Julia Peterman is co-author of this article.

It’s been a challenging time for the marine oil industry as issues surrounding mass media’s interpretation of the latest research about the efficacy of omega-3s dovetails with concerns about the sustainability of supply.

In 2016, the omega-3 supplements market was estimated to be worth around $33 billion. The market for omega-3s is mature in the U.S. and growth is flat. This is an improvement, however, over the past few years when negative media coverage of omega-3’s effectiveness caused a slump (1). Internationally, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) anticipates a 3-4% growth rate in opportunity over the next few years in international markets such as China and South America.

Long-time GOED communications chief Ellen Schutt, who took over as executive director this year, believes efforts GOED has made in the past three years to educate consumers with its Always-O3s consumer campaign and preparations to respond quickly to research have helped turn media sentiment more positive since the middle of last year.

“One of our key learnings is that it’s important to have a [consistent] positive drumbeat. When bad news comes out, it falls on a softer pillow,” said Schutt, in describing the effects of its ongoing PR and social media initiative during a Nutraingredients-USA-hosted webinar earlier this year (2).

For retailers, it’s helpful to understand the landscape. Always Omega-3s retail website at https://alwaysomega3s.com/retailer provides information and tools to use with your customers, such as downloadable infographics and posters.

Benefits The health benefits of omega-3s are numerous and wide-ranging. “Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for the retina of the human eye and the nervous system,” says Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, sr. director of research and development/national educator for Bluebonnet Nutrition Corp., Sugar Land, TX. “They are constituents of our cell membranes and send signals to molecules via hormone-like substances and enzymes.”

The human eye is just the beginning. A study conducted on nearly 85,000 female nurses over 16 years collected self-reported data on omega-3 intake and on non-fatal heart attacks and coronary heart disease (CHD) deaths. Frank B. Hu and his colleagues noted that, while omega-3s have long been associated with a lower risk of CHD in men, the data were limited regarding women. Fortunately for women, the results were equally encouraging, finding a statistically significant trend of decreasing heart attacks and CHD with increased omega-3 intake (3).

Omegas hit the brain, too. Another study conducted on 210 subjects, aged 70-89, collected data regarding the participants’ omega-3 intake and tested their cognitive functioning in 1990 and in 1995, and found that cognitive decline was postponed in those who ate omega-3s in inverse proportions (4).

EPA, DPA, and DHA all serve different purposes, notes Sugarek MacDonald. EPA produces hormone-like compounds that interfere with the chemical reactions that induce inflammation, making it an effective support for skin and joint health. It also reduces the body’s ability to make triglycerides, which can help with heart health.

DPA is an elongated version of EPA. It inhibits platelet aggregation more efficiently than EPA or DHA, which can hinder the formation of blood clots. It is a precursor for oxylipins, anti-inflammatory agents, and neuroprotective compounds, and it is a strong protector of the heart (5).

DHA is particularly beneficial for brain and vision health support, as both the building block of brain tissue and an agent to enhance the response of rhodopsin, a pigment that allows for night vision. It also mediates the transport of choline and amino acids in the brain. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study was conducted to ascertain the effects of DHA on the brain and 485 healthy subjects over the age of 55 were assigned to take either 900mg per day of DHA or a matching placebo. Final tests 24 weeks later showed improved learning and memory in those who had taken the DHA, suggesting that it is beneficial for cognitive health, and especially the cognitive decline that comes with aging (6).

And don’t let the word fat scare your customers away. “Quite simply,” says Sugarek MacDonald, “the human body requires three major fuels: protein (10-35% of total calories), carbohydrates (45-65% of total calories) and fat (20-35% of total calories). When this balance is disrupted, the body cannot process these nutrients with maximum results.” Moreover, she says, “fat is one of the most important macronutrients in the body. Pound per pound, fat contains more energy than protein and carbohydrates.” So yes, omega-3s are fatty, but that’s what the human body needs, in the proper forms and proportions.

