A survey from the Council of Responsible Nutrition (CRN) revealed that omega-3s were the seventh most popular supplements among U.S. adults; a survey from the Trust Transparency Center found that fish oil has reached “nearly complete awareness among supplement users.”
Taking a look at what consumers want when it comes to omegas, Chris Gearheart, Director of Member Communications & Engagement at GOED, tells WholeFoods: “The global omega-3 ingredients market is a $1.3 billion industry as of 2017. The market continues to grow globally, but the U.S. market is flat overall. Consumers in Asia are driving a lot of this growth as they buy more omega-3 dietary supplements and DHA-fortified infant formulas; in the U.S., consumers continue to be interested in higher concentrate products and new forms like gummies or emulsions.”
This data is backed by market experience: Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA, Senior Nutrition Education Manager at NOW Foods, notes that “Practitioners and consumers generally want high-strength formulas with more concentration of EPA and DHA, so that fewer capsules are needed to achieve the one-to-three grams (1,000 to 3,000 mg) of EPA and DHA combined. NOW’s Ultra Omega-3 products, for example, supplying 500 mg of EPA and 250mg of DHA per capsule, are our best seller.” That said, Levin notes, it certainly isn’t the only omega product that’s in demand: “Some of our other formulas are also high volume items for us.”
Omegas remain perennially popular for good reason: “Three large studies on the effects of omega-3s on cardiovascular outcomes (VITAL, ASCEND, and REDUCE-IT) came out in late 2018, essentially doubling the number of human subjects studied in the literature,” says Gearheart. “While not all of the research met the primary research endpoints, all showed statistically significant reductions of at least one cardiovascular outcome. As a result of the increased body of evidence, GOED is now about to submit a paper on EPA/DHA and cardiovascular dose response, which we hope will be published by the end of the year. Additionally, a Cochrane review published last year demonstrated that 500-1,000mg of EPA and DHA each day for pregnant women decreased the risk of early preterm birth by 42%, preterm birth by 11%, and low birth weight by 10%. While a subsequent paper published in September 2019 was less positive, additional data analysis is required to fully understand the results.”
More recently, researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health performed an updated meta-analysis (1). They used 13 randomized trials, and included the three mentioned by Gearheart, which increased the sample size by 64%, bringing it to more than 120,000 adults. The researchers found that those who took daily omega-3 fish oil supplements, compared with a placebo, lowered their risk for most CVD outcomes except stroke. This includes an 8% reduced risk for heart attack and coronary heart disease death. These findings, according to a press release regarding the publication, suggest that omega-3 supplementation dosage above the 840 mg/day used in most randomized clinical trials may provide greater reductions in CVD risk. Given that several million people experience CVD events each year, the release notes, even small reductions in risk can translate into hundreds of thousands of heart attacks and CVD deaths avoided. Harry B. Rice, Ph.D., VP of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at GOED, told WholeFoods: “The current results, from well-respected scientists, corroborate past research demonstrating omega-3s’ benefits for a range of cardiovascular outcomes. It’s particularly noteworthy that the results conflict with the findings from last year’s Cochrane Review that was used as the basis to discontinue discussions on adopting a Codex Nutrient Reference Value for EPA+DHA.”
On the legal front, Gearheart says, “The FDA recently authorized a Qualified Health Claim that allows marketers to promote the benefits of EPA and DHA omega-3 consumption of at least 800mg per day to improved blood pressure outcomes. The agency also updated its upper limit of allowable EPA and DHA in dietary supplements using the qualified health claim from three to five grams per day.”
Health benefitsThe benefits of omega-3s are numerous, and one article isn’t enough to thoroughly cover them, but here’s how experts are summarizing them: “There is ample scientific evidence to suggest that EPA and DHA help maintain bone mineral density, support the development and function of the brain and central nervous system, and help to maintain overall cellular health—including the functionality of cell membranes, cellular metabolism, and nerve cell communication,” says Ola Lessard, VP Consumer Marketing & Communications at Barlean’s.
“Research has also shown that EPA and DHA support the health of the heart, blood vessels and immune system, serve as a raw material for the synthesis of local tissue hormones, help to maintain moist, smooth, supple skin, and are a valuable component of a weight management program.” Not to mention, she adds: “Most recently, the world’s largest review of quantitative studies on dietary supplements, published in World Psychiatry, found that omega-3s have the strongest evidence of any supplement to have a positive effect on mental health. The authors concluded that omega-3s reduced the symptoms of depression beyond antidepressants alone.”
