Diving Deep for Marine Nutraceuticals

By Lisa Olivo, Associate Editor | October 3, 2016

The ocean offers a bounty of benefits for health-conscious consumers.

Vital nutrients harvested from marine ecosystems are a rich and growing segment of the nutraceuticals market. Fish, krill, microalgae and their derived components all boast myriad benefits for human health, with substantial clinical research.

Chief among these dietary ingredients are omega-3 fatty acids, which are derived from a variety of sources. According to Euromonitor International, sales of dietary supplements marketed or sold as fish oil/omega fatty acids (including cod liver oil, other marine-based oils, and plant-based oils) amounted to approximately $3.6 billion globally in 2016, with a CAGR of 4.2% from 2011-2016.

While marine-based supplements are a robust category, fortification with omega-3s in foods and beverages ($8.2 billion) and infant formula ($13.2 billion) actually make up the majority of finished product sales for the category, according to the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), Salt Lake City, UT.

Beyond omega-3s, marine-sourced ingredients can offer minerals, antioxidants, protein and more. With emerging research exploring how these natural ingredients can benefit health and vitality, dietary supplement users are increasingly turning to the sea for nutritional support.

The Sea’s Bounty
The omega-3 industry has seen consistent growth, and while there was a slight “correction” in recent years, the future remains bright for this mature market, according to Dan Murray, vice president of business development, Xsto Solutions, LLC, Morristown, NJ, which offers both marine and algal ingredients. However, it’s important for companies to demonstrate sustainability of their supply chains. “Consumers want to know the category is sustainable and we are not obliterating an entire species or two,” he said.

With a mature category, growth may be less robust than in the past, he added, “and we will have to work a little harder on the researched benefits and sustainability. Overall this category has become a mainstay and while consumer demand will fluctuate with positive and negative news reports, it will remain in their daily regimens.”

Omega-3 concentrates and related products are among the most researched and versatile products on the market, said Evan DeMarco, global market development manager, KD Pharma Bexbach GmbH. “Omega-3 supplementation spans the entire breadth of human development,” he explained, adding that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is essential at the earliest stages of human life, playing a key role in fetal and infant development. DHA, he said, is particularly important for maintaining healthy brain and eye function, while eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) plays a major role in controlling total body inflammation.

“Recent studies show the potential for omega-3s related to inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetic retinopathy, brain trauma and mood enhancement/disorders,” noted Steve Dillingham, global director, AlaskOmega Ingredients, Organic Technologies, Coshocton, OH, which manufactures omega-3 concentrates that are certified sustainable and traceable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and are designed to support heart, brain, eye and joint health.

The company also recently launched an omega-7 concentrate (50% palmitoleic acid), a monounsaturated fatty acid with applications for the heart, eyes and mucosal membranes, as well as weight loss and metabolic disorders, Mr. Dillingham said. The company presented an investigative research review on omega-7 at the 12th Congress of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) in September, and is actively conducting clinical studies on omega-7 with leading researchers worldwide, he added.

Krill oil also represents a valuable source of omega-3 EPA and DHA, according to Becky Wright, marketing and communications director for Aker BioMarine’s flagship brand Superba. “Superba’s omega-3s are bound to phospholipids, which means they are digested and delivered differently in the body compared to other omega-3s sources. In fact, this delivery method allows for better cellular uptake because phospholipids exist in every cell membrane,” she said. “This ensures that the places in which our bodies need omega-3s the most (e.g., brain, heart and joints) are covered.”

For many years mineral fortification was focused solely on calcium enrichment, according to David O’Leary, commercial manager of Marigot Ltd., creator of Aquamin, a multi-mineral complex derived from red algae. “Awareness around calcium and bones is growing and emphasis is now being placed on specific consumer categories such as children and ages 50+ with a focus on healthy aging.”

In particular, digestive health is an area of growing focus, as experts better understand the importance of gut health and a balanced microflora. “While prebiotics and probiotics are well known in this area, there is increasing evidence to suggest that minerals also have a role to play, especially when it comes to enhancing gut health,” said Mr. O’Leary. “Recent studies have shown the importance of minerals to counter the negative effects experienced by intake of high fat Western diets.”

Astaxanthin is a notable carotenoid xanthophyll that gives salmon, crab, krill and lobster their vivid red pigmentation, said Joe Kuncewitch, national sales manager, AstaReal, Inc., Burlington, NJ. “Astaxanthin is also a significant component of a vegan and vegetarian source—algae, specifically the abundant Haematococcus pluvialis. And for the growing number of consumers who are adopting an ‘animal friendly/vegan’ lifestyle, astaxanthin from H. pluvialis is a safe, effective option.”

