As Vitafoods celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s interesting to take a look back at various segments of the industry to reflect on how much things have changed. The omega-3 category is a perfect example of a segment that has evolved tremendously during the last 20 years.
While cod liver oil has been around for centuries, the modern omega-3 market began back in the early 1980s with 18:12 “natural” fish oil products—named for the ratio of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in the oil. The market evolved to include ethyl esters, a form of omega-3s that require additional processing, and both 18:12 triglyceride and ethyl ester products remain on the market today, along with phospholipid forms such as krill.
Speaking of krill … krill products didn't exist 20 years ago, so in recent years this is a category that has grown substantially. Similarly, there were no high-concentrate products on the market, reflecting both technological developments and consumer preferences.
Growth in the omega-3 market was also influenced by the regulatory environment. Twenty years ago, there were no government-approved health claims, and no recommended intakes for EPA and DHA anywhere in the world. Today more than 30 countries have recommended intakes and various health claims have been approved around the world (you can see a list of these compiled by the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s, or GOED, here). This is primarily due to the large body of science that omega-3 enjoys, for indications including cardiovascular, cognitive, prenatal and maternal health, among others.
GOED estimates the market today is worth $1.4 billion at the ingredient level, and while growth in more mature markets such as North America and Europe has slowed in recent years, the global market continues to grow, supported by increases in China, Southeast Asia and other emerging countries.
Five more intriguing facts about the evolution of the omega-3 market include:
• Twenty years ago, algae were used to fortify chicken eggs. That changed when Martek (now owned by DSM) successfully petitioned FDA for the addition of algal DHA to infant formula. The company received GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status in 2001, and a whole new market was born.
• The infant formula market is now a 3.3 million metric ton market, fuelled primarily by growth in South America and Southeast Asian markets.
• Despite the popularity of high-concentrate products, there has also been a resurgence of “natural” fish oils—with pollock oil and virgin salmon oil, for example, emerging as new categories.
• In 1996, there were only a couple of omega-3 fortified functional food products. Interestingly, one of the most successful was Puleva omega-3 fortified milk, which debuted in Spain in the mid-1990s and is still successful today. The brand just rolled out several line extensions earlier this year.
• There was one omega-3 based pharmaceutical on the market in 1996—Epadel in Japan. While now there are still only four approved pharma products, global sales exceed $1.2 billion. There are also more than 80 new omega-3 pharmaceuticals in the drug discovery pipeline.
Looking ahead, while the omega-3 market has been an industry darling for much of the last 20 years, we must prepare for the 20 years ahead. Negative media stories questioning neutral science have affected industry growth, and consumer trust has been eroded by irresponsible claims and a lack of transparency. Our industry needs to band together to reaffirm the quality of omega-3 products for consumers and continue to educate people about the strong body of science behind omega-3s for cardiovascular, cognitive, prenatal and maternal health.