High-Income, Health-Conscious Shoppers Seek Omega Fatty Acids

Aug. 31, 2009
Higher-income, health-conscious shoppers are seeking foods with omega fatty acids.
Editor’s note
In August's Health 101: Understanding Omega-3 Fatty Acids we covered the scientific research behind omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids; with this installment we focus on consumer research, as well as giving omega-9s their due.

Only a few years ago it seemed highly unlikely that consumers would ever embrace foods containing ingredients with names like omega-3, DHA and anything with the word fat in it.

But fish has always been considered healthy, and most Americans admit they don’t eat enough of it. So shoppers started to scan the nutritional supplement aisle or the GNC store for fish oil supplements. Slowly they got the message that what they were really seeking were the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). And then they learned the funny-sounding ingredients were not unique to capsules.

A 2008 survey by Natural Marketing Institute, Harleysville, Pa., found that Americans acknowledge they are deficient in omega-3 more than any other nutrient, including calcium and fiber. These consumers are seeking more foods and beverages with information on their labels about omega-3, DHA and EPA.

According to HealthFocus International, St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2008, 38 percent of shoppers said they had increased their use of omega-3 fatty acids over the past two years, up almost threefold versus 1998. Those most likely to have increased their consumption of omega-3 fatty acids are women (39 percent), shoppers aged 50-64 (44 percent), shoppers with college experience (41 percent) and shoppers with household incomes above $75,000 (45 percent).

For consumers, omega-3 fatty acids benefit a broad range of health conditions relative to healthful aging. Women are more interested than men in omega-3 fatty acids for brain, eye and skin health, while men are almost equally interested when it comes to heart health.

It is no wonder that omega-enriched foods and beverages have entered an explosive growth phase in the global retail market. Since 2003, thousands of foods and beverages enriched with omega fatty acids have been introduced worldwide, according to Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md. Marketers did not start touting the omega content of enhanced foods until late 2004, when the FDA allowed a number of nutrient content claims for these fatty acids.

Nearly 1,300 new omega-3-enriched products were introduced in Europe and North America in 2007, with total sales estimated at $4.6 billion. The compound annual growth rate for the period from 2003-2007 is estimated to be 60.7 percent.

Last year, there were 40 categories of foods and beverages with products containing a tag or claim of “high-omega-3,” “high-omega-6” or “high-omega,” compared to 30 categories in 2003 and 39 in 2006.

Also driving this growth are advances in formulation and technology, which are expanding the products amenable to enhancement with omegas. Methods of stabilizing omega-containing products through encapsulation or deodorization to inhibit oxidation (which causes the fishy smell associated with fish oil-based omega-3) have resulted in improved taste as well as extended shelf life.

Examples of foods being fortified with omega-3 fatty acids include yogurts, juices, table spreads, salad dressings, sauces, breakfast cereals, breads, snack bars, sauces, infant formulas, baby foods and juices. Most recently, pasta (Barilla), cooking oil (Pompeian) fruit juices (Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid), soymilk (Odwalla, Horizon and Silk) tortillas (Mission) and cheddar cheese (Cabot) have been fortified with omega-3.

UK-based John West launched a canned tuna steak enriched with omega-3 from added tuna oil. Containing 0.4g of omega-3 per 100g of product, a 160g can equals 100 percent RDA and five times more omega-3 than in a regular can.

Soccer star David Beckham is endorsing GO3 omega-3 enriched (from anchovy oil) ready meals and snacks for children in the UK; in fact, he owns a major share of the company.

The largest and longest (five years) randomized trial examining the impact of marine omega-3 and vitamin D on heart disease and cancer will begin in 2010 with 20,000 male and female participants. Funded by National Institutes of Health and run by Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston, the Vitamin D and omega-3 trial (VITAL) will investigate whether taking daily dietary supplements of vitamin D (about 2,000 IU) or fish oil (about 1g of omega-3 fatty acids) reduces the risk of developing cancer, heart disease, and stroke in people who do not have a prior history of these illnesses.

“There is epidemiological evidence that vitamin D and omega-3 may play a role in the prevention of disease, but larger, primary prevention trials have not been conducted until now,” said BWH in a statement. “For vitamin D, previous trials have generally tested low doses and, for omega-3s, trials have been done in high-risk populations.

Fishing for new sources

With growing concerns about the sustainability of fish sources of omega-3s, research is looking into non-fish sources, according to Packaged Facts. Add to that the growing numbers of vegetarians who avoid animal-based sources of fatty acids.

Martek supplies DHA from microalgae, but at this time, only shorter chain omega-3 ALA can be obtained from crops, primarily flax. Although beneficial nutritionally, ALA is less bioavailable for humans than EPA and DHA and is not included in U.S. health claims covering DHA and EPA for heart health.

Monsanto, Solae (a joint venture of DuPont and Bunge), BASF and Dow AgroSciences are working on the development of long-chain fatty acids from oilseeds such as soy, canola and flaxseed. Monsanto is developing a canola oil containing SDA (stearidonic acid), one of several types of omega-3, and is working with Solae to develop a high-omega-3 strain of soybean. According to Tony Arnold, president and CEO of Solae, the goal is an affordable and sustainable source of omega-3 ingredients.

Monsanto and DuPont independently have been conducting research on producing soybeans with high levels of omega-3. DuPont’s soybeans, which reportedly contain 40 percent omega-3 fatty acid, are in the first stage of development.

Meanwhile, Martek and Dow AgroSciences, which has developed a canola seed containing omega-9 that is being used for a line of fortified oils, plan to apply an omega-3-producing gene from Martek’s microalgae to produce a DHA-rich canola oil. Martek is also working with General Mills’ microencapsulation technology to deliver cost-effective DHA powders for certain food and beverage applications.

Don’t forget MUFAs

Often overlooked in discussion about healthful fatty acids is omega-9, including oleic acid (OA) and its derivatives, or monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs). Our bodies make omega-9 naturally, so it is not considered an essential fatty acid to consume. But there can be a problem. Unless omega-3 and omega-6 are present in the body, omega-9 cannot be synthesized.

The most common sources of omega-9 fatty acids are olive, canola and sunflower oils, as well as nuts such as almonds. “MUFAs have been proven to lower LDL and increase HDL cholesterol, reducing the risk of various heart conditions,” says Dave Dzisiak, healthy oils global commercial leader with Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis. “Recent [April] research from American Medical Assn. has shown that Mediterranean diets [which are high in monounsaturated fats] show a causal relationship in reduction of cardiovascular diseases.”

In the mid-1990s, Dow AgroSciences was the first to develop a new line of naturally bred canola and sunflower seeds that had exceptional stability without hydrogenation. “These seeds are the source of what we know as omega-9 oils,” says Dzisiak. “The oils have a unique combination of high-oleic, or omega-9 (more than 70 percent) and low linolenic, or omega-3 (less than 3 percent). This unique fatty acid profile gives omega-9 oils their unique taste, health and performance benefits.

“The oil is one of the best solutions for foodservice because it can perform better than partially hydrogenated oils in demanding kitchens, but has zero trans fat, low saturated fat and is high in monounsaturated fat,” he says.

In processed food products, omega-9 oils can help maintain texture, says Dzisiak. They are naturally stable without hydrogenation or high saturated fat levels, have the stability needed for longer shelf life and reduce the need to add antioxidants. “A longer shelf life translates into improved economics for anyone in food product development,” he points out.