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Fish oil and plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids: Can one supply plant-based omega-3s at the expense of fish oil?


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    If there’s one thing omega-3 companies can agree on, it’s this: despite the nutrient’s success, there’s still room for the category to grow. Why? Because a wide swath of consumers still have suboptimal omega-3 intake levels, making omega-3s “a health-promoting supplement,” says Simon Riise, director of business development at GC Rieber VivoMega (Norway).

    Omega-3s are among the most studied nutrients, with a scientific dossier that would make other nutrients green with envy. An array of studies ranging from animal models to randomized controlled trials have demonstrated that omega-3 fatty acids can support human health in areas like inflammation, heart health, cognitive function, eye health, prenatal and fetal development, and more. Furthermore, there’s emerging research on everything from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patients to muscle recovery and lung health.

    There’s certainly no shortage of reasons for consumers to consider this fatty acid essential. So, why, then the widespread deficiency? Despite all the scientific hoopla, research shows most people are just not consuming enough omega-3 fatty acids to rise to the level of intake sufficiency, let alone make it to the optimal-level end zone.

    For example, at OmegaQuant (Sioux Falls, SD), an independent lab offering omega-3 testing services to researchers, clinicians, and the public, founder William S. Harris, PhD, who is also president of the Fatty Acid Research Institute (FARI), is an internationally recognized expert on omega-3 fatty acids. Harris is also one of the co-developers of the Omega-3 Index (O3I), a measure of the amount of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids present in red blood cell membranes and a test that determines risk factors for heart disease. The O3I has identified 8% or higher as the ideal index goal, placing people with those test results in the lowest-risk zone. Unfortunately, according to OmegaQuant, most people stack up around 6% or lower, with most Americans at 4% or lower, the highest-risk category.1

    OmegaQuant is not the only organization raising concerns. The American Heart Association says most people in the U.S. don’t include enough omega-3s in their diets.2 And the consumer website of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED; Salt Lake City, UT), the industry association focused on increasing worldwide consumption of omega-3 EPA and DHA, says 80% of people worldwide, and 95% in the U.S., are not getting enough EPA and DHA omega-3s.3 Why are there shortfalls? One reason, at least in the U.S., could be that although fatty fish is the richest source of EPA and DHA, unfortunately a lot of people are not wild about eating fish.

    Plants on the March

    Enter the rise of vegetarian/vegan, plant-based options for omega-3s, from algae to Ahiflower, seeds (e.g., flax, chia) to nuts (e.g., walnuts, pecans). And for those who think the growing interest from consumers in plant-based options might make fish oil companies squeamish, the opposite appears to be true.

    In fact, many well-known fish oil companies are expanding their own omega-3 portfolios to include plant-based options alongside fish oil—algae especially. These companies are encouraged by the possibility of attracting more types of omega-3 consumers.

    Harry Rice, GOED’s vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs, says, “There’s no doubt that companies that used to sell only fish oil are branching out to include an algal omega-3 product, but it’s only been in the last few years that many companies have added or plan to add an algal omega-3 product.”

    Seeing this trend unfold, a year ago GOED started working on a Codex proposal for new work on a standard for microbial (e.g., algae) omega-3 oils. “At the time,” Rice says, “there were just over 10 GOED stakeholder companies” participating in the algae omega-3 market. Now, there are 25, with some “currently marketing an algal omega-3 oil, while others are exploring the opportunity or are in some stage of development,” he says. All of which would seem to demonstrate an increased interest in plant-based omegas moving at a rapid rate.

    Nordic Naturals, one of the industry’s leading omega-3 consumer brands, was founded on fish oil omega-3s but launched its plant-based option, Algae Omega, in 2012. Brian Terry, director of sales for retail at Nordic Naturals, says the company expanded into plant-based omega-3s “in order to meet growing consumer needs for vegan and vegetarian options and Nordic’s commitment to health for people and the plants.” And while “plant-based omega-3s are a smaller, more niche market,” he says, he proudly reports that Nordic’s Algae Omega products are top sellers, ranked as the number-one algae oil in the U.S., according to sources such as ClearCut, Nielsen, and SPINS annual data.

    While Terry doesn’t necessarily believe that fish oil companies need to offer a plant-based omega product to stay top of mind, he does think that “it is critical for brands to meet consumer needs and to have a portfolio of products to serve consumer needs.”