Omegas are useful for eye health, notes Karla Schmidt, Education Manager at Nordic Naturals. “Omega-3 fatty acids have been clinically studied for eye health for over 30 years, and this growing body of evidence shows that omega-3s EPA and DHA play key roles in the healthy development and maintenance of both the structures and the functions of the eye, including visual development during pregnancy and infancy, tissue moisture and tear production, addressing oxidative stress, and normal retinal function. Omega-3s, particularly DHA, are shown to help maintain the health and integrity of eye tissue as people age.”
Clearing up confusion“Omegas” covers a lot of ground, and consumers may come into the store looking for clarity. Here’s a rundown on some key differences.
Omega-3 vs. omega-6 vs. omega-9: Omega-3s and -6s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), explains Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, BS, MS, Sr. Director of R&D/National Educator at Bluebonnet Nutrition. “PUFAs include linoleic acid (LA), gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which can be found abundantly in soybean, sunflower, fish, borage, evening primrose and flaxseed oils, fish, sardines and walnuts.” Omega-9s are monounsaturated acids (MUFAs): “Palmitoleic acid and oleic acid, which can be found abundantly in olives, olive oil, nuts, and avocados.”
The difference, in terms of sales: Omegas 3 and 6 are essential nutrients—the human body doesn’t produce them. On the other hand, Lessard notes, “omega-9 fatty acids are produced by the body, but are also beneficial when they are obtained in food. The most common omega-9 is oleic acid, which is found in olive oil (a staple of the Mediterranean diet) and the benefits are primarily related to heart health.” The research is so strongly in its favor, she notes, that “even the FDA is on board: In 2018, they allowed a new qualified health claim to be placed on the labels of oils with high levels of oleic acid, stating that consumption of about 1.5 tablespoons, or 20 grams, of such oils may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
For a full complement of all three, consumers may want to consider products containing Stratum Nutrition’s Ahiflower oil—it contains nearly as much GLA as evening primrose oil, which isn’t found in fish or flax oils. Stratum’s website notes that GLA is an omega-6 associated with skin health, hormonal balance, and supporting a healthy inflammatory response. And, given it contains omega-9, it’s ideal for those who don’t get omega-9s in their diet.
ALA vs. EPA/DHA: “ALA is the plant-based ‘parent’ omega-3 to EPA and DHA—meaning it is converted to EPA and DHA in the body,” says Lessard. “The enzymatic activity needed for this conversion is affected by gender, genetics, age, health and diet, so the conversion rate is essentially different for everyone. Too much omega-6 in the diet can throw off the conversion process, for example.” And unfortunately, she says, the standard American diet is rife with unhealthy fats from fried and processed foods.
Krill oil vs. fish oil vs. flax oil: “Krill oil is considered more absorbable than regular fish oil due to its natural phospholipid content,” says Levin, “delivering more bang for the size of capsule consumed.” Materials on Daiwa Health Development’s website expound on that, noting that while triglycerides don’t disperse in fluids, phospholipids do, and are easily absorbed in the stomach fluid, reducing fishy aftertaste and improving bioavailability. The website adds: “Krill oil is the only marine oil that includes a combination of three key substances the human body needs to function properly: omega-3 essential fatty acids, phospholipids, and antioxidants including astaxanthin (a potent carotenoid that gives krill its red-orange color).”
Fish oil, on the other hand, “is an excellent and direct source for the marine omega-3s EPA and DHA,” Lessard adds. It’s also worth noting that most of the omega research out there has been done on fish oil.
Looking into plants, “Flax oil isn’t just about ALA,” Lessard explains. “It also contains lignans, a highly studied class of plant phytonutrients with many health benefits. Flax oil can also be certified organic—and, of course, non-GMO—and is considered a more sustainable option than fish oil to many people.”
Triglyceride omegas vs. ethyl ester omegas: Several companies—Bluebonnet, Nordic Naturals, and Barlean’s, just to name a few—advertise as containing the “true triglyceride form,” as opposed to the “ethyl ester form”—because, as the experts told WholeFoods, not only is the ethyl ester form unnatural, it’s also not as healthy. “The most fundamental difference between triglyceride-form omega-3s and ethyl ester omega-3s is the structure of their respective molecules,” says Schmidt. “Triglycerides have a molecular ‘backbone’ that connects individual EPA and/or DHA fats together, which makes for a more stable molecule. It’s worth mentioning that all omega-3 fats that exist in nature are triglycerides—that’s how they arrive in any fish used to create a fish oil product. Compared to triglycerides, ethyl esters are artificial molecules favored by some makers of concentrated fish oils—where fats are separated and then concentrated—because it’s less expensive for the manufacturer.