How do they work? “EPA, DPA and DHA are all precursors for several classes of hormone-like compounds and structural components, including: eicosanoids and docosanoids, phospholipids that act in signal transduction (i.e., a signal from outside of the cell that allows for functional changes within the cell), sphingolipids that are essential in the structure required for skin water barrier and peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors (i.e., a group of receptors that regulate gene expression, [PPARs]),” Sugarek MacDonald says. “Eicosanoids and docosanoids synthesized from EPA, DPA, and DHA produce the hormone-like products known as prostaglandins, prostacyclins, leukotrienes, thromboxane, resolvins and docosatrienes, which are primarily responsible for the positive cardio-, joint- and brain-protective properties associated with omega-3 fatty acids.”

Several new studies are prompting GOED to raise its awareness levels. Preliminary results of research funded by pharmaceutical company Amarin is set for release in late September and depending on the findings, GOED believes it may be used to promote pharma-grade omega-3.

Meeting Customers’ Needs GOED recommends consuming 500mg of EPA and DHA per day for general health, and higher quantities for specific life stages or health conditions. Most of the global population consumes significantly less EPA and DHA than recommended.

Dr. William Harris, an acknowledged Omega-3 expert and the creator of the self-test allowing people to measure their omega-3 levels, says most Americans average a level of 5, while 8 is the level where cardiovascular health benefits are believed to be realized. Only 5% of Americans are believed to be at that benefit level. Meanwhile, most Japanese, who are more frequent fish eaters, are at level 9 or 10 (2).

To get to level 8, Harris says, requires eating tuna or some other non-oily fish such as salmon three times per week, plus taking an EPA/DHA supplement at a 1 to 1.5 g per day level. That’s about 10 times higher than what the average American takes. To achieve a triglyceride-lowering effect, he says, requires a dose of 3 to 4 g/day of EPA/DHA. Mackerel, herring, sardines, lake trout, and tuna are also high in omega-3 fatty acids. “Four studies observed that people with higher omega-3 levels are likely to live longer,” Harris says. “The Omega-3 Index is a better marker than cholesterol level” (7).

Reading the Science More than 30,000 published studies on EPA and DHA exist, GOED notes, including more than 3,700 human clinical trials. The vast body of science associated with omega-3s supports consumption for overall wellness, including heart, brain and eye health. That which doesn’t can pose a difficulty for customers, but it can very often be explained with a little questioning. “Short deadlines and heavy workloads make it tempting [for the consumer press] to pass on reviewing the study in depth and rely on the abstract instead. That’s bound to oversimplify the findings of the study,” says Chris Gearheart, director of member communications and engagement for GOED. “When customers talk about studies that don’t give results, take a closer look at those studies.”

Harris questioned a study published on Aug. 26 in the New England Journal of Medicine involving 15,480 British patients between 2005 and 2011 and titled “Effects of n-3 Fatty Acid Supplements in Diabetes Mellitus.” It was known in the industry as the ASCEND trial (A Study of Cardiovascular Events iN Diabetes).

The study concluded that omega-3s supplementation was not recommended after subjects received a placebo or 1-gram capsule containing 460mg EPA and 380mg DHA. Harris said the dose was probably too low, and patients he tested at the outset of the trial had unusually high omega-3 levels already.

“These patients are very different from the general adult UK population, for whom the average omega-3 index is less than 4%,” GOED said in a statement. “While omega-3 treatment increased the Omega-3 Index to 9.1%, the high baseline Omega-3 Index suggests that the study participants were already close to the range of omega-3 index (8-12%) that is optimal for cardiovascular prevention, so it is to be expected that an additional dose of omega-3 would only have a modest effect.”

