Shoppers know that eating fish and taking fish oil are great ways to get their omegas. But what about plant-based omegas? With interest in plant-based protein and sustainable food sources growing, consumers may be more interested than ever before in this growing market segment. Help your customers understand what makes plant-based omegas special and the unique advantages they provide.
Why Less Can Be More
Shoppers always want more, more, more! The omegas category is certainly no exception. Many shoppers are not satisfied with bottles of just 500 mg of omega-3 fish oil; they want more milligrams—and smaller pills. This has lead to the development of some very highly concentrated fish oil formulas that, in some cases, deliver 1,000 mg of omega-3s in a single soft gel.
However, this trend is not holding on the other side of the fence in plant-based omegas territory. Why not? And importantly, should it be?
The reason why most plant-based omega companies are not racing to deliver 1,000 mg of ALA in one softgel gets to the heart of a big selling point for this category: purity.
According to Bruce McMullin, owner and founder of SIBU, Midvale, UT, plant-based omegas suppliers tend to be hesitant about changing what Mother Nature has provided. “Companies providing plant-based omegas are more ‘purist’ and respect the genetic fingerprint of the plants that occur naturally,” he explains. “There is a strong resistance to tampering with the molecular structure of omegas that are found in the farm fields or the wild- crafted berries and seeds that are the source of the fatty acids.“
He believes many health-conscious shoppers are on the same page. They don’t want to consume chemicals, genetically modified ingredients or highly processed items under the guise of a “purified label.” Processing techniques for plant-based omegas tend to be simple, and Udo Erasmus, Ph.D., author and nutrition expert, gives an example from his line at Flora Health, Lynden, WA. His firm starts with intact organic flaxseeds. “You can get rancidity in the oil from broken seeds or from oil just sitting around,” he explains.
He says his company puts protective barriers around the pressing machinery to prevent light, oxygen and heat from damaging the oil. “You have to do that for the pressing, the filtering and the filling, and then you store bottles refrigerated,” explains Erasmus, who adds that brown bottles are used and encased in cardboard boxes to help protect the product. “We don’t use any harsh chemicals. We don’t use any high temperature. And, we completely protect the oil from light, heat and oxygen damage.”
Companies that aren’t careful about this process, says Erasmus, are doing more harm than good. “There’s so much damage that can be done to oils by the way they are processed, before they hit shelves, and before bottling…Oils like omega-3s and -6s are the most sensitive of all of our essential nutrients. They require the most care. They are the most easily damaged with exposure to light, oxygen and heat. So they need to be protected from the time they are in the seeds until they’re in the bottle.”
In contrast to plants, both McMullin and Erasmus feel that to achieve the highly concentrated formulas in the fish oil category, more processing needs to occur. Erasmus says this is significant because these oils are extremely sensitive. “Plant-based omega-3s are five-times more sensitive than omega-6s. The fish omega-3s are five times more sensitive than the plant omega-3s. That means fish oils need to be treated with 25 times more care than cooking oils…they are super sensitive,” says Erasmus. “The more processing you do, the more molecules you can damage, and the less helpful it will be.”
McMullin explains that marine oils are produced using numerous steps that “tear the fatty acid molecule apart, changing it and putting it back together” in a way that is different than what nature originally provided. Some shoppers are fine with this, but others may prefer a simpler processing approach.* “Plant-based omega fatty acids will be delivered to the consumer in a form as close to the way God created it as possible,” McMullin states.
James Liu, general manager for Seabuck Wonders, Chicago, IL, agrees that the highly concentrated marine oil trend is not likely to make its way to plant-based, especially since plant-derived omegas usually deliver a wealth of nutrition before processing. “Many plant-based sources are already higher in omegas than fish-based sources. With plant-based sources of omega-3, there is usually no need to make them more concentrated,” he believes.