“To be clear,” Schmidt continues, “there is evidence that shows that ethyl ester omega-3s are less beneficial for the body. One important study by Dr. Jørn Dyerberg showed a 70% difference in absorbability between the two types of molecules, in favor of triglycerides. This makes sense given that the human body has been efficiently digesting and metabolizing triglyceride-form fats for thousands of years. A second concern around ethyl esters has to do with molecular instability. As the body tries to stabilize ethyl esters during digestion by turning them back into triglycerides, the competitive molecular process that results can increase free radical activity and raise oxidative stress.” She adds that ethyl esters have only been around for a few decades, making their long-term effects a mystery.
…DPA? Ryan Sensenbrenner, Director of Marketing at Enzymedica, notes that Enzymedica’s omega-3 products contain DPA, docosapentaenoic acid. “Most types of processing actually remove DPA, as waste, but DPA is the most common omega in the blood. It can become either EPA or DHA.” One review published in Biochimie found evidence that DPA is implicated in the improvement of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases risk markers, and that it’s the most abundant omega-3 in the brain after DHA (2).
Joint formulas vs. heart formulas vs. brain formulas: This shouldn’t necessarily differ in terms of which oils are in there—it’s about the ratio. “Most fish oil products focus strictly on numbers: the highest possible potencies of both DHA and EPA,” says Sugarek MacDonald. “However, science tells us that potency is only part of the equation. For proper heart, joint, and brain support, you need specific potencies in just the right ratio of DHA to EPA.” Bluebonnet’s Omega-3 Brain Formula supplies 860 mg DHA and 120 mg EPA, for a ratio that is scientifically relevant for maintaining brain health; the company’s Omega-3 Heart Formula supplies 400mg of DHA and 600mg of EPA, to best support the heart; and the company’s Omega-3 Joint Formula supplies 134mg DHA and 750mg EPA, to best support the joints. On top of that, Bluebonnet uses Epax fish oils—“Backed by more than 100 human clinical studies, testing, and validation, Epax fish oils have been shown through human clinical studies to support cardiovascular, cognitive, and joint health.”
Not to leave out digestive health, Sensenbrenner tells WholeFoods that the whole reason Enzymedica got into omegas is due to research showing that omega-3s are beneficial for digestion. “While most fish oils have more EPA than DHA, we’re the opposite, because research has shown that that’s the best ratio for digestive health—not to mention exactly the ratio you’d get from salmon,” he adds, “although we source our oil from Peruvian anchoveta.”
And don’t discount added ingredients. “We’ve created condition-specific fish oils,” Sensenbrenner notes, “using ingredients from Indena—Meriva curcumin, Casperome Boswellia, and so on.” A customer who finds that they prefer a certain ratio of omegas can therefore keep using that ratio, without sacrificing condition specificity.
Omegas for Healthy, Happy Pets“We will not offer lower quality products for our beloved pets than we would take ourselves!” exclaims Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA, Senior Nutrition Education Manager at NOW Foods. “We offer the same capsules for pets and people. The main difference is dosing by body weight. Our pets’ Omega-3 product—Omega-3 Support for dogs and cats with a 180/120 EPA/DHA mixture—one capsule for each 40 pounds of weight or additional fraction thereof is suggested.”
Along these lines, customers should take similar concerns into account when shopping for pet omegas as when shopping for their own. Has the product been tested? Do the contents match the labels? Nordic Naturals’ Omega-3 Pet Soft Gels are Non-GMO Verified, which your customers may also be interested in.
One last concern: Omega-3s for pets should always be fish oil, never plant-based. Why? Nordic Naturals notes on their site that, while humans do have the capacity to convert plant-based ALA to EPA and DHA, dogs have a limited ability to make this conversion, and cats even less. It’s therefore highly recommended to administer fish oil to pets, rather than plant-based fatty acids. And, of course, customers should always discuss supplementation with their vet.
Helping consumers choose“To help consumers select an appropriate omega-3 supplement,” Levin says, “we first qualify the desired features. These include the number and size of capsules that people are willing to take, their preference for liquid or softgels, any dietary restrictions (i.e., no pork, no beef, vegan sources and capsule material),sustainability concerns, and whether they have a certain total amount of these fatty acids which they want to consume.” Those who are unwilling to swallow large pills, he says, may want either the smaller extra-strength pills or capsules that are smaller, but require the customer to take more than one per day.