    In what can be seen as a positive move to entice more consumers to the market, Nordic Naturals expanded distribution into Walmart for the first time in the fall of 2022, offering an array of omega-3 options now including both its fish oil and algae supplements, Terry says.

    Earlier this year, GC Rieber VivoMega launched VivoMega Algae Oils, its new line of ocean-derived, high-concentration vegan microalgae omega-3.4 It’s not that the company had any concerns about fish oil’s sustainability. (GC Rieber VivoMega already counts sustainability high on its list of corporate values.) Rather, Riise says, the decision to introduce algae-based omega-3s was based on a combination of factors.

    “We see it as a strength that there is another source of omega-3s, allowing us to be more flexible and deliver a longer range of products,” he says, as “consumer preferences are changing, with newer generations having different priorities.”

    “We see algae and fish go hand in hand as they both offer high-quality omega-3,” he continues. “The most important aspect for us is being able to source the best-quality raw materials that allow us to produce the highest-quality omega-3 concentrates with little to no waste.”

    The timing was right for the company to expand into algal oil, he adds, because “the value chain for microalgae has improved significantly over the years. We can leverage our core competence in processing omega-3 oils, and it gives our partners and customers flexibility in their offerings that again will cater to both new and existing customers.”

    Sticking with Fish Oil

    Not all fish oil companies are planting roots in plant-based omega-3s, though. And there is something to be said for sticking to what you’re best known for.

    For example, Thomas Gulbrandsen, global sales and marketing director at omega-3 concentrates supplier Epax (Norway), says, “Epax is vertically integrated through its parent company, Pelagia, which is focused on fish products, so fish will continue to be our main focus.” They’re not making any (fish) bones about that fact, as the Pelagia website says front and center that “It’s all about the fish.”

    Could that change one day? Gulbrandsen notes that “we don’t have any plant-based ingredients in our portfolio as things stand, but we’re continuously evaluating the space to identify areas where we could positively impact the category.”

    However, Gulbrandsen is gracious in his thoughts about the omega-3 pie being large enough to allow for source diversity. “The overall market for omega-3 continues to grow, and even now most people aren’t consuming enough,” he says. “That shows that the market has a very high ceiling and is certainly big enough to accommodate a diversity of products from both fish and vegetal sources such as algae.”

    He understands, moreover, the market’s need to accommodate many consumer tastes, stating that “vegetarians and vegans will probably continue to drive demand for plant-based omega-3.” On the other hand, he points out that “looking at the retail shelves, fish sources continue to hold their stand, maybe due to the wealth of scientific backing behind them.”

    The point about where the scientific research is strongest is compelling. The only omega-3 source in plants like flax, chia, walnuts, and soybeans is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which Gulbrandsen contends “offers limited health benefits compared to EPA and DHA.” He explains that “the body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but the process is inefficient.”

    As for algae, Gulbrandsen says that the marine source of omega-3 can also provide high levels of EPA and DHA, but there hasn’t been as much research on algal sources as there has been on fish sources. And, he adds, “consumer awareness levels are much lower” for algal oil than for fish oil. “It seems consumers all over the world recognize fish oil as a proven solution,” he says.

    Enter a Wild Plant

    Among the plant-based omegas that are building awareness is Ahiflower. First launched around 2015 by Natures Crops International (NCI; Winston-Salem, NC), Ahiflower is NCI’s branded specialty omega seed oil (Buglossoides arvensis). Company founder and CEO Andrew Hebard refers to Ahiflower as the “first true multi-omega, analogous to the multivitamin category” and one that “offers a rich, single-plant source” of omega-3s ALA and stearidonic acid (SDA), omega-6 fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), and omega-9 fatty acid oleic acid (OA).

    Ahiflower was first introduced primarily in supplement form, but the first Ahiflower-containing product launched in the U.S. was actually a chocolate truffle, Hebard says, a product that “was pivotal for leveraging our FDA GRAS review status.” Today, there have been “over 100 brands launching products containing Ahiflower oil in all categories of nutritional supplementation and/or foods/beverages around the world, including animal supplements.” This includes supplement brands like Wiley’s Finest, doTERRA, and even Sports Illustrated Nutrition.

    Prenatal supplements and infant formulas are still very heavily focused on DHA, which has been studied for its effects on pre-term birth. With DHA customers in mind, NCI recently developed its Ahiflower + DHA line in an alliance with Algarithm and its DHA oils sourced from algae.