Backing this point is Herb Joiner-Bey, N.D., medical science consultant at Barlean’s Organic Oils, Ferndale, WA, who says that flaxseed oil is naturally 50–60% omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) in the oil extracted from seed. “That means that every tablespoon of flaxseed oil contains 6,000–7,500 mg. of ALA. That is a large amount of omega-3,” he states. “There is no need to concentrate the plant omega-3 ALA as found naturally in extracted plant oils if the right plant oil sources are selected.”
Flax isn’t alone in the naturally mega-omega world. Janie Hoffman, founder and CEO of Mamma Chia, Carlsbad, CA, says chia is in the same camp. She calls these seeds “the highest unaltered, vegetarian source of omega-3s” and points out that every product in her company’s line has 1,000–2,500 mg of omega-3s per serving. “No intervention was needed to boost our omega-3 levels,” she states.
Liu also believes that too much processing, if not done responsibly, can result in the loss of valuable nutrients from the original source. He uses his company’s specialty, sea buckthorn oil, as an example. This ingredient is naturally high in omegas-3 and -7 as well as other complex nutrients. “It’s beneficial for the user to have as much of the source nutrients as possible, and with the oils that come from sea buckthorn, people want the multitude of other benefits from the oil,” he states. “If you mess with oils (or other omega sources) too much, you miss out on the natural benefits of the source. The complex nutrition of the original source can get lost in the mix.” He also says that he isn’t convinced that “more is better” is necessarily better for the body in the world of plant-based oils.
Rally Ralston, managing partner at Salba Smart Natural Products, LLC, Centennial, CO, agrees: “Many people who turn to plant sources of omega-3 are more interested in sustainability than concentration. The plant-based omega-3 consumer is much more likely to be interested in the whole nutrition package of the foods they are consuming.”
“Less is more when it comes to changing the natural ratios of nutrients found in plants nurtured in an organic and well-maintained garden or field.” — Bruce McMullin, SIBU
But while Luis Echeverria, president of Evi Chia Specialties, Hialeah Gardens, FL, admits that it is hard to compete with the highly concentrated marine oils, some plant-based oil companies are trying to improve upon what nature provided. “Companies like us that are in the omega-3 vegetable source industry are trying to increase the potency and bioavailability with new developments and the use of extractions technologies. Very soon, we will bring to market a highly concentrated omega-3 powder from a chia oil source.”
Five Reasons To Take Plant-Based Omegas
Shoppers that are trying to decide whether to take a plant-based omega may wonder what are their key benefits. In addition to the aforementioned issue of purity, here is a cheat-sheet for your sales staff to help explain why plant-based omegas are worth incorporating into the diet.
1. Sustainability. Liu believes that “plant-based omegas are environmentally friendly and can even be beneficial to the environment.” Meanwhile, the marine oil industry has been criticized for negatively affecting the ocean’s ecosystem. Though many experts believe that this simply is not the case, and have collected evidence to the contrary, the perception may still exist for some consumers who are looking for the most sustainable products on the market. For them, plant-based oils are especially attractive.
Joiner-Bey weighs in here, saying that due to their sustainability, plant-based omegas have a stable supply and price structure. “Agriculture can continuously produce plant sources into the foreseeable future at affordable prices despite increasing demand,” he states.
Underscoring this reliability, Joiner-Bey says, “Flaxseed oil, properly grown in cold climates that induce plant production of omega-3s will reliably provide oil containing 50–60% ALA.” Unfortunately, he says that fish oil derived from wild ocean sources has varying levels of omega-3s. And, some suppliers are frustrated that there are declining levels of omega-3s EPA and DHA in source material “ostensibly due to damage rendered by pollutants upon phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain.” This may result in higher costs in the end as more source material is needed to fill in the gaps.
2. Taste. Some shoppers crave the taste of plant-based omegas and love their versatility. From flax salad dressings to chia beverages and smoothies to hemp hearts, these products can be as much culinary enjoyment as a health and wellness tool. “A versatile source like chia, which doesn’t need to be ground or prepared in any specific manner, can be added to any meal making it simple to ensure you’re always getting the recommended RDA of omega-3s,” says Hoffman.
