Jo Christian Oterhals, Oslo, Norway
The global omega-3 market continues to diversify its offerings, bringing these valuable nutrients to consumers looking for alternatives to fish oil.
Euromonitor estimates that the 2015 global market for fish oils and omega-3 fatty acid supplements is roughly US$3.4 billion. Currently, North America and Asia Pacific are the largest regions for the sale of fish oils and omega-3 supplements; the US holds a 36 percent share of the global market, while China has a 10 percent share, and Japan comes in third, with a seven percent share.
Outside China and Japan, other areas in the Asia Pacific region are showing fast economic growth due to rising personal income, which is helping fuel the purchase of consumer products, including those that contain omega-3 oils.
Overall, the omega-3 market in Asia is quite established, with fish oil stealing the spotlight. But krill oil, another valuable source of omega-3s, is quickly gaining traction as a result of booming markets in the US and Australia. This spillover into the Asian markets has nicely filled a void for consumers who want to take omega-3s but prefer something other than fish oil.
‘Fishing’ For A Better Option
Fish oil is the most popular omega-3 source globally, with krill not far behind. The reason krill oil has become popular in recent years, particularly in the US and Europe, is because it succeeds where fish oil fails, especially when it comes to consumer appeal.
Research conducted in 2012 by Discovery Research Group showed that nearly 40 percent of US consumers who take omega-3s are looking for alternatives to fish oil. This trend is even more pronounced across many European countries. Consumers cite bad taste, reflux and large pills as the main reasons for wanting to make a switch from fish oil. Krill seems to meet consumers’ needs because it does not cause reflux or ‘fishy’ burps, and the pills are smaller, which increases compliance.
The Health Appeal Of Omega-3s
Every person at every age needs omega-3s. These are polyunsaturated fatty acids that have one carboxylic acid end, and a methyl end. Omega-3 fatty acids comprise three types: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Omega-3s are integral to cell membranes and play an important role in many processes in the human body, such as brain health. One of the strongest aspects of omega- 3s is the amount of research substantiating their health benefits. In fact, there are more studies on omega-3 fatty acids (particularly EPA and DHA) than almost any other substance, according to the Global Organisation for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED).
Unfortunately we do not synthesise omega-3 fatty acids on our own, so they must be obtained through diet. However, the typical diet for most consumers does not provide enough EPA and DHA, leaving a majority of the population deficient in these nutrients. This makes it more important than ever for consumers to eat the right foods and take omega-3 supplements to aid in proper health and nutrition.
Not All Omega-3s Are Created Equal
We know omega-3s are important, but how do we know which ones are best? The market for omega-3 fatty acids is very complex. Adding to this confusion is the need to differentiate between the various types, such as EPA, DHA and alphalinolenic acid (ALA).
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA are most often sourced from fish or other marine sources like krill. These fatty acids also boast the largest amount of substantiation for their health benefits.
ALA typically comes from plant sources and once ingested will eventually convert to EPA and DHA. However, the conversion rate is very poor, typically around one percent. Most experts therefore believe it is best to consume omega- 3s from sources like fish or krill, which directly offer EPA and DHA—no conversion necessary.
The Krill Difference
So what are krill and where are they found? Krill are small shrimp-like crustaceans found low on the food chain. By occupying a low position in the food chain, krill do not accumulate contaminants and heavy metals to the extent that other marine species do. Furthermore, commercially harvested krill is sourced from the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, which is considered one of the cleanest and purest environments on earth.
Krill also naturally contains the potent antioxidant astaxanthin, which protects the integrity of its nutrients. Fish oil on the other hand, goes through several cleaning steps in the refining process to weed out pollutants and contaminants, and then requires some outside intervention from antioxidants to help keep its fatty acids stable.
So what about krill’s fatty acids? The majority of krill’s omega-3 fatty acids are bound to a particular type of fat called a phospholipid, whereas in other marine oils these omega-3 fatty acids are bound to other forms of fat— usually triglycerides or ethyl esters. This compositional difference is significant because it dictates how these fats are incorporated in tissues and used by the body.
When omega-3 fatty acids are delivered in triglyceride form some of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids are burned as energy or stored in the body’s fat reserves. As a result, the dosage must be large enough to compensate for this loss to ensure that sufficient amounts of these fatty acids are available at the cellular level.
In contrast, phospholipids are immediately available to the cells because they are key components in all cell membranes—people who consume krill-sourced omega-3s would therefore benefit more even with a smaller intake.
Recent human clinical studies have shown that when compared with triglyceride omega-3 fatty acids, less phospholipid-bound omega-3 fatty acids are required to reach equal accumulation in the body’s cells and organs. Additionally, due to the structure of the phospholipids themselves, they are able to mix with water unlike other fats. This means krill oil is dispersible in the stomach fluids (i.e., no ‘fishy’ burps).
Krill capsules for Omega-3 are gaining traction in the market.
The omega-3 market continues to evolve and offer additional applications beyond traditional soft gels. Newer entrants such as omega-3 fortified food and drinks as well as more novels forms of delivery like emulsions and gummies are moving into the market quickly. These innovations are moving into the krill market as well. Most recently, krill gummies were introduced by several brands in the European market, and the US market is not far behind.
According to market research conducted by Aker BioMarine, one in four consumers would consider switching to an omega-3 gummy, with an additional 44 percent open to this depending on pricing. Of these consumers, well over a third would consider paying a premium for these types of products.
In the US market alone, the gummy market is worth more than US$625 million and is forecasted to reach US$1 billion by 2017.
Sustainability & Traceability: Prerequisites For Doing Business With Omega-3s
While new innovations and science are important for moving the market forward, the lack of attention given to sustainability and traceability for some omega-3 sources could hold the market back.
Most omega-3 dietary supplements rely on oils sourced from low tropic fisheries where you find species like krill, herring and anchovies. These species are the ones most often used to make fish or krill meal and oil, and they sit low on the food web, representing a vital part of the food chain. In fact, these species are the primary food source for birds, marine mammals and large fish and play an important role in the world’s ecosystem.
Since the marine omega-3s used in dietary supplements most frequently come from ‘reduction fisheries’ (i.e. those used to make fish or krill meal and oil), they require close attention. An omega-3 company simply cannot do business today without taking the appropriate environmentally-friendly steps to ensure these species are well protected.
That said, it is not enough to just claim that you carry a sustainable source of omega-3s in your product. The true differentiator will be those brands that are certified by a third party as being both sustainable and traceable.
But if being environmentally responsible is not reason enough to more carefully source omega-3 ingredients, perhaps consumer awareness will be more convincing.
According to a recent study conducted in the US market by the Hartman Group, the familiarity with ‘sustainability’ reached an all-time high in 2015. However, consumers are having a hard time identifying these types of products in the marketplace.
To clear up this confusion by consumers and at the same time address the environmental responsibility that comes along with sourcing omega-3 ingredients, companies can apply for certification from entities such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).