In the world of functional foods, omega-3 is the alpha ingredient. Items containing this heart-healthy compound already dominate the category, and recent studies show its market share will more than triple in size within the next five years.
Retailers know how healthy omega-3s are for their sales. Just two years ago, omega-3 fatty acids were found in up to 120 new products; but in 2006, that number jumped to 250, according to industry research. And more are on the way.
Sources of the fatty acids are becoming more varied, allowing manufacturers to incorporate the lipid into a wider range of products spanning snack foods, cereals, eggs, dairy and even infant formula.
“Categorically, all of the consumer testing we've done shows no negative impressions of omega-3s,” said Angela Tsetis, vice president — commercial for Martek Biosciences, an omega-3 processor based in Columbia, Md. “Consumers are interested in having more of it in their diets, and think of it only in positives.”
As demand grows, the industry is improving production and refinement methods. Currently, much omega-3 comes from alpha-linolenic acid pressed from flaxseed. While flax-derived ALA is considered ideal for vegetarian products, it does not convert well in the body. As a result, much of the attention has shifted to DHA (docosahexaenic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). These omega-3s are found primarily in marine fish oils, as well as some microalgae. Ian Newton, a board member of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA, a trade group formed last year, said that improved technology has allowed processors to retain the oil's healthful qualities even as it's turned into an odor-free, nearly tasteless powder — ideal for mass production.
“We see major food companies adding healthy omega-3 ingredients to foods, and they could only do that now because of the advantage of these new powders in particular,” he said.
In promoting the marine sources of omega-3s, GOED is taking concurrent steps to address two key concerns overshadowing all seafood: The contradictory warnings about the dangers posed by fish tainted with heavy metals like mercury, as well as overfishing. Some consumers have turned to alternatives like algae, the very source of omega-3s for most marine life.
“One of the unique things algae offers is that it's still vegetarian-friendly; and it's kosher and halal, so there are no restrictions in where it could be used in the diet,” said Tsetis.
The exploding market demand for omega-3 has attracted the attention of heavyweights like Monsanto Co., which in March joined with an arch-rival subsidiary of DuPont to develop and market omega-3 products using soybeans; meanwhile, Cargill says its own formulation allows manufacturers to incorporate up to 150 milligrams of omega-3 per serving with no discernible change in flavor or shelf life. Such an abundance of sources will be necessary if sales of omega-3 food and beverages increase, from $2 billion last year to $7 billion by 2011, as predicted by Packaged Facts.