Another consideration is bioavailability. Barlean’s sells emulsified oils: “Our bodies have to work really hard to digest oils and fats, so we often miss out on the nutrients they contain,” says Lessard. She explains, “When we consume oil or fat, our bodies automatically begin to break it down with digestive enzymes and bile in order to micronize and emulsify it—mix it with water and reduce it into smaller, easier-to-absorb micro-droplets. This allows the oil to more readily pass through the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream, where we can fully benefit from the nutrients. Unfortunately, this arduous digestive process doesn’t just slow down absorption; it also whittles down the active ingredient—so you get less of the nutrients you were after in the first place. This is called the first pass effect. Taking pre-emulsified oils means your body doesn’t need to work as hard to internally micronize and emulsify them—and potentially lose valuable nutrients while doing so.”
Jolie Root, Senior Nutritionist and Educator at Carlson, says that “fish oils consumed with meals that contain fat are more highly bioavailable than fish oils taken away from mealtime or with meals that do not contain much fat. When we suggest fish oil capsules, we do suggest taking them with meals.” An alternative: Olive Your Heart, Carlson’s olive oil/fish oil blend. “Anyone who has trouble swallowing capsules would find the olive oil/fish oil combination easy to use,” Root says. “The various flavors make for interesting additions to salads, smoothies, and recipes like hummus.” And the combination guarantees that the fish oil will be ingested with a fatty meal.
Pill Fatigue?Customers are, more and more, looking for ways to integrate nutrients into their diet. Fortunately, omegas are easy to eat. There’s the usual fish—salmon, mackerel, sardines—and a variety of plants: NOW Foods offers hemp hearts and flax seeds and meal; chia seeds and walnuts are good sources of plant-based omegas, too. And, of course, all these foods offer separate health benefits.
Those looking for higher concentrations, or specific ratios, or who simply don’t eat many of these foods, may be looking for another way to get their omegas. And brands are looking to meet them where they are. Emerald Health Bioceuticals offers Endo Omega and Endo Omega Vegan Oil Emulsions: Available in caramel and mocha, respectively, the creamers offer DHA, a full complement of omega-3s, -6s, and -9s, plus 1000mg MCTs. While they can be drunk straight from the bottle, they can also be added to smoothies or yogurt—or coffee. Vegan and soy-free, the supplements are creamy enough to become a daily creamer.
Barlean’s offers their omegas in pill form, but they also offer it in smoothie form—with a natural fruit flavor, it’s an easy way to give kids an omega boost, and an easy way to get around pill fatigue. The smoothies, too, offer omegas 3, 6, and 9.
Carlson offers omega-3-infused olive oil, available in four flavors, offering omega-3s and natural omega-9s. Anyone who uses olive oil on a regular basis would find this a remarkably easy way to get extra omegas into their diet—they won’t need to change a thing.
Source checkThere’s plenty to be concerned with in the fish oil sector—sustainability, heavy metals, all the pollution found in the ocean. “Note the high-quality processes of leading brands,” Levin cautions. “Our oils are routinely tested for fatty acid content to ensure that our label claims are accurate. We also routinely test every lot for heavy metal content and must meet our strict limits. Our oils are also screened for PCBs and related industrial chemicals, with limits set at very low ppb levels for the most potentially toxic forms.”
Sustainability, too, is an important consideration, and one your customers increasingly care about. Fortunately, Friend of the Sea certification does all the hard work of vetting companies for you and your customers. “Friend of the Sea (FOS) is an internationally recognized non-profit, non-governmental organization whose mission is to conserve the marine habitat,” says Schmidt. “FOS certifies sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, as well as fish and omega-3 fish oil products. Nordic Naturals proudly sources all of our fish from fisheries that are certified sustainable by FOS, and all of our omega-3 oil products are FOS certified as well. These certifications verify that Nordic Naturals complies with rigorous FOS criteria that include responsible fishing methods, no bycatch of endangered species, no seabed impact, energy efficiency, social accountability, and more.”
It’s a good idea for you to check out the brand as well. “Nordic Naturals takes a holistic approach to environmental stewardship that extends well beyond our fishing practices,” Schmidt adds. “In California, our corporate headquarters was built and is certified to LEED Gold design standards to help minimize our impact on the environment and provide a healthy workplace for employees. Our fish oil processing plant in Arctic Norway is powered entirely by unused fats from the manufacturing process, a savings of resources for us and the planet.” She notes that advanced technology allows for greater efficiency in the production process, translating to fewer fish needed per batch of fish oil.
