The three types of omega−3 fatty acids known to deliver health benefits to humans are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), commonly found in plant oils, and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both commonly found in fish oils and marine plans. Animal-derived sources of EPA and DHA include fish, fish oils, eggs from chickens fed EPA and DHA, squid oils, krill oil, and certain algae. With an increase in consumers choosing plant-based diets for health and animal welfare concerns, marine algae and phytoplankton have become popular primary sources of omega−3 fatty acids. ALA is typically found in the plant oils of various nuts, seeds, legumes and grains – including walnuts, flaxseed, linseed, soybean, and hemp.
What makes omega-3 fats special?
The human body can make most of the types of fats it needs from other fats or raw materials, but this isn’t the case for omega-3 fatty acids. Although classified as essential fats, the body can’t make them from scratch on its own and therefore must get them from food. Educated consumers know the benefits of eating foods high in omega-3: fatty fish like salmon and tuna, vegetable oils, various nuts and seeds, and leafy vegetables.
Omega-3s are an essential part of cell membranes throughout the body and affect the function of the cell receptors in these membranes.1 They provide the starting point for making hormones that regulate blood clotting, contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and inflammation.1 They also bind to receptors in cells that regulate genetic function. Decades of research also support that omega-3s help to prevent heart disease and stroke, lowers blood pressure, can help control health conditions such as lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis, and may play protective roles in cancer and other conditions.1 Most recently, omega-3s are being increasingly investigated and promoted for their sleep, memory and general cognitive health benefits.1
Finished product challenges
Omega-3 levels can be increased through diet, but the easiest way to ensure consistent and sufficient intake is through daily dietary supplementation. Although health conscious consumers and heart condition patients understand the benefits of upping their omega-3 intake, a recent study by Euromonitor examined countries including the US, United Kingdom (UK) and China, and found that most individuals were not getting enough of the daily recommended amount of Omega-3 fatty acids.2
Experts have highlighted various consumer-centric reasons for a weakening omega-3 market – particularly noted in Europe.
- Overcrowded shelf
One need only browse the shelves of local pharmacies or wellness stores to see the significant competition amongst omega-3 products. Consumers are easily overwhelmed by too much choice, with no clear differentiation between products.
- EPA and DHA content
Major health organisations recommend 250-500mg of EPA and DHA intake per day for healthy adults,3 but this may be increased for individuals targeting health conditions – especially cardiovascular concerns. There is an abundance of products on the market that do not meet minimum requirements. Smart consumers quickly lose trust in labels displaying insufficient content or promoting generic health claims.
- Undifferentiated products
Tied back to overcrowded shelves, consumers are not spoilt for choice when it comes to how they get their omega-3 intake. Formulation challenges mean that omega-3s are conventionally offered in capsule and softgel format. New formats like gummies have more momentum in the market but are challenged with delivering high DHA and EPA content benefits.
The opportunity for delivery format innovation
Pill fatigue is an industry-wide challenge as consumers move away from pills and actively seek their supplements in the form of a food or beverage. Protein and probiotic ingredient experts, for example, have a far easier opportunity to differentiate finished product offerings yet still meet requirements for effective delivery. Gummies, lozenges, health shots, functional beverages, snack bars and cereals are amongst the favourite forms.
Beyond the search for alternative delivery format, conventional omega-3 capsules and softgels are challenged by three key hurdles:
1. Too big and difficult to consume
2. Unpleasant taste
3. Unpleasant smell
Developers know there is an opportunity in the market to deliver alternatives, but new formats come with challenges of their own:
- Insufficient levels of active ingredient
- Finished product stability
- Doubt over efficacy
- Lack of supporting research
A rise in consumers concerned about sustainably and ethically sourced omega-3 oils (especially from marine life) as well as a radical shift toward vegan and vegetarian diets mean that plant-based omega-3 products are expected to boost the overall market in coming years. While softgels, capsules and oils derived from fish oils remain effective and reliable formats for optimal intake, the good news is that plant-based sources also offer new powder application opportunities for future product differentiation.
Beyond overcrowded shelves causing confusion, an added challenge for the market is connecting with consumers to promote the value of omega-3 supplements and remind them of the health benefits delivered through long-term supplementation. Supplement users often look for results they can measure in the short-term, so when consumers don’t notice an immediate difference in the way they feel, there is increased risk they fall into irregular patterns or stop intake altogether.
Additionally, consumer understanding about how and when to take omega-3 supplements is of paramount importance. As well as the finished product label, consumers need to have resources available that educate them on how fats are digested by the body.
Although commonly known to product developers, end consumers typically do not know to take an omega-3 supplement together with the fattiest meal of the day in order to activate enzymes and increase optimal absorption. The challenge here is that older consumers tend to avoid fatty meals and younger consumers are notorious meal-skippers.
Essentially, an omega-3 supplement is a shot of pure fat. When on an empty stomach, the body does not recognise the supplement as a meal and as a consequence, the fat emulsifies in the stomach causing digestive discomfort. An unpleasant experience may cause a consumer to change or stop their supplement habits, so readily available and abundant information about how and when to supplement is of paramount importance for omega-3 brands.
Changing supplement habits
Across the various micro markets within the nutraceutical industry, consumer behaviour is changing and brands are challenged more than ever before with closing the gap between the supply chain and the end consumer. Brands are seeking new marketing channels and investigating alternative methods to connect to consumers.
Stagnant markets have an opportunity to revive themselves not only through ingredient and product innovation, but also through how closely they understand consumers, educate them, and provide solutions that meet universal and individual needs.
Because long-term health and prevention benefits of omega-3s are undeniable, experts predict that efforts geared toward improving consumer education, reducing shelf confusion, and providing validated products will drive future growth for the category.
Finally, proof of health claims in the form of clinical research or data is essential for securing supply chain and end customer trust and loyalty. With pharmaceutical businesses entering the space, standards are being raised across the industry and only businesses willing to invest in research that backs label claims will win the competition for shelf space. It may be an expensive investment to convince and convert consumers, but even more so to win them back once they’re lost.
1. Leaf A. Prevention of sudden cardiac death by n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. J Cardiovasc Med. (Hagerstown). 2007; 8 Suppl 1:S27-29.
2. Euromonitor International. Opportunities for Omega Fatty Acids. Video. September 30, 2013.
3. Interim Summary of Conclusions and Dietary Recommendations on Total Fat & Fatty Acids. From the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Fats and Fatty Acids in Human Nutrition, 10-14. November, 2008, WHO, Geneva