    Beyond supplements, Hebard is quite intrigued by the promise of the omega nutritional market, “because this is far broader than the omega supplement market, and it’s where we see plant-based omegas like Ahiflower taking the lead because of their far greater versatility and acceptability in foods and beverages stemming from” what he calls “superior oxidative stability, hence clean sensory appeal.”

    While Hebert would ultimately “love for Ahiflower to be the newest darling of the omega nutrition market,” he realizes that goal remains “a distant milestone for us.” However, he shares that “today, Ahiflower occupies a relatively small space, but the science being published is generating significant interest, and Ahiflower is contributing to fill a very large white space of opportunity for improved, complete, and balanced omega nutrition.” That is, Ahiflower is building up its reputation on its own front, not simply being seen or equated only as a direct replacement for or alternative to fish oil, he says.

    In fact, ideally “marine and plant-derived omega-3 sources can and should happily coexist,” Hebert says. He doesn’t view that coexistence through a binary lens, either—e.g., fish versus plant, or Ahiflower versus flax. Rather, he says, “We think the solution is to find areas for innovation and collaboration.” Marine and plant omegas “each provide unique benefits and serve different consumer needs. They don’t need to cannibalize each other, and if that’s all they do, we have missed an opportunity and failed the consumer.”

    He’s clear about growing the pie for the omega-3 market, stating that “all indications are that the omegea-3 industry must be far larger and more inclusive of terrestrially farmed alternatives like Ahiflower.”

    What About the Stats?

    At this point, there’s no beef between fish oil companies and those involved in plant-based options. That’s not only because many of the major players are hedging their bets with their own vegetarian and vegan solutions for customers and consumers. It might also be because there’s no real financial threat to fish oil at this point.

    The fact is the fish oil omega-3 market is still going strong. Rice says there’s no evidence to suggest the fish oil market will be cannibalized as more algal omega-3s enter the market. He declares that “as algae-based omega-3 oils get closer to price parity with fish oils, some consumers may convert, but fish oils are here to stay.”

    The most recent volume and value stats from GOED support his position. Rice’s colleague, Aldo Bernasconi, PhD, GOED’s vice president of data sciences, shares that in the U.S., in 2022, the value of fish oils in dietary supplements at point of sale was around $1.2 billion, up between 6%-7% from 2021.

    By contrast, “In the U.S., as well as globally, the algal oil segment, both in terms of volume and value, at the point of sale for dietary supplements, is still a small part of the overall omega-3 supplement market,” Bernasconi says.

    “However,” he adds, “interest in sustainable sources and plant-based nutrition are driving this segment to grow faster than the overall omega-3 supplement market.”

    In 2021, the global volume for algae-based omega-3 oil used as an ingredient in dietary supplements was 1,104 metric tons (MT), with a value of $77.2 million, he shares. Algae-based omega-3 oils played a more prominent role both globally and in the U.S. in products like infant formula and food and beverage than in dietary supplements. Bernasconi reports the following global volumes and values for algae-based omega-3 oil for 2021: 2,563 MT volume as an ingredient in infant formula (value: $108.9 million) and 1,360 MT volume as an ingredient in food and beverage applications (value: $78.4 million). And a report from Transparency Market Research estimates that the “fish-free” omega-3 market is estimated to come close to $1.3 billion by 2029.5

    During a recent podcast interview with Nutritional Outlook, Rice indicated that both the fish-based and algal-based markets are growing but that the supply issue will undoubtedly impact the fish oil numbers, at least from a volume perspective.6

    Rice said, “The reality is that in order to [continue to] increase omega-3 intake globally, we need every possible source.”

    Sustainability, a Core Value

    Some might argue that the reason we need plant-based omega sources is to ward off overfishing. But fish oil companies have no plans to get caught in that messaging net.

    As Rice points out, “Just because you aren’t using fish to produce the oil doesn’t necessarily make the end product more sustainable. Just like with fish oils, a rigorous life-cycle assessment is necessary to determine the environmental impact of manufacturing algal omega-3 oils.”

    Furthermore, Rice explains that fish oil producers adhere to strict environmental guidelines and in many cases are using a byproduct of the seafood or aquaculture industry, so it’s important to assess the full scope of production for all omega-3 sources when weighing the options.

    Epax’s Gulbrandsen says, “We have an unwavering commitment to sustainability. We first launched our EcoVision policy in 2010, which formalized our commitment to never take fish from unregulated or unsustainable sources. Two years prior to that, we became the first omega-3 ingredient company to secure Friend of the Sea sustainability certification. We’re also certified by MarinTrust, which champions best practices and responsible business conduct in the sourcing and production of marine ingredients.”

