One of the most important ingredients of the nutraceutical arsenal has been working to become an indelible part of the most important meal of the day. Breakfast foods have been doing well at attracting developers to the inclusion of omega-3 oils in their formulations. Breads, RTE and heat & eat cereals, even milk and orange juice all have been proving successful platforms for getting omegas into the diet.
Remember when orange juice's main health benefit was preventing or treating colds? Now the breakfast beverage can carry plant sterols to remove cholesterol, calcium, for bone health, zinc and vitamin E for immunity, and glucosamine chondroitin for achy joints. But omega-3s are perhaps the most popular addition, since research indicates they may help combat a number of diseases and dysfunctions, from heart disease and diabetes to depression and certain forms of cancer. They also are critical to cognitive health, and especially to the growth and development of infants from the womb through toddlerhood.
“Tropicana had been pursuing the idea of adding omega-3s to Tropicana Healthy Heart for more than two years, but the trick was finding a way to add an excellent source of omega-3s without compromising the taste consumers expect from Tropicana,” Mark Andon, at the time director of nutrition for the Tropicana unit of PepsiCo (he now holds a similar position with ConAgra). The original solution was an encapsulated, fish-oil based omega-3 from Ocean Nutrition Canada, now owned by DSM.
Several dairy processors developed milk products with omega-3s. It provided them with a holy grail in the dairy category: a differentiated, value-added milk. Along the way, product development evolved from using marine sources of the ingredient to plant-based ones.
Horizon Organic, a brand of White Wave Foods, last year took the extra step of delivering omega-3s in a package clearly aimed at children. Single-serve, shelf-stable milk boxes augmented the brand's half-gallon omega-3 milk. The "first on-the-go milk product enhanced with 32 mg DHA omega-3" made it easy for parents to slip the nutraceutical into children's lunch boxes. It even came n chocolate and vanilla flavors.
Horizon points out its omega-3 comes from a sustainable, plant-based and vegetarian source, "free from ocean-borne contaminants, does not contribute to overfishing and is a better option for those following a vegetarian diet. Additionally, the DHA omega-3 in Horizon Organic products neither contains nor is made with GMOs or with hexane. Horizon Organic sources its DHA, called Life’sDHA, from DSM Nutritional Products."
While the omega-3s in the orange juice and milk are ingredients added during processing, in eggs the nutraceutical is added upstream. The omega-3s in Eggland's Best eggs come from the canola oil and flax seeds that are part of the company's unique feed, the company explains. "The Eggland's Best nutritional program specifies inclusion of canola oil and flax seed in diets in proportions which will contribute to the desired level of omega-3 fatty acids in the eggs," the company explains. "Each week, producers submit eggs for inspection to determine that the levels of omega-3 fatty acids are as required."
Even regular shell eggs contain some naturally occurring omega-3 fatty acids, on average about 30mg per egg, points out the American Egg Board. But omega-3-enhanced eggs provide more, from 100mg to more 600mg per egg.
The difficulty with fish-derived omegas was a distinct fish odor and aftertaste, especially when delivered in the amounts believed to be necessary for benefit. (These amounts differ according to the experts, but most suggest a minimum of 200mg per day; nutrition and health researchers typically recommend from 500-2,000mg per day for optimal benefits.) There currently is no legal recommended daily amount, and dosages of up to several grams per day are easily and safely tolerated.)
Around a decade ago, microencapsulation technology made it possible for fish oil-derived omegas to be incorporated into formulations without leaving off odors or flavors. This opened the door to omegas’ application in orange juice, chocolate and bread. In some early formulations, there still sometimes was a slight marine aftertaste, but these technical challenges were overcome.
At the same time, a plant form of omega-3, alpha-linolenic acid, (ALA), specifically from flax seed, was gaining in popularity for food & beverage developers. ALA is found in grains and seeds, and is especially well concentrated in flax, hemp and chia. The drawback to ALA is that research had long indicated it is absorbed by the body at only about 10 percent the rate of DHA and EPA.
Some subsequent research has suggested ALA might be better absorbed than believed, although it still is not taken up as completely as are marine omegas. That noted, these plant forms of omega are somewhat more readily incorporated into formulations, especially those using grain, seed or nut ingredients.
Wheat germ — a classic breakfast cereal additive — also is a good source of this plant omega. Wheat germ has been enjoying a comeback as a food ingredient, although still as an addition to the diet by the consumer rather than by processors in formulation. Cereal makers should take note.
Today, there are two new sources of omega-3 that could bring them to the breakfast meal — or any meal — with greater ease for processors. Imperial, Texas-based Qualitas Health Ltd.’s Almega PL is an algae-derived ultra-high EPA that is pure, sustainable and comparatively inexpensive. Meanwhile, Cargill Ingredients, in conjunction with BASF Inc., has indicated a prospective launch next year of canola-derived DHA & EPA.
In other words, there now is nothing holding back the consumer wanting to start the day with some omega-3 eggs fried in omega-3 oil on omega-3 toast, washed down with omega-3 orange juice and a splash of omega-3 milk in the coffee for a multi-gram shot of these essential fatty acids.