According to Mintel’s Global New Products Database, Chicago, dairy foods are the No. 3 category when it comes to new products touting their omega-3 content (see table). Interestingly, many of the foods in the No. 1 category-processed fish, meat and egg-inherently contain omega-3s, while all dairy foods must be enhanced with the ingredient.

When it comes to omega-3s, there are basically three available as an ingredient: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Plant-derived ALA is an essential fatty acid and can be converted in the human body to DHA and EPA. However, the efficiency of the conversion process from ALA to DHA and EPA varies by consumer, diet and other factors. Both DHA and EPA are naturally found in marine sources, and can also be produced commercially using algae.  

A unique “healthy halo” is propelling the flourishing global market for food and beverage products enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids. The halo is characterized by public awareness of omega-3 fatty acids, their proven scientific and health benefits, consumer willingness to purchase products that contain them and positive media exposure.

According to the 15th annual Consumer Attitudes About Nutrition study by the United Soybean Board, Des Moines, Iowa, omega-3 fatty acids remain the only type of fat more consumers rate more healthy than unhealthy. In fact, in the 2008 study, 66% of the 1,000 consumers surveyed view omega-3 fatty acids as very/somewhat healthy.

In the hot-off-the-presses report, Omega Fatty Acids: Trends in the Worldwide Food and Beverage Markets, 2nd Edition, market research publisher Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md., estimates that the global market for omega-3 fatty acids grew 34% from an estimated $3 billion in 2006 to almost $5 billion in 2007. Packaged Facts projects that the retail market for omega-3 enhanced foods will approach $8 billion by 2012. The projection reflects a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 32% between 2003 and 2012.

“The upsurge of products enriched with omega fatty acids began in earnest in 2006 and the market is believed to be many years away from saturation. Marketers didn’t really start touting the omega-3 content of enhanced foods until late 2004, and even once products entered the retail scene it wasn’t until early 2006 that such products appeared in mainstream U.S. supermarkets,” says Tatjana Meerman, publisher at Packaged Facts.

Further, the report indicates that marine-derived omega-3s are set to overtake plant-based sources as the preferred forms of the essential fatty acids used in food and beverage fortification. The longer chain EPA and DHA omega-3s, which are the forms with the strongest scientific substantiation, have already started to claim a bigger share of the market than ALA. This is put down to advances in technology that allow for easier fortification without any fishy aftertaste, as well as growing consumer awareness.

By 2012, Packaged Facts estimates that EPA/DHA-enhanced foods will represent nearly 78% of all omega-3-enhanced food and beverage product sales in the United States. This reflects a 20% CAGR between 2007 and 2012. ALA product sales, expected to have increased from 2007 to 2008, will flatten and then decrease over the next three years as food and beverage formulators switch to EPA/DHA, said Packaged Facts. In 2012, sales of EPA/DHA-fortified food are predicted to increase by 9% percent from 2007 to reach $5.7 billion, while sales of ALA-fortified foods will decrease 17% to $1.3 billion.

A key factor contributing to this growth is innovation. Omega-3 fatty acid use in foods has historically been limited by their low solubility in water and their sensitivity to spoilage by oxygen. Further, EPA and DHA have had a fishy flavor reputation. Encapsulation is one method for protecting the oils.

A recent study showed that the whey protein beta-lactoglobulin may spontaneously bind DHA and offer nano-encapsulation potential for formulators. Israeli researchers investigated the potential of beta-lactoglobulin to spontaneously bind to DHA and to act as a carrier for the fatty acid. In combination with low-methoxy pectin, colloidally stable nanocomplexes of DHA-and beta-lactoglobulin were produced. An excess of pectin led to the formation of particles containing 166 times more DHA than the surrounding solution. Moreover, the particles were transparent and their average size was about 100 nanometers. They will report their results in an upcoming issue of Food Hydrocolloids.