Interestingly, krill has been used as a food source for many years—as sushi in Japan, as a dried snack in other Asian markets and even as a source of protein for the Soviet military during the 1980s. At retail, the krill market is worth about $300-400 million and it is steadily climbing.
A Closer Look at Krill
There are 85 species of krill, which are primarily found in the Northern and Southern Oceans. Antarctic krill are thought to be the largest biomass on earth, estimated at 400-500 million metric tons—roughly twice the biomass of all humans on earth.
Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba, are sometimes described as being shrimp-like in appearance. They swim around in huge swarms in the ice-cold waters of the Southern Ocean where they feed on phytoplankton and algae attached to the bottom of the ice shelf. These algae are rich in omega 3 fatty acids and the potent antioxidant carotenoid astaxanthin. In consuming these nutrients, the krill themselves accumulate both omega 3 fatty acids and astaxanthin. Besides serving other health roles, astaxanthin protects the omega 3 fatty acids from becoming rancid—a problem that sometimes arises with fish oil.
Krill thus becomes a rich source of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially the two essential omega 3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Up to 42% of the fatty acids in krill are attached to a phospholipid backbone and about 33-40% are attached to triglycerides. The beauty with krill oil is that virtually all of its EPA and DHA are attached to the phospholipid form, which is the desirable delivery form in the human body.
Essential Fatty Acids & Phospholipids
Essential fatty acids such as EPA and DHA can only be obtained through diet and are considered fundamental building blocks for life. There are two types of essential fatty acids—omega 3 and omega 6—with the only difference being where the double-bond is located in the chemical structure. Both types are involved in the inflammatory cascade of events in the human body.
Omega 6 fatty acids are a source of inflammatory substrates, whereas omega 3 fatty acids are a source of anti-inflammatory substrates. Humans need both omegas, with an optimal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 being 4:1 (Simopoulos 2002). During the last few decades, however, there has been a significant shift in the human diet resulting in an estimated ratio of 10-30:1 of omega 6 to omega 3.
This overindulgence of omega 6 fatty acids may explain the rise in such diseases as asthma, coronary heart disease, many forms of cancer, autoimmunity and neurodegenerative diseases, which are all believed to stem from systemic inflammation in the body. This imbalance may also contribute to arthritis, allergies, obesity, depression, diabetes, hyperactivity and inflammatory diseases. Therefore, maintaining the proper balance between omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids is crucial for good health.
As mentioned previously, the majority of omega 3 EPA and DHA in krill oil are bound to phospholipids. There are different kinds of phospholipids, but in the case of krill, the EPA and DHA are especially enriched in the phosphatidylcholine form. There are also phosphatidylethanolamine, -serine, and -inositol forms present. The phospholipid structure allows for the formation of phospholipid bilayers, which is the starting point for all living cell membranes—without them there would be no life on earth.
These substances help transport omega 3s more efficiently throughout the human body and subsequently incorporate them into cell membranes. Once anchored in the membranes, EPA and DHA influence the fluidity of these cell membranes, and thus cell signaling, cellular transport across the membrane of various chemicals and substrates, cell recognition and many other metabolic parameters as well as overall healthiness of the cells. Phospholipids are also highly bioavailable and readily absorbed. Since phospholipids are hydrophilic, or water loving, they are easily dispersible in the water content of the stomach. Further, because of its high bioavailability, krill oil soft gels are smaller and thus easier to swallow
Heart Health. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in Western industrialized countries. This disease develops slowly so that by the time symptoms appear the underlying cause is advanced and difficult to treat.
Omega 3 fatty acids have been reported to reduce CVD by balancing blood pressure and arrhythmia, soothing inflammation, reducing artherosclerotic plaque accumulation, promoting endothelial smoothness and function, as well as lowering lipid levels in the blood (Din 2004).
The effect of krill oil on hyperlipidemia was investigated in 2004. Patients were treated with krill oil, fish oil or placebo in a randomized trial for 12 weeks. At the end of the study period, those patients supplemented with krill oil showed significantly improved blood lipid profiles compared to those treated with fish oil or placebo. Total cholesterol and LDL decreased by 18% and 39%, respectively. HDL increased significantly by up to 59% and triglyceride profile improved significantly by 28.5% (Bunea 2004).
Another way to gauge heart health is through the Omega 3 index. This index represents the combined EPA+DHA concentration as a percentage of total fatty acids in red blood cells and the uptake into tissue. It is suggested that an increase in the Omega 3 index reduces the risk of cardiovascular events. A study carried out by krill oil supplier Aker BioMarine, Inc. showed that the omega 3 index increased by 125% after 8 weeks of supplementation with Superba Krill Oil.
Joint Health. There is now evidence that omega 3 fatty acids might have anti-inflammatory properties and that krill oil may be beneficial in the management of arthritic symptoms as well. In a mouse model, Superba krill oil suppressed the development of the classical model of collagen-induced arthritis. Arthritis scores and hind paw swelling decreased as compared to control mice. The krill oil supplemented animals also showed lower joint infiltrates of inflammatory cells (Ierna 2010).
Krill oil supplementation has also been investigated in humans with confirmed cardiovascular disease and arthritis (Deutsch 2007). These patients had elevated C-reactive protein (CRP) levels, which have been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular events. CRP has been found to be significantly increased in patients with arthritis compared to controls (Spector 1997). After only 7 days of treatment with krill oil in humans, CRP was significantly reduced by 19%; after 30 days it was further reduced by 30%. WOMAC scores, a measure of joint health, were also significantly improved (reduced) for pain (29%), stiffness (20%) and functional impairment (23%), respectively.
