend or have a strong opinion on an omega-3 source or specific supplement brand for his or her patients other than a prescription product, based on information they gained from various media sources, or from promotional material they received from a manufacturer. Since a doctor is a trusted and highly influential source, having easy access to fact-based, unbiased information on omega-3 sources and quality supplement brand options will be useful.“
Mr. Wright said that by his count, there are about 25,000 peer reviewed scientific papers dating back more than 30 years on the subject of omega-3s in human nutrition. In addition, there have been about 2,500 human clinical trials, most of which are strongly positive. “Despite this abundance of scientific evidence, omega-3s have only warranted a qualified health claim around cardiovascular disease. It is so weak that almost no companies bother to reference it in their promotional literature. An unqualified health claim and better yet, an RDI for omega-3 would lead to another period of strong market growth.”
Robert Bailey, commercial development manager at Stepan Lipid Nutrition, Northfield, IL, said some primary market challenges include “a lack of product differentiation to deliver on a broad set of consumer needs (including quality, safety and sustainability), the volatile costs of raw materials, and how consumer purchase growth can be slowed and stabilized in developed markets.”
There has been considerable fragmentation of omega-3 offerings in the marketplace over the past several years, he added.
“Products such as Stepan Lipid Nutrition’s Marinol Omega-3 Triglycerides are uniquely processed to fulfill consumer needs such as sensory quality, safety and high DHA/EPA potency, which will drive repeat purchase. The need to fulfill purchase expectations is driving diversification in the omega-3 raw material market.”
Consumers are putting more trust in food over supplements, which is impacting the supplement industry as a whole, according to Catherine David, product manager, Neptune Technologies & Bioressources Inc., Laval, Quebec, Canada. “The omega-3 market faces the task of earning back the trust of consumers, which will be achieved through novel products and new research. Many additional benefits associated with omega-3s are being discovered, but research needs to be solidified before marketers can get the word out and show consumers how beneficial supplements can be, even with a balanced diet.”
Product Trends & Innovation
Innovation is alive and well in the omega-3 category, according to Aker BioMarine’s Ms. Wright. “As companies continue to investigate new sources of long-chain omega-3s, there is also a lot of innovation taking place to convert standard sources to versions that are more suitable for applications beyond supplements. A good example is our recent innovation in upgrading our standard krill oil to fit a gummy bear application. This has been a very successful innovation for us, allowing us to satisfy the requests of numerous customers globally.”
The company also recently launched its Open Innovation program, which has generated significant interest during the last several months, Ms. Wright said. “In short, it is focused both on researchers as well as product developers who want to create new innovations for delivery, such as combination products and new formulations, as well as conduct original clinical research. Aker BioMarine has a skilled team of 17 scientists (11 PhDs) with knowledge and expertise in various aspects of laboratory work, pre-clinical studies, clinical trials, preparation of scientific and regulatory strategies, and in understanding the chemistry and pharmacology of krill components. To further leverage our unique resource and large research team, we welcome Open Innovation partners to expand the knowledge and amount of research on our krill products.”
Recent research conducted by Aker has revealed a connection between phospholipid omega-3s from krill and exercise recovery in a cycling time trial, Ms. Wright continued. The study was conducted at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, under the supervision of Dr. Stuart Gray, senior lecturer in Exercise Physiology. “The Omega-3 Index, a measure of the percentage of EPA and DHA in red blood cell fatty acids, was measured after 6 weeks of either 2 grams daily Superba Krill oil or placebo supplementation,” Ms. Wright noted. “Dr. Gray said the results in this study were similar to studies using fish oil. However, the krill EPA/DHA dose was only a quarter of the dose given in the earlier fish oil study. However, he said more studies are needed to determine if the different forms—omega-3 phospholipids from krill oil vs. omega-3 triglycerides from fish oil—can explain this difference.”
Looking forward, Ms. Wright predicted the krill oil market will move in a similar direction fish oil took several years ago when concentrates were introduced. “I think there are interesting opportunities ahead in terms of dosage, combinations and delivery differentiation.”
According to Qualitas’ Mr. Hart, the omega-3 category is very dynamic, and product innovation is widespread. “This is characterized by the move toward products with higher concentrations of omega-3s and products with phospholipids for higher bioavailability. Alternative sources of omega-3s, especially algal sources, hit on multiple consumer trends in the marketplace: sustainability, vegetarian/vegan source and high traceability. Almega PL is the only omega-3 available that contains both phospholipids and glycolipids in order to provide increased bioavailability and other benefits.”
