Oil change – the importance of Omega-324 April 2017
Omega-3 oils offer well-substantiated benefits to human well-being, especially heart health, but the majority of people consume significantly less than experts recommend. Ellen Schutt, communications director at the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), explains why these fatty acids are so important and discusses what can be done to increase consumption.
The benefits of omega-3 oils are widely known. Credited, among other things, with improving cardiovascular health, cognitive function and inflammatory conditions, they have long been touted as something of a wonder-nutrient.
Of course, it pays to exercise caution when confronted with far-reaching health claims. But with more than 30,000 scientific papers published to date – including over 3,700 randomised controlled trials – their nutritional value
is reasonably well established.
Barely a month goes by, in fact, without omega-3s making the news. In January 2017, a research review was published, suggesting that omega-3 consumption reduced the risk of heart disease, even for those in high-risk groups. In February, a different study found a link between high levels of omega-3s in the blood and lower mortality in post-menopausal women over the study period. And in March, it was suggested that omega-3s might help offset the damage caused by air pollution.
According to one school of thought, many of the health ailments prevalent in Western societies can be traced to a dietary imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The theory suggests that humans have moved from a diet where the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 was around 1:1, to one where omega-6s outweigh omega-3s around 16:1. This may lead to an increase in inflammation.
Heart of the matter
While this hypothesis is open to debate, it does appear that most people would benefit from increasing their omega-3 consumption. Since 2004, EPA and DHA omega-3s have had ‘qualified health claim’ status in the US, with the FDA stating: “Supportive, but not conclusive, research shows that consumption of [these] fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
“The main body of science is around heart health benefits,” says Ellen Schutt, communications director at the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). “Omega-3s have been shown to lower triglycerides, reduce blood pressure, lower the risk of coronary heart disease and reduce the likelihood of cardiac death. There are many other areas of emerging research into a lot of things that omega-3s haven’t been shown to do, or where the science isn’t there, but in those four areas, the science is really strong.”
As a non-profit trade organisation, GOED works to increase the consumption of omega-3s around the world. It recommends that the average person should consume 500mg of EPA and DHA a day for general health, and higher quantities for specific life stages or health conditions. It also aims to protect the category from outside influences, like negative media, and from poor practices within the industry.
“GOED wants to make sure its members are producing quality products that consumers can trust and feel confident about,” says Schutt. “As a condition of membership, every member has to adhere to a quality monograph GOED has created, which is one of the strictest standards in the international omega-3 industry.”
The organisation represents around 200 members across various segments of the omega-3 supply chain. These include processors, refiners, manufacturers, distributors, marketers, and retailers, among others.
It is not concerned with other omega oils, such as omega-6 or ALA (alpha-linolenic acid, a shorter-chain omega-3). Rather, it focuses exclusively on eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – the two forms of omega-3 thought to confer the most health benefits.
“EPA and DHA are the two main fatty acids from marine sources, and most of the products that are available contain both,” says Schutt. “If you eat a piece of salmon, you’re getting both of them. Likewise with almost all the supplements on the market.”
In nature, EPA and DHA are found predominantly in oily fish, such as salmon, sardines and anchovies. Because it can be hard to consume such foods in large quantities (the NHS, for instance, recommends people eat no more than one portion a day, due to the risks of mercury and other pollutants), many people prefer to supplement with omega-3 capsules.
“The oil that goes into supplements comes from a variety of different fish, but the largest source is anchovy, largely from the Peruvian anchovy fishery,” says Schutt. “In addition to that, there’s cod liver oil, which has a long heritage of use, and salmon and tuna oils. Krill is a more recent addition to the market, along with algae.”
Kelp is on the way
Algae and kelp are coming to prominence as the only true vegetarian sources of EPA and DHA, although there are also some genetically modified plants in the development stage. While the likes of flaxseed oils, hempseed oils and walnuts do contain omega-3s, this is in the form of ALA, which may not have the same effects.
“The conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA in the body is really low, so it’s not really possible to get the EPA and DHA that you should just from eating ALA,” says Schutt.
So, with its dietary value clear to see, how is the omega-3 market faring? Schutt feels it’s difficult to talk about the market in its entirety, given that the industry is so variegated – it really depends on which category you’re interested in, and where in the world.
