So what has generated so much interest from manufacturers and consumers alike? Primarily, it is the ever-increasing number of well-conducted scientific studies pointing to a link between omega 3's and a wide range of health issues.
The Skinny on Fatty Acids
Fatty acids are major components of all fats and oils. Some are non-essential, but two are essential, meaning firstly that they cannot be manufactured by the body and hence have to be ingested, and secondly that, once ingested, they fulfill important functions not served by alternative sources. There are two key families of EFAs, the omega 3's and the omega 6's. Interestingly, some experts believe that the human diet does not contain enough omega 3's, while on the other hand, containing excess amounts of omega 6's. In part, this is why omega 3's continue to receive the most attention with regard to their health benefits.
The key members of the omega 3 family of EFAs are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA themselves are found naturally in oily fish, while ALA is found in flaxseed and various vegetable oils and nuts. ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA. However, this conversion process is thought by some experts to be slow and inefficient.
There is already an established body of population studies linking dietary intake of omega 3's to various mental and neurological functions, which is not surprising considering brain tissues are comprised of approximately 60% lipids, making them the most fat rich tissue after adipose tissue. DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain, with EPA being found in only small amounts.
In terms of research, The Rotterdam Study and the Bordeaux Study have consistently demonstrated that a high intake of fish reduces the development of dementia, especially in relation to Alzheimer's disease. Furthermore, a study, which examined nine countries, (Hibbeln 1998) demonstrated a significant correlation between high annual fish consumption and lower prevalence of major depression. In fact, most studies of lipid composition of tissues in depressed patients indicate reduced polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) levels.
The role of omega 3's in brain development makes their dietary intake particularly important for infants and young children. The EFA status of pregnant women has been shown to decline during pregnancy, with maternal status affecting the EFA status of the newborn infant. Increasing intake of omega 3 fatty acids during pregnancy can improve maternal DHA status, as shown by studies indicating that supplementation with fish oil increases breast milk DHA concentration, for example. Additionally, increased omega 3 intake by pregnant women has been related to increased birth weight as well as longer pregnancy duration. In children low intake of EFAs has also been linked with health issues, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), digestive problems, eczema, asthma and multiple allergies.
Professor Michael Crawford from the London Institute of Brain Chemistry is one of the world's leading authorities on omega 3 fatty acids. Although skeptical about the benefits of omega 3 fortification for the general population, for whom he prefers an educational approach to diet, he believes that "there is a case for special foods for women who have had a low birth weight baby and for breast-feeding women."
Another health benefit of omega 3's relates to their ability to reduce the pro-inflammatory and coagulating effects of omega 6 prostanoid activation. Many chronic diseases are in fact inflammatory conditions-arthritis (inflammation of the joints), coronary artery disease (inflammation of the arteries), eczema (inflammation of the skin) and asthma (inflammation of the lungs). Omega 3's have been shown in studies to positively impact a wide range of these inflammatory disorders. Angela Tsetsis, executive director of marketing at Martek Biosciences Corporation, Columbia, MD, volunteered her opinion on the perceived benefits of omega 3's, believing that they vary depending on the type of consumer. "We have seen that women who have recently given birth think of DHA strictly as a brain and eye nutrient and do not even associate it with omega 3's," she said. "On the other hand, the average consumer and industry are familiar with omega 3's and think mostly of the cardiovascular benefits."
Speaking of heart health, fish oil has been shown to reduce the level of blood triglycerides (a coronary risk factor), and to a much lesser extent, cholesterol. Additionally, omega 3's reduce the clottability of blood. In this case, it is the EPA rather than the DHA content of omega 3's, which has been specifically linked to reduced cardiovascular risk. For these reasons, omega 3's from fish oil, as opposed to omega 3's from alternative sources, are considered far more effective. (However, there is a note of caution as the reduced clottability effect of EPA also means that it can extend bleeding times and is therefore not advisable for consumption in certain populations.)
In order for the body to benefit from EFAs, specifically omega 3's, they must be present in the body in "long-chain" form, which is possible only through fish and marine sources. Plant sources of omega 3's tend to provide short-chain PUFAs and, while the human body is capable of converting short-chain into long-chain form, this conversion process is slow and is disrupted when omega 6's are present. To date, the wealth of scientific data suggest the conversion rate of ALA to DHA is only in the region of 4-15%.