Health Applications
Many health experts agree that omega-3s are essential for health, said Aker’s Ms. Wright, “but without the instant gratification and obvious outward result, it’s often challenging to assess the benefits. A simple nutritional tool called the Omega-3 Index test can help people see the benefits of the omega-3s they’re taking because it provides a legitimate measure of EPA and DHA in red blood cells.”

A recent study (May 2016) published in Progress in Lipid Research showed that most consumers globally have a low or very low omega-3 index (4% or below), especially populations in North America, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Australia, China and Africa. “The researchers in this study believe that a very low Omega-3 Index may increase global risk for chronic disease,” said Ms. Wright.

Regions with high EPA and DHA blood levels (an Omega-3 Index of 8% or above) included Japan, Norway and areas with indigenous populations or populations not fully adapted to Westernized food habits.

“Additional clinical research proves that krill’s long chain omega-3s are better recognized by the body because they are attached to phospholipids,” said Ms. Wright. “And two studies in particular have shown that krill oil raises the Omega-3 Index faster compared to fish oil. Phospholipids are the building blocks of all cell membranes and they function as carriers of EPA and DHA to various parts of the human body, such as the brain, heart, eyes, skin and joints.”

Aker BioMarine, in collaboration with other omega-3 companies and organizations, recently launched the Omega-3 Index Project to help generate more awareness on omega-3 insufficiency. “The goal of this project is to encourage consumers to regularly measure their omega-3 EPA/DHA levels using the omega-3 index test so they can identify, correct and maintain healthy levels of these important nutrients while reducing their risk of chronic disease,” said Ms. Wright.

Omega-3s have long been used for a myriad of health applications, most notably cardiovascular health, noted KD Pharma’s Mr. DeMarco. “Emerging research puts omega-3s front and center to address many additional health concerns, including diabetes, neurological disorders, cancer and arthritis. KD Pharma is actively participating in the use of a new ingredient technology we call Alpha & Omega for use as an ADHD supplement,” he added. This combination of high concentrate omega-3 and alpha glycerylphosphorylcholine (Alpha-GPC) is a unique and proprietary formula.

For a growing aging population, joint health is a particular area of concern and focus, said Marigot’s Mr. O’Leary. The company’s Aquamin has been evaluated in many areas of human health, including bone and joint function. “The findings have shown uniqueness not always attributable to calcium or magnesium, but when present with additional trace minerals in a bioactive form they make the scientific findings extremely relevant for nutritional health markets.”

Aquamin has been evaluated in osteo-arthritis patients against other well-known treatments, namely glucosamine sulfate (GS), he added. “In one particular study it was shown that Aquamin outperformed GS when measuring typical symptoms associated with the degenerative disease such as pain, stiffness and improving walking distance, demonstrating superior efficacy and shorter response times.”

Further human research has shown that the product can also help reduce the need for NSAID intake among those suffering from OA who require pain medication. “This study showed that it is possible to reduce NSAID intake by as much as 50% while experiencing improved pain levels and increased walking distance,” said Mr. O’Leary. “While it was not possible to completely remove NSAID usage, a reduction of daily intake is seen as very positive, as long-term intake of these powerful medications does lead to deterioration of the inner lining of the stomach.”

Numerous published clinical studies have examined the relationship between AstaReal’s proprietary astaxanthin and specific areas of human health, according to Mr. Kuncewitch. These areas of research support include muscle health and endurance (sports nutrition/fitness), vision health, brain and cognitive support and skin health. 

For example, in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study on healthy men who consumed 4 mg of astaxanthin per day for up to 6 months, standardized exercise tests demonstrated that the average number of knee bends performed increased significantly in the astaxanthin treated group by 6 months (Carotenoid Science, 2008).

In another double-blind, placebo-controlled study, healthy women aged 23-60 who ingested 12 mg of astaxanthin and walked routinely for 6 weeks significantly reduced their body fat (4%), compared to placebo group, he added. In addition, the placebo group saw increased lactic acid by 31% compared to the astaxanthin group (only 13%). The same participants who ceased oral administration of astaxanthin after the study were retested four weeks later and their body fat level rose again to the level observed at the start of study (Food Style, 2007).

“Generally, astaxanthin has been shown to protect the skeletal muscle from the increased damage of oxidative stress generated by physical activity,” said Mr. Kuncewitch. “Furthermore, astaxanthin also increases the metabolism of lipids as the main source of energy production by protecting the carnitine palmitoyltransferase I (CPT I) involved in fatty acid transport into mitochondria.”

A large body of research has also shown that natural astaxanthin supplementation can improve symptoms related to eye fatigue and blurred vision linked to Computer Vision Syndrome by improving accommodation responsiveness, range and resilience, said Mr. Kuncewitch. “Astaxanthin supplementation improves eye fatigue by quenching cellular inflammation that emerges during persistent visual stress and tension of the ciliary muscle.”