The market continues to prefer easier-to-take, novel delivery formats, according to BASF’s Dr. Moritz. “BASF’s innovative delivery forms include a stick pack with powders that melt in your mouth, and a convenient spoonable emulsion ideal for the 30% of the population finding it difficult to swallow pills. We expect alternative delivery formats such as emulsions, gummies and dispersible tablets to continue their rapid growth, as they become more efficacious and more pleasant to take.”
The Wright Group’s Mr. Wright said he’s been impressed with the level of innovation in all areas of the market, “from basic production via new types of algae, krill oil and shrimp oil; enteric softgel capsules to eliminate reflux; refinement of fish oils to eliminate unpleasant flavor and odor; liquid microemulsions for beverage use; and microencapsulation to create dry, stable product forms for use in various food, beverage and dietary supplement products.”
The Wright Group provides microencapsulated and spray-dried forms of fish-, algae- and plant-based sources of omega-3 as part of its SuperCoat and SuperBlend line of value-added ingredients and premixes, he noted, adding, “There has also been innovation around the short chain omega-3s present in chia seed, flax and other plant-based sources.”
In addition to algae and vegetable oils, chia has seen increased popularity of late. Sandra Gillot, CEO, Functional Products Trading S.A., Santiago de Chile, said chia has become a “sustainable, stable, economical and ecological fish oil alternative.” However, one of the major arguments for not using chia as a source of omega-3 has been low conversion of ALA to DHA/EPA.
Ms. Gillot cited a recent study published in Nutrients in May that evaluated the modification of the fatty acid profile of milk obtained from Chilean mothers who received chia oil during gestation and nursing. “The consumption of chia oil during the last trimester of pregnancy and the first three months of nursing allowed for an important modification in the EPA content of erythrocytes in pregnant mothers and an interesting increase of DHA in their milk,” she said. “Chia oil may constitute an available and inexpensive way to provide omega-3 in higher amounts to the population of many countries characterized by low fish consumption.”
The company’s Benexia ingredients (chia oil, chia seed, Xia protein powder, Xia fiber powder, microencapsulated and emulsion chia oil) are designed to deliver nutrition in a traceable and sustainable manner.
Food, supplement and personal care companies continue to develop new products to benefit mental, cardiovascular and overall health, noted Arista’s Ms. Siciliano.
“Supplements are becoming more popular, but the addition of omega-3 ingredients in food and functional foods is seeing a bigger push, too. Higher potency omega-3 fish oils as well as alternate sources from krill oil and shrimp oil have been gaining momentum. There are definitely opportunities for vegetable sources of omega-3, as well as the new shrimp oil that Arista is promoting. Shrimp oil is manufactured as a byproduct of shrimp production for food. Vegetable oil sources of omega-3 have included flax, perilla, camelina, chia, hemp, kiwi and sacha inchi oils.”
Arista also offers various high quality potencies of omega-3 fish oils from sardine and anchovy, salmon, cod, krill and shrimp as well as fish oil powders, which are used in functional foods, supplements and pharmaceutical preparations. “Due to high concentration oil loads, fish oil powders can be used in functional foods in smaller quantities with a less discernable odor than straight fish oil,” Ms. Siciliano said.
Looking to help customers develop clinically tested and proven products, BASF is launching an ultra-high 90% omega-3 concentrate, Pronova Pure 46:38 DS, according to Dr. Moritz. “With this product we are setting a new standard in dietary supplements based on proprietary production technology and over a decade of know-how in pharmaceutical omega-3 products. Low oxidation, high concentration oil gives the consumer the most positive experience when taking the product: effectiveness, minimization of fishy taste, and small softgel size are key.”
Neptune’s Ms. David said consumers are becoming increasingly interested in condition-specific formulas to meet their individual health and wellness needs. Top health areas include brain, energy and inflammation, “meaning there is a growing opportunity to combine omega-3 with different ingredients. Neptune has developed combination formulas with Neptune Krill Oil (NKO) that have been proven to increase the bioavailability of key nutrients such as CoQ10, vitamin D and lutein by up to 25 times.”
In addition to high strength omega-3 concentrates up to 85% EPA+DHA, Mr. Dillingham said Organic Technologies’ AlaskOmega brand offers unique Wild Alaska Pollock Oil, which is red in color due to the natural astaxanthin and is high in vitamins A and D.