Enzymedica makes a point of donating—to the Mote Marine Laboratory, to be specific. “The Florida Keys reef system is the third largest in the world,” says Sensenbrenner, “and climate change is only half of what’s threatening it: A disease has killed off 90% of the reef. With every bottle sold, we donate to Mote, which has found a way to grow coral 40% faster than ever before. It’s a race against time, really.” Enzymedica’s packaging proclaims “Buy A Bottle, Save A Reef,” calling on customers to help “turn the tide.”
Making the sale“Our consumer research shows that product quality and the influence of a healthcare practitioner are the two most important considerations in a U.S. consumer’s mind when purchasing a health or wellness product,” says Gearheart. How to make this work for you: “Building relationships with healthcare providers and trying to communicate a product’s quality based on the standards of the GOED Quality Monograph are two applications of that knowledge that could make a difference when selling to U.S. consumers.”
For on-site and online education, you can use content from www.AlwaysOmega3s.com, a site created by GOED for consumers. There are infographics explaining the health benefits of omega-3 consumption, and an interactive quiz to give consumers a chance to find out whether or not they’re getting enough omega-3s in their diet. “GOED is also about to launch a consumer community of ‘Omega-3 Insiders’ to help further educate consumers and reward advocates of omega-3s with coupons and insider info on omega-3 developments,” Gearheart adds. Again, position yourself as a provider of contaminant-free, high-quality supplements, and customers that you’ve directed to the website are likely to return to you for the omegas they’ve learned they need.
Cross-sellingThe omega category lends itself handily to cross-selling. Is your customer looking for flax oil, or some other plant-based oil? “Be sure they get enough magnesium,” says Levin, “which is required for the body’s conversion of plant-derived ALA into EPA and DHA.” Are your customers looking for lutein, zeaxanthin, or other eye health ingredients? Make sure they’re getting their omegas: “Clinical studies show that individuals who regularly consume all three of these complementary nutrients—omega-3s, lutein, and zeaxanthin—are likely to maintain better health of their eye tissue as they age,” says Schmidt, and it’s unlikely that your customer consumes enough of them: “Americans are highly deficient in these nutrients because our bodies do not produce them well, and they are low-to-nonexistent in the standard American diet.”
You can also link omegas to what might be the fastest-growing category in your store: phytocannabinoids including CBD. In WholeFoods’ June issue, Carl Germano explained that omega-3 is used as the backbone structure for production of cannabinoids in the body, and that phospholipids in omega-3s can improve the absorption of cannabinoids. “I love the combination of hemp oil rich in phytocannabinoids along with omega-3,” he said. “It’s a match made in heaven. They complement each other well both for bioavailability and utilization in the body. I encourage retailers to piggyback omega-3 with any hemp oil product.” And, in fact, it starts earlier than that. “Start with the endocannabinoid system (ECS),” says Sara Pluta, MS, Director of Education at Emerald Health Bioceuticals. “It’s about stress relief, regular exercise, omegas, and then supplements. The ECS is about keys and locks, and when we’ve got a healthy system, we make our own keys.” The ECS is a system, and it’s not enough to throw hemp derivatives at it; it has to be built up. Not to mention, Pluta adds, “We don’t yet know how effective CBD is without THC. They’re keys to two different locks.” So as great as hemp extracts are, it’s better to first ensure the health of the ECS—and omegas are the ECS’s building blocks. “They’re called supplements for a reason. They should supplement a healthy diet and exercise.” And given how low omega levels are in most Americans, and the fact that an omega-rich diet and omega supplements are necessary to achieve a healthy omega-3 index, omegas are a good place to start, for those looking to phytocannabinoids to support their ECS.
More on Omegas!For a deeper dive into the latest science, read Dr. Richard Passwater’s in-depth interview with William S. Harris, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer for OmegaQuant and one of the world’s leading omega-3 researchers. WFReferences
- Yang Hu, Frank B. Hu, and JoAnne E. Manson, “Marine Omega-3 Supplementation and Cardiovascular Disease: An Updated Meta-Analysis of 13 Randomized Controlled Trials Involving 127,477 Participants,” Journal of the American Heart Association. 8(19). 2019.
- Gaetan Drouin, Vincent Rioux, and Philippe Legrand, “The n-3 docosapentaenoic acid (DPA): A new player in the n-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid family,” Biochimie. 159. 36-48(2019).