The Rise of Omega Fatty Acids in Functional Products

Most of the health benefits derived from consuming fish oil originate from the long chain omega fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), according to many clinical research studies. Flaxseed, canola and soybean oils are typical non-animal sources that provide short chain omega-3 fatty acids in the form of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) or omega-6 fatty
acids in the form of linoleic acid (LA). All of the above are becoming increasingly familiar labels on dietary supplements and food and drink products across the globe. Retail value sales of food (including milk formula) and drink with added omega fatty acids reached US$30 billion in 2012, while sales of fish oils/omega fatty acids in supplement format reached US$1.8 billion, and
interest is certainly not fading.

Dietary supplements the clear leader in adult intake of omega fatty acids

The health benefits linked to omega fatty acids range from aiding children’s brain development to boosting the ageing brain’s health, heart health and even helping to relieve depression. At the moment, excluding milk formula from food and drink, dietary supplements are the clear leader with regard to adult intake. In fact, in four of the seven regions covered by Euromonitor  International’s consumer health research, fish oil/omega fatty acid supplements ranked among the top three fastest growing types of supplements over 2007-2012. In Australia, where this
is the second fastest growing type of supplement, consumers are embracing its benefits for cardiovascular and mental health. Companies such as Blackmores and Sanofi offer a wide array of fish oil options to people at different age stages. In Latin America, fish oils/omega fatty acids are also gaining importance. They have long been used as a paediatric supplement in many countries but are now being promoted as an “omega” supplement.

Milk formula leads overall food and drink

Where innovation in food and drink is taking place, DHA has taken centre stage. Functional milk and spreadable oils and fats are the largest food and drink categories for added DHA but baby milk formula is outpacing them both. It is seen on nearly every baby milk formula on the shelves and in markets such as the US is becoming the norm. These products are being positioned as able to optimise children’s brain development. Mead Johnson Nutrition Co leads the category, closely followed by Abbott Laboratories and Danone Groupe. Outside food and drink, other successful innovations include Birds Eye Foods Inc’s Fish Fingers with added omega-3, providing around 50% of the recommended daily intake (RDI), and fortified milk from brands such as Puleva, which saw sales reach US$134 million in 2012.

Nevertheless, it is the rapidly expanding base of middle-class consumers in emerging economies, with high aspirations for their children and a willingness to make sacrifices, which is the prime target audience for products containing ingredients which benefit developing brains and which are looking beyond DHA.

Utilise health claims to grow interest beyond children’s brain health

Omega-3 has achieved three EU Article 13.1 health claims – for cardiovascular health, brain health and vision health – all of which Euromonitor International’s health and wellness system tracks under its prime positioning hierarchy. Cardiovascular health has a much larger following – and hence retail value sales of US$8 billion in 2012 – as food and drink products are commonly able to show tangible benefits over a relatively short period of time and so have gained consumer trust. Conversely, for brain health (US$527 million) and vision health (US$278 million) in particular, supplements are a much more popular source of omega-3, with functional foods and drinks offering these benefits remaining somewhat untapped. The lack of transition from supplements to food and drink is because consumers find it difficult to recognise the tangible health benefits of the latter, preferring to trust a more pharmaceutical approach.

Consumer interest and curiosity in omega-3 is certainly not set to wane, but manufacturers need to substantiate their food or drink product health claims in order to develop greater trust in their benefits. Once this is achieved, and consumers move towards preventative measures rather than treatment, there is huge potential to target a wide range of age-related brain- and vision-health concerns.