Brain Health. The essential omega 3 fatty acid DHA is necessary for proper brain cell communication as well as brain cell development (Kidd 2007). Since all of the DHA is carried by a variation of phosphatidylcholine, two important brain chemicals are added with the consumption of krill oil—choline/serine/inositol/ or ethanolamine as well as DHA.
DHA stimulates the production of serotonin and dopamine, which are both important constituents in chemical pathways related to mental health. Several clinical studies have approached this by supplementing subjects with both omega 3 fatty acids and/or phosphatidylcholine. Significant improvements were observed in cognition, behavior and mood (Kidd 2007, Richardson 2005, Sinn 2007).
Thus, krill oil with its high concentration of both omega 3 fatty acids and phosphatidylcholine is essential for brain health because it takes care of its appropriate structure and supports vital functions of the nervous system.
PMS. With the important role of phospholipids in membrane fluidity, which may be the most important activity in the management of emotional symptoms, krill oil has been evaluated for its influence on PMS symptoms. One double-blind, randomized clinical study investigated this aspect with krill oil as compared to fish oil supplementation. The results of this study showed that krill oil significantly reduced PMS symptoms after 45 and 90 days of treatment. It also showed that the omega 3 phospholipid forms found in krill were significantly more effective in managing the complete range of PMS symptoms as compared to fish oil (Sampalis 2003).
As soon as krill is caught and harvested, digestive enzymes of krill start to self-digest. Therefore it is important that krill oil be extracted and produced as soon as possible. Because krill is such an important part of the food chain (it’s at the bottom of the chain), the harvesting of krill has become a controversial issue.
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), established in 1982, is a treaty-based organization responsible for preserving the resources of Antarctica. It was created in response to the theory that increased krill fishing could have a devastating effect on the krill population, and especially birds, penguins, whales and seals, which mainly consume krill.
CCAMLR bases its conservative measures on the findings of a scientific committee, which is currently comprised of 25 member countries. This Scientific Committee has two working groups “Working Group on Ecosystem Monitoring and Management” and “Working Group on Fish Stock Assessment”—both meet annually and report directly back to the Scientific Committee.
The Committee then advises CCAMLR on sustainable harvesting levels and conservation management measures. Currently the “Total Allowable Catch” of krill is set at 4 million metric tons per year, which is only around 0.5% of the total estimated biomass of krill, even after taking into account food for whales, fish, birds, penguins, seals and other marine life. In selecting a company selling krill oil, it is paramount to make sure it is abiding by all rules and regulations surrounding sustainable harvesting.
Krill is the ocean’s gold. It is packed with phospholipid-bound omega 3 fatty acids as well as the super-antioxidant astaxanthin, which gives krill its deep red color. Being at the bottom of the food chain and in frigid waters means its composition is free of contaminants, such as lead and mercury. As far as product applications go, the opportunities are endless.
References furnished upon request.
About the author: Christina Beer, PhD, runs CB Food Consulting, LLC, which caters to new product development in the dietary supplement market. She specializes in formulations and claim substantiation pertinent to current FDA regulations. She was formerly with Schiff Nutrition International. Dr. Beer can be reached at 801-230-3317 or email@example.com.
When it comes to sourcing krill, Aker BioMarine Antarctic is a company that meets and exceeds all the standards.
All fishing vessels operating in the oceans of Antarctica must meet the standards set by CCAMLR (the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), but Aker BioMarine Antarctic has taken many deliberate steps beyond those minimum requirements—including cooperating with WWF-Norway, the scientific community, and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)—to operate its fishing operations responsibly and to utilize the valuable marine resources harvested fully.
• Aker BioMarine Antarctic is the first and currently only participant in the krill fishery to receive MSC certification. The Aker BioMarine krill fishery was evaluated by an independent assessment team, which determined the fishery is well managed, that the krill stock is healthy, and that Aker BioMarine Antarctic’s krill fishery is sustainable with minimal impact on the ecosystem.
• Aker BioMarine met all the requirements set by MSC for responsible harvesting and took its commitment even further by continuing to improve operations in line with the MSC’s best practices guidelines beyond the requirements of certification.
• Aker BioMarine Antarctic has a long-standing commitment with WWF-Norway and has worked in cooperation with them to ensure the company is adhering to best practices as laid out by the WWF-Norway.
• Aker BioMarine Antarctic has innovated krill fishing technology with Eco-Harvesting, resulting in almost total elimination of by-catch and other environmental impacts.
• Aker BioMarine maintains an ongoing research project with MRAG, the leading consulting company committed to sustainable resource management, to allow data collected on the company’s vessel, Saga Sea, to be used in scientific estimates of the krill biomass. It is also involved in an additional project with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and MRAG to evaluate and document any by-catch of fish larvae in the company’s krill harvest operation.
• Aker BioMarine is facilitating a process to propose an improved management plan for krill in Antarctica. Earlier this year, the Saga Sea was dedicated to hosting a large research project surveying krill and predators biomasses near the South Orkney Islands in the Southern Ocean. Mapping the overlap between krill fishing operations and predators will help to ensure that the krill fishery does not conflict with the needs of land-based predators. The survey will be repeated during the next several years, and the results will be published annually.
• Aker BioMarine has taken additional steps for full-scale environmental sustainability, partnering with researchers to measure the krill fishery’s broader environmental impact.
• Aker is a co-founder of the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies (ARK), a global krill industry association developed to promote research for the sustainable harvest of An1tarctic krill and to generate scientific data from krill fishing operations in order to facilitate CCAMLR’s management of the krill fishery.