Other research published in the August 2018 edition of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology’s Heart Failure issue found significant correlations between blood levels of EPA plus DHA omega-3s, in “cognitive” (as opposed to “somatic”) depression among heart failure subjects. Cognitive depression would include symptoms like sadness and pessimism, whereas somatic would include manifestations such as fatigue and sleep disturbances. This randomized controlled 3-month pilot study (known as the OCEAN Study) was designed to investigate the effects of supplemental omega-3s (EPA and DHA) on depressive and psychomotor symptoms in people with chronic heart failure and depression. It involved 108 subjects.

A higher Omega-3 Index was related to lower cognitive depression scores on the Beck Depression Inventory-II (BDI-II), which is the most widely used instrument for detecting depression (8).

“This was a study in already depressed individuals, which meant the researchers are looking to high-dose (although it could have been higher) omega-3 supplements to improve depressive symptoms, like a drug,” said Harris, one of the study’s authors. “Generally, we think of the function of omega-3s as preventative rather than as treatment. If used as treatment, the dose must be fairly high (4 grams is a typical ‘drug’ dose) and blood levels must be measured,” Harris continued. “In their larger follow-up study, I would recommend they choose just one of the supplements (probably the pure EPA product) and increase the dose and duration of the study.”

Supply Chain The majority of marine oil is used in agriculture. Farmed fish consume 80% of the fish oils, according to Johnathan A. Napier, a plant biotechnologist with Rothamsted Research in the UK. (2) Work is being done in the U.K. on developing a genetically modified plant-based source.

The marine oil that makes it into omega-3 supplements comes in large part from Peruvian anchovy fishing, Schutt notes. Sugarek MacDonald looks at it more broadly, saying, “a large majority comes from small, fatty fishes like sardines, mackerel and anchovies. Other sources include tuna, cod, salmon and herring, among a few others. That said, how long does it take for the oil to go from ‘catch to capsule’? It has been reported that the industry average is 2-3 years. So when retailers communicate with consumers regarding fish oil they need to highlight attributes like quality, freshness, potency, form and purity.”

Soft Gel Technologies, Inc. has obtained Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) registration for its supplements through NSF’s Dietary Supplement Certification program, registration with the Natural Products Association (NPA/UL) and has been certified by NSF’s Athletic Banned Substances program.

Superba Krill, a product of Aker BioMarine, is sustainable and traceable as certified by Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), an international non-profit that assesses fisheries for their traceability and sustainability. Aker controls the entire harvesting and production process and is licensed to fish in the Southern Ocean of Antarctica, an area about 1.5 times the U.S. According to Miranda Wyatt, Superba Krill Marketing Manager, the company’s Eco-Harvesting method ensures krill are fresh and alive when they come onboard the factory vessel.

Bluebonnet uses Epax, which is Friend of the Sea (FOS) certified. FOS is a non-profit NGO dedicated to protecting the marine environment. Certified products are not derived from over-exploited, endangered, non-evaluated, or recovering stock. Fishing methods must not impact the seabed, and must be selective in order to ensure negligible fishing amounts. “Epax is known for purity, quality, and innovation,” Sugarek MacDonald says. “They offer strict quality control at every phase of the manufacturing chain and are able to confidently guarantee the purity, quality and sustainability of our finished marine products. When you purchase Bluebonnet’s Epax omega-3 concentrates, you are choosing to support sustainable ecological practices. Even the starting material used for our finished ingredients is sustainably sourced.”

Through a partnership with guaranteed source providers, and their traceability processes, Epax can identify the species and source of their raw materials, Sugarek MacDonald says. When, upon occasion, Epax receives materials from outside the typical supply chain, they require that those materials be traceable and that the fisheries adhere to the stringent quality-assurance and quality-control processes. Furthermore, when it comes to clean technology, Epax is raising the bar. They have incorporated a new program known as EcoVision that focuses on sustainability, traceability and accountability.

One big development likely to affect the supply chain – and subsequently prices — is Walmart. The retailer revamped its fish oil supplement category this year and introduced three new house brand Spring Valley supplements with levels of 500mg, 1,000 mg and 2,000mg of EPA/DHA. Some of the old inventory is still moving through the pipeline, but the new formulation and labeling are designed to be attractive to consumers.