Adds Arthur Mullin, M.A., holistic health education, board certified holistic nutrition and product specialist for Navitas Naturals, Novato, CA, “Chia and hemp are wonderful go-to’s for a convenient well-rounded nutritional boost and they can be incorporated into almost any recipe or snack.”
3. Specialty diets. This category has long appealed to vegans and vegetarians, says Madalyn Crum, associate communications manager at Nutiva, Oxnard, CA. But she notes that plant omegas are also “great for individuals with sensitive diets.”
4. Organic and/or whole food. For shoppers that prefer to buy organic foods and supplements, plant-based omegas provide that option. Hoffman adds that they can also offer whole food nutrition (like chia seeds), which is appealing to some consumers. She points out that “chia is a nutritional powerhouse” packed with omega-3s, fiber, antioxidants, potassium, protein and calcium.
“Personally, I am a fan of choosing quality, organic, minimally processed foods over taking concentrations or extracts,” says Mullin. “There is a place for highly concentrated and prescriptive dosages of particular nutrients but, for the most part, most people can benefit from the astounding nutrient density that whole foods and especially superfoods have to offer.”
Related to this point, Echeverria adds that plant sources are easier to trace. “We can trace things back to each field and farmer. That is harder to do with ocean/fish sources,” he states.
5. Health benefits. McMullin says, “The most important reasons to supplement with plant-based omegas is for the maximum health benefit you receive.” He believes among the most convincing research-backed benefits of plant-based ALA are for healthy brain function, cardiovascular support and blood sugar support. He believes taking 1,000 mg/day is a “reasonable starting point for most individuals.” One can go higher or lower depending on their own experience and the advice of his or her healthcare provider.
In its whole-food form, chia has some special properties, described by Mullin. He says the seeds attract 10 times their weight in water and gel up in the presence of liquid, which “can help promote hydration, detoxification and a feeling of fullness.” This is beneficial to individuals looking to support a healthy weight and also maintain healthy blood sugar without spikes or drops.
Speaking of healthy blood sugar levels, McMullin states, “omega 7- palmitoleic acid can powerfully address factors involved in ‘metabolic syndrome’ and heart health measured by an inflammation marker, C-reactive protein.” He adds that consumers can ask their physicians to look for their levels of this marker in their routine blood work.
Sea buckthorn also has some important properties when applied topically. “The oils make amazing supplements but are also so gentle that users can slather it directly on the skin for beauty applications,” Liu states. Those with problematic, dry and sensitive skin may also experience some benefits when using these oils.
Meanwhile, Crum says hemp foods “are extremely rich in nutrients.” Both the oil and seed form contain high amounts of omega-6 linoleic acid and gamma-linoleic acid as well as omega-3 ALA and stearidonic acid. She adds, “Hemp is loaded with all 20 amino acids, including the nine essential.”
Want proof of these benefits? Here is a collection of some research finding from 2015–2016 pulled together from a PubMed.gov search:
• In an eight-week study of 34 hemodialysis patients who took 6 g/day of flaxseed oil or a placebo, those taking flax had reductions in two markers (hs-CRP and sVCAM-1) that are risk factors for cardiovascular disease (1).
• Sixty pregnant women with gestational diabetes were given 1,000 mg/day of flaxseed oil and 400 IU of vitamin E or a placebo for six weeks. Fasting plasma glucose, serum concentrations, estimated insulin resistance, VLDL-cholesterol and HDL cholesterol were all improved by the end of the study in those consuming flaxseed oil (2).
• In a pilot study of 50 individuals with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, those taking at least 30 g/day of milled flaxseed for 12 weeks had reductions in their liver enzyme scores and their fibrosis scores whereas the placebo group had far less benefit with lifestyle modification alone (3).