In a double-blind study, 42 subjects received 9 mg/d AstaReal natural astaxanthin or placebo for 4 weeks. The results indicated that the astaxanthin group had significantly higher accommodation ability compared to the control group (Folia Ophthalmologica Japonica, 2010).

As a potent carotenoid, AstaReal’s antioxidant ability also extends to skin health and appearance, Mr. Kuncewitch noted. Overall, in human trials, astaxanthin has been shown to reduce visible signs of UV-aging through both topical and dietary supplementation within 4 to 6 weeks of use, he said. Astaxanthin can reduce oxidative stress after UVA exposure, and reduce the formation of UVB-induced wrinkles. “Early human studies have also shown significant reduction of wrinkles and puffiness on the lower eye and cheeks after 2 weeks of use and significant moisture improvement after 3 weeks of use.”

Special Delivery
In terms of delivery formats for marine ingredients, the clear leaders have been liquid capsules and softgels, according to Xsto’s Mr. Murray. “We have seen adaption for beverages, primarily in juice for children, and gummies, but this takes a tremendous amount of work with emulsifiers. The inherent characteristics of marine ingredients tend to limit the application potential, at least at this time. Perhaps future technology and/or demand will open some doors.”

While application technologies have worked fairly well in terms of taste and stability of omega-3-fortified beverages, costs have been a prohibitive issue, he added. “It really became a quandary of price, taste and stability, but you could only have two of the three, which limits commercial success.”

Incorporating marine ingredients into food and beverage products often becomes unique and proprietary to the specific system, he continued. “We can carry some lessons learned but it feels like each project starts from (almost) scratch. For marine ingredients to get a real foothold in food and beverage it’s going to require less expensive technologies and stronger consumer demand.”

For omega-3 oil concentrates, softgels have become the standard delivery form, as they protect the oil from oxidation and are often easier to swallow than some other formats, said AlaskOmega’s Mr. Dillingham. “Formulation trends in this area include using higher concentrations of omega-3 in smaller softgel sizes for easier swallowing without sacrificing potency. Other delivery formats growing in popularity include omega-3 powders and emulsions, providing additional flexibility for formulation into food and beverage items.”

KD Pharma’s Mr. DeMarco agreed that softgel encapsulation is, and most likely will remain, the most effective delivery system for high-concentrate omega-3s. “However, KD Pharma has actively been researching and developing other delivery methods like high concentrate emulsion technology, powder and high concentrate gummy applications—something that has been missing from the omega category,” he said. “As the unwanted fat, cholesterol and pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids are removed through the concentration process, the product becomes more susceptible to oxidation. This makes using concentrates in other delivery formats like emulsions or gummies a challenge for the entire market, something the KD scientific team has been working on for quite some time.”

Ultimately, food and beverage fortification continues to be a new frontier for the omega industry, he added. “With most Americans falling short of the World Health Organization’s recommended daily intake for omega-3, it becomes more of a goal for us to develop technology that fortifies food with viable amounts of omega-3s.”

With seemingly infinite marine omega-3 options on the market today, choosing the best option can be challenging for consumers, said Aker’s Ms. Wright. “The ongoing debate between fish oil and krill oil continues, but many experts agree that krill oil is actually more like fish than fish oil. The main reason is based on delivery. Krill oil is delivered to the body in a mixture of phospholipids and triglycerides. Consumers prefer krill to other marine based omega-3 products for many reasons, but compliance is near the top of the list. Since the phospholipid-bound omega-3 fatty acids in krill oil are water dispersible, they are more readily absorbed by the body and thus gentler on the stomach. And since krill capsules are smaller than other options, they are easier to swallow and digest.”

Mr. O’Leary said Marigot’s Aquamin is “neutral-tasting, inert and clean,” allowing for a range of product formats. “In food applications it can be easily added with other powder ingredients at the blending stage. For supplement applications it is used in tablet, capsule and sachet formats without issue. We have developed a range of ingredients for applications in beverages (including sports, fruit drinks, yogurts and smoothies and plant-based dairy alternatives). Given the material’s high mineral loading and clean taste, almost any delivery system is possible to enrich with Aquamin.”

Philip Bromley, CEO of Virun, Pomona, CA, identified four growing delivery formats for omega-3s: high concentrates, gummies, powders (bulk, dry blends, pouches and stick packs) and beverages (ampoules, liquid foil pouches, shots and ready-to-drink (RTD)products).

The market for softgels has reached an all-time high and manufacturers have been looking for alternative, low-cost, options, he continued. “Although liquid and gummy multi-serving deliverables are great options, there are other dry forms of multi-serving applications that are growing in demand. Single-serving stick pack and pouch powders, and multi-serving dry blends are a great way to offer convenient ways to further differentiate omega-3 EPA DHA products with consumers.”