Selling Millennials are an important consumer group because they span life phases where omega-3s can have a significant impact – college students, parents, and professionals. Omega-3s can hit your shelves in a number of different ways. Combining it with other products is becoming popular. Krill oil contains DHA and EPA, but in krill they are bound to phospholipids, differentiating it from other omega-3s. It can be combined with traditional omega-3s for complementary benefits.

Vitamin K2 is another popular pairing for fish oil and krill oil, given that they both fall under the heart health umbrella. Vitamin D can pair with krill oil in the winter, when customers are feeling the effects of too little sun.

Don’t forget about the delivery system. Microencapsulation, enteric-coated capsules, and gummies are new. Soft gels are traditional, and might be preferred. Carlson’s Olive Your Heart mixes cold-pressed Greek Terra Creta extra virgin olive oil with premium Norwegian, wild-caught, sustainably-sourced fish oil, in basil, lemon, and garlic, meaning customers can cook with it or use it in a dip.

If customers are willing to try something different, offer them an emulsification. According to Ola Lessard, VP of consumer marketing and communications for Barlean’s, based in Ferndale, WA, the emulsification allows for triple the absorption of a traditional supplement. And there’s science backing her up, too: a randomized 2009 trial conducted by Susan K. Raatz et al gave 10 participants 4 grams of either encapsulated or emulsified fish oil and tested their omega-3 levels periodically. Like the slightly larger study from two years earlier that they were replicating, they came to the conclusion that total omega-3 levels were significantly enhanced by the emulsification in comparison to the capsule over 48 hours. Raatz and her colleagues theorized that the increases were likely due to the fact that the digestion process requires emulsification, so pre-emulsified lipids can skip that step (10, 11). Barlean’s offers it in multiple flavors, so those looking to boost their children’s omega levels might appreciate it. WF
  1. Bogle, Maxine, “Fishing in Advances for Marine Oils,” WholeFoods Magazine, December 2017
  2. “Omega-3 Editorial Webinar,” hosted by Hank Schultz, NutraIngredients-USA, 6/26/18. Accessed 9/2/18.
  3. Frank B. Hu et al, “Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in Women,” JAMA, 287(14), 1815-1821 (2002). https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/194812
  4. Boukje Maria van Gelder et al, “Fish consumption, n-3 fatty acids, and subsequent 5-y cognitive decline in elderly men: the Zutphen Elderly Study,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(4), 1142-1147 (2007). https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/85/4/1142/4733430
  5. “Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplements for Heart Disease,” WebMD. Accessed 9/4/18. https://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/guide/omega-3-fish-oil-supplements-for-high-blood-pressure
  6. Karin Yurko-Mauro et al, “Beneficial Effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline,” Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 6(6), 456-464 (2010). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1552526010000403
  7. Harris WS, Tintle N, Etherton MR, Vasan RS, “The Omega-3 Index can serve as a marker of overall health in older Americans. Erythrocyte Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acid Levels are Inversely Associated with Mortality and with Incident Cardiovascular Disease: the Framingham Heart Study,” Journal of Clinical Lipidology (2018), doi: 10.1016/j.jacl.2018.02.010.
  8. Jiang et al, “Long-Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements in Depressed Heart Failure Patients: Results of the OCEAN Trial,” JACC: Heart Failure, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Long-Chain+Omega-3+Fatty+Acid+Supplements+in+Depressed+Heart+Failure+Patients+Results+of+the+OCEAN+Trial
  9. Susan K. Raatz et al, “Enhanced absorption of omega-3 fatty acids from emulsified compared with encapsulated fish oil,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(6), 1076-1081 (2009). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2701654/
  10. Iveta Garaiova et al, “A randomised cross-over trial in healthy adults indicating improved absorption of omega-3 fatty acids by pre-emulsification,” Nutrition Journal, 6(4), 2007. https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-6-4