• In a study of obese rats, chia consumption improved glucose
and insulin tolerance (4).
• Mean ambulatory blood pressure and clinical blood pressure were reduced in hypertensive individuals consuming chia, but not those
consuming a placebo (5).
• Researchers have long been interested in whether plant-based ALA is as effective in the body as EPA and DHA for areas like brain health since ALA requires conversion in the body. A new review article suggests, “DHA synthesis from ALA can provide sufficient DHA for the adult brain by examining work in humans and animals involving estimates of DHA synthesis and brain DHA requirements” (6). WF
Select Plant-Based Omega Offerings:
Barlean’s: Barlean’s Fresh Flax Oil Organic, Barlean’s Lignan Flax Oil
Organic, Barlean’s Flax Oil Omega Swirls.
Evi Chia Specialties: Chia Seeds, Chia Flour, Chia Oil and Omega-3 Powder from Chia Oil 60%.
Flora Health: DHA Flax Oil, High Lignan Flax Oil, Flax Oil, Sunflower Oil, Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, Pumpkin Seed Oil, Sesame Oil, Toasted Sesame Oil, Almond Oil, Walnut Oil, Flax-O-Mega, Almond Oil Hydro-Therm, Pumpkin Seed Oil Hydro-Therm, Sunflower Oil Hydro-Therm, Sesame Oil-Toasted Hydro-Therm, Walnut Oil Hydro-Therm, 7 Sources, Sacha Inchi Oil, Udo’s Oil DHA 3•6•9 Blend, Udo’s Oil 3•6•9 Blend, Udo’s Oil High Lignan Blend and Udo’s Oil 3•6•9 Blend Capsules.
Mamma Chia: Vitality Beverages, Chia Squeeze Vitality Snacks, Chia Granola Clusters, Chia Vitality Bars, Chia Energy Beverages, Chia & Greens Beverages and organic black and white chia seeds.
Navitas Naturals: Line of superfoods, including chia powder and seeds, superfood smoothie blend, hemp powder and seeds, superfood+goldenberry almonds, and more.
Nutiva: Nutiva Organic Superseed Blend, Nutiva Organic Hempseed, Nutiva Organic Chia Seed, Nutiva Organic Hemp Oil, Nutiva Organic Hemp Protein 15G and Nutiva Organic Hemp Protein Hi-Fiber.
Salba Smart Natural Products: Salba chia in certified organic and conventional either premium whole seed or premium ground in a variety of sizes.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine July 2016
1. M. Mirfatahi, et al., “Effect Of Flaxseed Oil On Serum Systemic And Vascular Inflammation Markers And Oxidative Stress In Hemodialysis Patients: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Int. Urol. Nephrol. Apr 26, 2016. [Epub ahead of print]
2. M. Taghizadeh, et al., “A Randomized-Controlled Clinical Trial Investigating The Effect Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Vitamin E Co-Supplementation On Markers Of Insulin Metabolism And Lipid Profiles In Gestational Diabetes,” J. Clin. Lipidol. 10 (2), 386–393 (2016).
3. Z. Yari, et al., “Flaxseed Supplementation In Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: A Pilot Randomized, Open Labeled, Controlled Study,” Int. J. Food Sci. Nutr. 67 (4), 461–469 (2016).
4. S. Marineli, “Chia (Salvia hispanica L.) Enhances HSP, PGC-1α Expressions And Improves Glucose Tolerance In Diet-Induced Obese Rats,” Nutrition 31(5), 740–748 (2015).
5. L.T. Toscano, et al., “Chia Flour Supplementation Reduces Blood Pressure In Hypertensive Subjects,” Plant Foods Hum. Nutr. 69 (4), 392–398 (2014).
6. A.F. Domenichiello, A.P. Kitson and R.P. Bazinet, “Is Docosahexaenoic Acid Synthesis From Α-Linolenic Acid Sufficient To Supply The Adult Brain?” Prog. Lipid Res. 59, 54–66 (2015).