    Moreover, Gulbrandsen continues, “The regions we source from have been very well managed over a long period of time, but we know there’s no room for complacency.” That’s why, he says, “we recently launched our first annual environment, social, and governance (ESG) report, which sets out 12 goals that will help us further optimize our impacts. One is to achieve 98% circularity for our marine biomaterials this year, with any byproducts refined into other valuable resources such as animal feed, fertilizer, and biogas. We achieved 96.7% circularity for biomaterials in 2022, compared to a global average of 7.2%, but we want to go even further. Like our parent company, Pelagia AS, we’re committed to 100% fish utilization.”

    In response to the question about whether algae oil is a more sustainable option than fish oil, Riise responds that “currently there is no binary answer to that question, and there are pros and cons with each source.” He says that compared to fish, algae are still in its early days when it comes to technology development and strain improvement.

    We need to keep in mind that the fisheries are well managed and regulated. Riise has an example to support that point. He conveys that “this is best illustrated by VivoMega’s past fishing season in Peru being cancelled due to unfavorable biological conditions. This is a strong signal since Peru is historically one of the main suppliers of fish oil.”

    And here’s the meat of the matter, according to Riise: “From our perspective, the most important measure we can take is to continue setting high quality standards when sourcing raw materials, and stay close to our suppliers. Having long-term relationships allows us to understand and drive our sustainability agenda across the industry together with our partners.”

    Hebard agrees about the importance of the omega-3 market, even if he’s not in totally set on the long-term sustainability of fish alone as a reliable source for the anticipated growth of the market. As he explains, “The omega-3 market is undoubtedly an essential nutritional component of consumer and animal health and wellness, and it is primarily supported by a supply chain that is becoming increasingly vulnerable, with periods of fragility or turbulence.” He believes that as “total omega-3 demand grows and fish oil supply remains constrained, it’s inevitable that plant and algal sources will take up some of that slack.” He adds that “for brands to meet their consumers’ expectations of performance, availability, and affordability, and to meet untapped demand, I do believe plant-based omegas play and will eventually become the dominant source.”

    Hebard expects that “Ahiflower will be part of the plant-based solution.” As such, he says he is honored to work with growers “who are employing regenerative practices in growing our Ahiflower oilseed crops, and, by definition, returning tangible value—nutrients, microorganism and pollinator diversity, carbon capture—to the planet.” Currently, all of NCI’s crops are grown in the UK, but “we have the framework in place to grow Ahiflower in Canada, Europe, and the Southern Hemisphere to meet future demands,” he shares.

    Nordic Naturals’ answer about sustainability—and its expectations that the suppliers it works with will help ensure that both fish and algae will be in the market and safe to use for the long run—is simple but to the point.

    Terry declares that “Nordic Naturals is committed to sustainably sourcing both fish- and algae-based omegas. The documentation that we collect for algae oil is the same set of documents that we collect for our fish oil. Nordic checks for the GMOs, allergen, pesticide status, and regulations of the ingredients, as well as testing the specification that is provided against the product that arrives to ensure all label claims as it relates to the active dietary components are met and met regularly with each lot that is sourced.”

    In other words? Every source is scrutinized equally for merit and performance.

    Category Innovation

    Finally, as all categories need to innovate to stay relevant and keep customers coming back, are algae ingredients keeping up with innovation in comparison to fish oil? According to Rice, “The real innovation is with the delivery methods, but this is not specific to omega-3s.” He’s talking about consumer demand for more user-friendly product delivery options, with gummies being “the first thing that comes to mind.”

    On the innovation front, the ConCordix “smart chew” delivery technology “seems to be gaining a lot of traction” in the omega-3 market, Rice says. He notes that while “softgels are still the primary delivery form and the easiest in terms of getting higher amounts of EPA and DHA per dose, chewable gels are able to deliver a higher dosage than a gummy.”

    Vitux AS (Oslo, Norway) launched ConCordix over a decade ago but noted in a 2022 article for Nutritional Outlook that penetration in the U.S. market expanded significantly in the last four years. In that article, Marc van Maris, senior vice president of marketing and sales for the U.S. market at Vitux, noted that Amway’s Nutrilite Brainiums DHA Jelly Splat and Guardion’s Viactive Omega Boost Gel Bites are two brands leveraging ConCordix technology for omega-3 supplements.7

    High concentrates represent another new direction for algae oils. “Given that some algal omega-3 oils are now being concentrated, the innovation in terms of concentration technologies is comparable [to fish oils],” Rice observes.