“We see the omega-3 market moving higher in terms of product quality,” he added, and interest in sustainability and traceability of source is increasing. Both manufacturers and consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about oil quality parameters such as environmental contaminant content and oxidation levels, he said. “In addition, consumers are inquiring about source of materials and species of fish, to be able to ascertain if the products are derived from certified sustainable fisheries.”
Matt Phillips, chief commercial officer, Nutegrity, Irvine, CA, said he believes innovation in the omega-3 market is at a moderate to low level. “Today, the 30% concentrations comprise the largest portion of oil on the market. However, marine oil sources are continuing to diversify. I expect the market will continue to grow. Omega-3s are still the most recommended dietary supplement for individuals of all ages. The industry needs to continue to work together to spread the accurate message that omega-3s are beneficial for overall health.”
The Sustainability Driver
Aker’s Ms. Wright predicted that sustainability will become a top purchasing driver for omega-3 supplement buyers in the next five years. “They will become more familiar with how omega-3 supplements are connected to our world’s fisheries and the health of the oceans. They will understand and be able to compare fishing quotas from fishery to fishery. They simply will not purchase a supplement that hasn’t been certified for sustainability by a third party.”
At the end of the day, sustainability should be the norm, not a point of product differentiation, she added. “There should be a collective drive among omega-3 companies to make sure sustainability figures into any and all business plans to ensure the long-term health of the industry and our world’s oceans.”
BASF addresses sustainability by leveraging a large sourcing footprint globally, according to the company’s Dr. Moritz, to actively engage with crude fish oil suppliers, ensuring stringent environmental standards are met. “We source predominantly from the wild sardine and anchovy fishery off the coast of Peru. The Peruvian fishery is widely regarded as one of the best-managed fisheries in the world, with a strong commitment by the national authorities, for example, on quotas, monitoring of catch limits and limitation of by-catch.”
Organic Technologies’ Mr. Dillingham noted several questions regarding sourcing and environmental impact. “We have some unknowns, including the cumulative effect of overfishing in some regions, seasonal El Niño, and the growing demand for marine ingredients for aquaculture feed, creating increased competition for omega-3s for human consumption as resources become scarce.”
The Wright Group’s Mr. Wright also said the natural phenomenon known as El Niño, a warming in parts of the Pacific Ocean, may hurt the Peruvian anchovy harvest, which is the source of most omega-3 fish oil. “A recent article in National Geographic notes that it could be the strongest such event in recorded history which will persist at least through spring of 2016. It will impact the feed industry as well as the human downstream product side.”
Sustainability, as well as fair trade issues are becoming much more important among consumers and CEOs are taking notice, he added. “Krill oil is basically positioning their product form on this basis, as well as the phospholipid and astaxanthin connection. The growing interest in algae farming is also in line with this trend.”
With increased demand for omega-3s, the industry will need new sources and more efficient ways to recover oil or utilize seafood byproducts, said Mr. Dillingham.
Stepan’s Mr. Bailey agreed there will be ongoing investment in more sustainable omega-3 sources such as algae and in alternative marine sources like cod, krill and squid, “with a continued focus on raising safety, sensory, scientific and sustainability standards in the marketplace.”
He also predicted growth will stabilize in developed markets, while there will continue to be aggressive growth in emerging markets. “As manufacturers become more focused on increasing omega-3 ingredient market share, they will continue to explore technologies that address consumer and industry criteria, to deliver quality and safety attributes and cost stability.”
Arista’s Ms. Siciliano said she would like to see omega-3 raw materials exceeding industry standards for quality and consistency and more food companies incorporating these ingredients into everyday products.
Mr. Wright sees a very positive future ahead for the omega-3 marketplace. “From demographic, psychographic and societal standpoints, there is only good news as the population ages. Heart health, joint health and cognitive enhancement are the three most widely believed benefits to the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids. These resonate strongly with both aging consumers and Millennials who are starting their own Baby Boom. The use of omega-3s in infant formula and medical foods worldwide as well as in more traditional functional foods and dietary supplements will continue to grow, albeit at a slower pace than in the past.”
The presence in the market of prescriptions forms of omega-3 esters such as Lovaza, Vascepa and Epinova gives an extra level of confidence even in the absence of an RDI or unqualified FDA health claim, he added.