Overall, though, the global market is worth $1.2 billion at the raw materials level, and $31.4 billion for finished products (figures from 2015). By far and away the largest application is dietary supplements, which account for 77.9% of market volume. Over the past few years, manufacturers have found ways of concentrating higher doses of omega-3 within each pill, meaning consumers are ‘trading up’ to higher-dose, higher-price products.
Pet foods are the second-largest application in terms of volume, at 9.6%, followed by food and beverage (4.6%) and infant formula (4.1%). However, the proportions are somewhat different when you look at market value. Measured that way, infant formula is the second largest category (18.9% of market share) followed by pharmaceuticals (18.0%).
“The pharmaceutical market is interesting because although there are only a few countries with pharmaceutical EPA and DHA products, there are more than 30 products in the drug discovery pipeline,” says Schutt. “We’re watching that to see how that will impact the market in general, especially the supply of raw materials.”
Fortified foods and beverages, by contrast, are likely to face further limitations to growth, constrained by cost and technological factors. “The food industry is way more cost-conscious than the supplement industry, and it’s very difficult to get an efficacious dose into a food product at a cost that works for the manufacturer,” says Schutt.
“That’s why fortified yogurt or milk will contain around 35mg, whereas a supplement will have at least 250mg EPA and DHA. Then there is the issue of how much you can get into a product and still have it smell and taste OK.”
Drop of oil
Surveying the industry from a geographic standpoint, you can see a clear split between mature and emerging markets. While sales in the US and Europe have contracted slightly in recent years, growth is continuing apace elsewhere.
“China, South East Asia and some African and South American countries are growing faster, and sales in the US and Europe are pretty much flat,” says Schutt. “At the retail level, the US has actually been declining for the past few years, although now we’re back at zero, or maybe a little bit of growth.”
The drop in US sales, she believes, was largely due to omega-3s receiving some negative press, along with a lack of compensatory positive attention. One paper, published in 2013, drew a link between high levels of omega-3 in the blood and the risk of developing prostate cancer. This was reported, in typically sensationalised form, by various media outlets, just as positive news stories were declining.
Hoping to change the tone of the conversation, GOED teamed up with the Omega-3 Coalition in 2015 to run a consumer marketing campaign. While GOED is not traditionally a consumer-facing organisation, and does not have a huge budget for such purposes, it was mildly successful in its aims, and noted a consequent growth in sales figures.
The organisation has also established an executive council on education and outreach, which invests in additional omega-3 research to address the present areas of contention. It funded the meta-analysis published this January, and has another paper coming out this year on how omega-3s can lower cardiac death risk.
“We’re always worrying about what the media is going to say because it’s so influential for consumers,” says Schutt. “Recently, on the cardiovascular side, a few neutral studies have come out, and that leads the media to say omega-3s don’t work. It’s a big frustration for GOED that the science is not being presented properly, so it is trying to shore up the science around omega-3s to keep supporting what’s already out there.”
Another factor influencing sales is the message being propagated by doctors. As GOED consumer research demonstrates, consumers will often purchase a supplement, or otherwise, depending on what their health practitioner tells them.
“GOED is trying to do more to talk to doctors to make sure they understand the benefits,” says Schutt. “Right now, it is trying to figure out which part of the health practitioner community it should talk to and what the message should be.”
All the fish in the sea
Beyond consumer awareness, another key issue is sustainability. After all, if everybody in the world were to increase their fish oil consumption – desirable as that might be for their health – fish stocks would become so severely depleted that the ocean would not be able to meet demand. This would be compounded by the havoc climate change is wreaking on the available biomass of fish.
If the industry is to prosper, alternative, non-fish sources will become necessary: the great potential of algae and kelp has already been noted.
“The algae market is totally sustainable, and a lot of companies are developing products that aren’t yet commercial,”
says Schutt. “Right now, it’s very expensive compared with most fish sources, but if anchovy becomes less easily available, I think algae will become a more attractive alternative.”
However sales may fluctuate, omega-3 products are a staple of the natural products industry, and will continue to be so in the years to come. “GOED was recently at a very big trade show in California, and, after talking to members, it felt like there was more optimism than there has been,” says Schutt. “It feels like the market is turning around a bit in the US, and – touch wood – the news in the media is looking relatively positive, too.”