However, even oily fish are not guaranteed to be a rich source of DHA and EPA, since farmed fish only contain high quantities of omega 3 fatty acids if they have been fed fish scraps, which themselves contain omega 3's, rather than the food pellets more commonly used. Moreover, the vegetarian marine algae omega 3's produce only DHA and not EPA. So while this source may be sufficient and highly suitable for infant food/formula supplementation of DHA, it may not be not ideal for later life stages where the benefits of EPA may also be required.
One difficulty with omega 3 fortification is that there is as yet no FDA-approved recommended daily intake (RDI) to provide guideline quantities. Even international standards for omega 3 fortification levels vary widely across countries. For example, in Britain the RDI is 800 mg of omega 3 per day, in some Scandinavian countries the RDI is 3 grams and in Canada 1.5 grams has been suggested as a recommended daily dose.
In addition, there is no formal FDA-approved health claim, although a limited claim linking fish oil supplements (but not omega 3's in general) with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease has been permitted.
However, labeling regulations may be due for a makeover with respect to omega 3's, according to Ms. Tsetsis. "We do expect that with the increasing awareness of omega 3's that labeling regulations will change and that an RDI will be established at some point. In fact, Martek is currently petitioning for a qualified health claim."
However, Jerry Luff, executive vice-president of Business Development for the U.S. and Europe at Australia-based Nu-Mega Ingredients Pty Ltd, offered a different perspective. "The growing public awareness that comes from the general release of information in the public domain combined with an increasing range of products appearing in the marketplace will probably make definitive health claims somewhat redundant, at least in so far as them representing the primary consumer benefit communication vehicle and therefore catalyst for consumer purchasing behavior," he said.
Perhaps more important on the labeling side in the short-term is a clear maintenance of quality issues. The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), Washington, D.C., omega 3 working group, created in March 2001, has developed a voluntary monograph that establishes minimum quality standards for treatment of marine products as well as uniform standards of measure of fat content, which should be stated in milligrams per gram (mg/g). Further down the road the group also hopes to develop a labeling initiative of its own for those products meeting the monograph's criteria, which it is believed will facilitate communication with the consumer.
Despite the scientific community's concern about food fortification damaging the consumer's perception of what constitutes a healthy diet and the fact that many people find the flavor and smell of oily fish off-putting and unpalatable, there remains significant opportunity for increasing the levels of omega 3's in more acceptable foods in order to benefit population health.
Most EFAs are extremely sensitive to heat, light and oxygen and go rancid very quickly. This not only affects the flavor, but could also cause health damage by increasing free radical formation in the body. What's more, EFAs cannot be hydrogenated to protect against rancidity because doing so would destroy the very bonds that give them their health properties. One technique sometimes used to overcome this problem is the addition of antioxidants, such as vitamin E, which prevent oxidation.
The addition of omega 3 lipids to foods is perhaps easiest with products that already have a liquid fat content. Omega 3 fatty acids in oil form can be incorporated into products just like any other fat, however they must be added close to the end of the manufacturing process because the high temperatures create issues. Another technique used to protect oils is microencapsulation, which can guard against damage incurred during processing, and serve to render fish oil products tasteless and odorless. It is important to remember that when adding omega 3 oils to foods, the percentage of other oils added should be reduced by the equivalent amount.
EFAs can also be spray-dried into powders by mixing with other ingredients, such as starches or proteins, which protect them against oxidation. In general, powders are preferable in products such as baked goods or functional beverages, where the ingredient has greater dispersability and enhanced stability, as well as better flavor masking. Powders may also be easier to incorporate into beverages with heavy suspension, where the cloud hides any impact of the nutritional oil. In liquid applications, EFAs often need to be mixed with emulsifiers or density modifiers to prevent their separation or settling.
Well packaged products with shorter shelf lives also lessen formulation challenges. Omega 3 fortified products should not be packed in transparent packaging since light can cause them to oxidize and for the same reason metalized packaging should also be avoided.
To date, infant formula has been a major segment of focus with respect to omega 3 fortification. Such fortification has taken place around the world for several years, however, it is a relatively new trend for the U.S. In fact, currently the U.S. only permits manufacturers to fortify infant formula with vegetarian marine algae, although this situation is expected to change in the near future. While substantial opportunities for exploitation in this area exist, there remain other food groups being considered for omega 3 fortification.