    GC Rieber VivoMega is one of those companies innovating in high-concentrate algae. “VivoMega Algae Oil’s SuperLight proprietary processing technology is designed and developed exclusively for algae oils. Its process utilizes high-end technologies and decades of know-how, allowing for gentle and noninvasive processing,” the company’s press release explains. “Through a specifically designed circular reflux system, the oil has very low exposure to heat, is protected from oxidation, and includes every relevant fatty acid. The SuperLight circular technology results in a product with exceptional quality parameters and optimal resource utilization with zero waste.”

    Riise thinks one of the biggest hurdles for innovation today is the cost of raw materials. “When the cost comes down, demand increases, and innovation becomes easier,” he notes. “That being said, there is nothing technical limiting the degree of innovation” in the omega-3 industry, he believes.

    Again, Riise says GC Rieber VivoMega does not have concerns about algae oils devouring its fish oil business because he sees that “fish and algae can go hand in hand and that the pie is big enough for both.” He likens any concerns to another industry with essential products. “Take the analogy of a car dealership,” he says. “Introducing a new car brand only expands your reach and consumer base because customers are different. Different car brands serve the same basic purpose of getting you from A to B; however, consumer preferences differ. In the long run, we expect the source to matter less and that quality is the most important aspect.”

    On behalf of Nordic Naturals, Terry believes that “fish oil and plant-based supplements can absolutely coexist. Because it is about serving a consumer need. These consumers may have similar health and wellness prerogatives; they just need to choose to consume omega-3s from different sources.”

    For its part, Terry says, “Nordic will continue to innovate in the category with a variety of formats, regardless of the omega source, but secure in the Nordic promise of potency and purity.” He adds that this fall, the company will launch a high-potency plant-based option called Zero Sugar Children’s DHA Vegetarian Gummy Chews.

    Hebard says that “historically, omega-3s have one of the highest positive consumer associations with health and consumer acceptance that their diets are probably deficient in them, yet still there’s this large untapped demand.” That means that “we are not meeting the consumer where they are, and we have to offer better and more diverse nutritional solutions, better messaging, and better education.”

    Are there lessons learned from fish oil companies that can benefit plant-based companies?

    “For consumers,” Rice says, “it’s all about trust and quality. Since its inception, GOED’s mission has been to increase global consumption of EPA and DHA, but not at the expense of quality. Our members follow quality and ethics guidelines that ensure the production of high-quality products that consumers can trust.”

    The hope for growth is that plant-based companies will keep in mind the need for the same high standards. And it appears that they’re already doing well down that garden road.

    References

    1. OmegaQuant. What is the Omega-3 Index? July 9, 2018. https://omegaquant.com/what-is-the-omega-3-index/
    2. Williamson, L. Are you getting enough omega-3 fatty acids? American Heart Association. June 30, 2023. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2023/06/30/are-you-getting-enough-omega-3-fatty-acids
    3. Global Organization for DHA and EPA Omega-3s. March 3 (03-03) is Global Omega-3 Day. https://alwaysomega3s.com/more/global-omega-3-day#:~:text=80%25%20of%20people%20worldwide%20are,but%20throughout%20your%20entire%20life
    4. Grebow, J. New vegan omega-3 oil line launched by GC Rieber VivoMega: 2023 Natural Products Expo West preview. Nutritional Outlook. February 15, 2023. https://www.nutritionaloutlook.com/view/new-vegan-omega-3-oil-line-launched-by-gc-rieber-vivomega-2023-natural-products-expo-west-preview
    5. Fish-Free Omega-3 Ingredients Market. Transparency Market Rearch. https://www.transparencymarketresearch.com/fishfree-omega3-ingredients-market.html
    6. Nutritional Outlook staff. The Nutritional Outlook Podcast. Episode 25: Omega-3s: Can algae and fish sources grow together? September 8, 2023. https://www.nutritionaloutlook.com/view/the-nutritional-outlook-podcast-omega-3s-can-algae-and-fish-sources-grow-together-
    7. Blatman, J. Stay in your lane: Novel delivery systems must comply with supplement regulations. Nutritional Outlook. November 23, 2022. https://www.nutritionaloutlook.com/view/stay-in-your-lane-novel-delivery-systems-must-comply-with-supplement-regulations

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