Alternative delivery formats can also appeal to those who have trouble swallowing supplements. “For instance, smoothie concentrates with high oil load allow for a creamy, yogurt-like consistency that achieves a taste experience similar to ice cream,” said Mr. Bromley. “By making an easy to ingest concentrate consumers experience a ‘treat,’ they find satisfying and indulgent while obtaining all of the health benefits of omega-3 EPA DHA.”

Ultimately, like all functional ingredients, consumers are looking for fortified products that are easy, convenient and taste great, said Mr. Bromley. For example, gummies are a convenient method for children because they associate it with a treat or candy.

“Perhaps considered the holy grail of all omega-3 applications are beverages,” he added. “Single-serving beverages and shots are starting to surface on store shelves. These types of applications will only be successful if they have clean label claims and no preservatives, since these applications will cost more to the consumer. Offering natural beverages that are healthy help compensate for the higher price points.”

As a biotechnology company, Virun, specializes in formulating products for B2B and CPG companies within the food, beverage and supplements industries. One of its main technologies is OmegaH2O, which can help formulate clear omega-3 beverages that are shelf stable and have no fishy taste.

Innovation & Future Prospects
As the krill category has gained momentum, Ms. Wright said Aker BioMarine is on the forefront of new and exciting developments. The company has made innovation a major priority during the past year, “and the company’s focus to overcome industry challenges has resulted in many changes from technology to new products,” she added.

For example, earlier this year, Aker opened a new krill oil facility in Houston, TX, that is more than triple the size of the largest krill oil supplier, Ms. Wright claimed. “Home to Aker’s new, patented technology, called Flexitech, the plant is now commercially producing new products such as Superba2, the next generation of Superba Krill Oil, (with improved taste, smell and visual appearance) and Superba Boost, a new krill oil concentrate that contains higher amounts of phospholipids, choline and omega-3s.”

Mr. O’Leary expressed confidence that awareness of marine-derived ingredients will continue to increase among consumers. “At an ingredient level it is incumbent on us to ensure that the material has a wide range of uses for functional and nutritional benefits in foods and beverages. Our product development program and innovation platforms are helping to deliver on this so that our customers see the ever-expanding application coverage of our unique marine-mineral offering.”

According to Mr. DeMarco, as more time, money and effort is invested into omega-3 research, the category will continue to evolve. “Food shortages, irresponsible fishing practices and demands for OTC products that combat the growing epidemic of oxidative-stress-related ailments will only drive demand for viable nutrition products whose use can be scientifically proven to enhance general health and wellness.”

AlaskOmega’s Mr. Dillingham said sustainability will be an important consideration as the market moves forward. “There is a continued push to exact full utilization of our seafood and marine resources, so I believe additional efforts will be placed on finding ways to use these valuable assets more efficiently. Source sustainability and traceability will continue to play an important role in this category, as demand for marine-derived ingredients continues to rise, countered by limitations of the global seafood supply and increasing challenges to our oceans, including pollution, climate change and overfishing.”

Certification bodies such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) provide marine ingredient and supplement manufacturers a way to ensure sustainability compliance within the value chain, he added, and a means to communicate a commitment to seafood and marine life sustainability.

In that same vein, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) recently released its annual sustainability overview of reduction fisheries for 2016. For the second year in a row, Aker BioMarine was the only fishery to receive an “A” rating, the company said.

Aker’s fishery was compared to 20 of the most significant fisheries used for the production of fishmeal and fish oil. Similar to last year’s report, only 3.8% of the total catch volume of the reduction fisheries comes from stocks in very good condition, and that corresponds to Aker’s BioMarine’s fishery alone.

“There are no shortcuts when it comes to sustainable business practices at Aker BioMarine,” said Cilia Holmes Indahl, director of sustainability at Aker BioMarine. “We are no longer just fishing for krill in the Antarctic in a sustainable way—we have a meaning to our everyday work, which is to ensure healthy oceans and healthy lives. We are ecstatic to receive another ‘A’ rating from the SFP to put further focus on doing business the right way.”

The company wants to be an inspiration and example for other reduction fisheries around the world, she added. “We are confident that positive change will come to the industry. Together we can take the right steps to ensure that fisheries take responsibility for the ecosystems in which they fish.”

The Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) is a dynamic, business-focused non-governmental organization (NGO) that is helping to reshape the world of corporate responsibility by allowing companies to directly engage with suppliers of natural resources. As part of the SFP’s mission to assess and improve the needs of sustainability, the organization analyzed data from 20 stocks from 13 species and two main groups (fish and crustaceans), rated according to the sustainability assessment presented on FishSource (www.fishsource.com).

The fisheries were ranked into four sustainability categories: A (very well managed fisheries), B1 (reasonably well managed fisheries), B2 (reasonably managed fisheries) and C (poorly managed fisheries).

Although Aker BioMarine received a very good rating, improvements to the overall industry are needed, the company said. This report showed that less than 60% of the volume of fish comes from reasonably well managed fisheries.