Commenting on other areas for omega 3 application was Nu-Mega's Mr. Luff. "As well as targeting specialized nutrition, for groups such as pregnant or lactating women, we are also looking at the overall decline in dietary consumption of omega 3 DHA," he said. "Our work is very specifically focused on replacing that depleted dietary consumption through making omega 3 DHA available in general food staples, such as bread."
Bread is in fact one major staple that has already been extensively fortified with omega 3's. One particularly successful brand in this respect is TipTopUp bread from George Weston in Australia. This product was launched in 2002 as the result of a joint venture between Nu-Mega Ingredients and George Weston Foods, which involved adding Nu-Mega's microencapsulated HiDHA oils to the bread.
Other staples increasingly being fortified with omega 3's include eggs and spreads. Omega 3 rich eggs were introduced to the U.K. market first by Columbus and more recently by Stonegate Farms under the brand name "Intelligent Eating Healthy Eggs." The latter comes from another joint venture with Nu-Mega, which involves chicken feed containing Nu-Mega's DHA rich tuna oil. Columbus on the other hand feeds its hens omega 3's derived from flaxseed.
In the U.S., the demand for omega 3 enriched eggs is climbing steadily. In fact, omega 3 enriched eggs are now believed to constitute as much as 5% of the U.S. egg market. Active in this market is Martek Biosciences, whose marine algae is fed to chickens in order to increase the DHA level of its eggs, which are currently sold under the Gold Circle Farms brand. Another player is Belgium-based Belero, which claims to have sold over 150 million units of its omega 3 fortified Columbus eggs, recently launched in the U.S. as Christopher Eggs.
Spreads are also becoming popular mediums for delivering omega 3's. One company taking advantage of this trend is Unilever, which, in early 2003, announced it was adding (flax-derived) omega 3's to its entire range of polyunsaturated spreads sold under the Flora, Becer and Fruit D'Or names.
Meats and meat products represent another up-and-coming growth area. In this segment, Australia-based Hans Smallgoods has worked with Nu-Mega to develop meat products, such as sliced chicken, which are fortified with microencapsulated tuna oil.
In summary, neither the health benefits of omega 3's nor the consumer demand for products fortified with these nutrients are in doubt. Even though food fortification is not unanimously supported in the scientific world, a pragmatic approach needs to be taken in this respect if the demands and preferences of consumers are to be successfully married with their nutritional requirements.
As far as other likely delivery vehicles for omega 3 fortification are concerned, Robert Orr, president, Ocean Nutrition Canada Ltd, Nova Scotia, Canada, said, "Foods are going to transform themselves over time, so that you have what I call nutrient dense foods. If you just reduce calorie intake you run the risk of not getting enough nutrients, so what you want to do is reduce caloric intake and optimize nutritional intake." He added, "So what dairy and bakery companies are trying to do is bring healthy nutrients into delivery systems that already have some significant health benefits."
Given this prediction it is likely that omega 3 fortification of already healthy foods, such as fruit juices, cereals, cereal bars and dairy products, will be the future. Other foods to look out for include pasta, salad dressing and even ice cream. A team of scientists from Penn State, University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of Connecticut are already actively involved in researching potential for the latter product application in particular.
Future opportunities also revolve around targeting pregnant and breastfeeding women in order to assist them in replacing the nutrients, which they provide to their infant, both inside and outside the womb. Moreover, the fact that pregnant women are currently advised to avoid consuming oily fish, such as tuna and salmon, because of high levels of mercury and other pollutants can only serve to reinforce opportunities in this area.
As far as the practicalities of food fortification are concerned, each manufacturer must consider its target consumer market, as well as the particular health issue it wishes to address, before deciding the type of omega 3's best suited for its products. If a product is aimed at the mass market, vegetarian options may be preferable, but for more specific targets or health complaints, the greater efficacy of fish oils may offer greater marketing advantages. Whichever type of fortification is used, it is important for food manufacturers to identify a supplier who can assist them in developing the appropriate fortification method for their particular product. NW
About the author
Stephanie French is director of Harlequin Plus Ltd, a U.K-based consultancy specializing in food and nutrition marketing and related new product development. She can be reached at 44-118-971-0528, E-mail: email@example.com. Web: www.harlequinpls.com