US retail sales of food and drink products making omega-3 claims shot up 11 percent in 2010 to approach the $4bn mark and are predicted to be worth almost $7bn by 2015, according to new research.
Packaged Facts, which includes products enriched with plant-based omega-3 (alpha linolenic acid) in its analysis as well as the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, predicts 40 percent growth in the US omega-3 ingredient market between 2010 and 2015.
Although some market observers had expected sales of food and drink products containing added omega-3s to start leveling off, the market had in fact “continued to post significant growth”, noted Packaged Facts.
“Moreover, three factors indicate that another boom phase for omega-3-enhanced products is on the horizon:
1) An ongoing release of scientific studies supporting the health benefits of consuming omega-3
2) Innovative product introductions
3) Strong consumer awareness and demand.”
While the above factors were all fuelling growth, a key enabler had been technological advancements allowing an expanded range of products to incorporate long-chain omega-3s without encountering taste and shelf-life issues, said Don Montuori, publisher of Packaged Facts.
“New methods of stabilizing omega-containing products to inhibit oxidation have resulted in improved taste as well as extended shelf-life.
“Several industry experts we interviewed believe that the biggest trend in the next five to ten years will be food and beverage companies seeking to fortify their products with omegas."
While omega-3 enriched foods focusing on more specific health condition areas such as mental acuity or joint health were targeted more at children or older people, more products were appearing in the snackfood aisles, which appealed to everyone, said research director David Sprinkle.
Omega-3 behind only fiber and calcium for consumers
“We’re seeing this spread across all categories from cereals and drinks to snacks and even petfood. What is very interesting is that when we asked consumers in March what they looked for when they are trying to eat more healthily, omega-3 was third below fiber and calcium in terms of specific positive nutrients.”
While there was still a lot of generic ‘omega-3’ messaging on the market, consumers were beginning to understand the differences between shorter-chain plant-sourced omega-3s (ALA) and the longer chain fatty acids from fish or algae (EPA and DHA) and more products were now making specific reference to the type of omega-3s they contained, he said.
“We’re seeing a lot more ‘high in DHA’ claims, for example.”
While growth in some other functional food areas had tailed off during the recession, omega-3 enrichment was seen as a safer bet by many food and drink manufacturers looking to develop new products or improve existing ones because it was familiar to consumers and the science ”just keeps on coming”, said Sprinkle.
“Omega-3s are really outpacing the functional food market as a whole.”
Ocean Nutrition Canada: double-digit growth
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA.com following the publication of the report, Ocean Nutrition Canada, a leading supplier of EPA/DHA to the food/beverage and dietary supplements sector, said technological advances had enabled it to reach product categories that had previously been off limits, helping to drive double-digit sales growth.
Vice president marketing Linwood Riddick said: "There are still going to be challenges where you have a product with a very long shelf-life that is repeatedly opened and closed and exposed to the air, but our EPA/DHA is now going into product areas, which frankly, we could not have gone after five years ago."
Meanwhile, food manufacturers also increasingly recognized that all omega-3s were not the same, he said. "I don't want to trash ALA, but it's clear that the main benefit of ALA is as a precursor to EPA/DHA and that it is not converted very efficiently.
"I think this message is really starting to resonate with manufacturers now and when you look at where the growth is with omega-3 fortification, it's from EPA/DHA. As a percentage of the omega-3 fortified market, products with added ALA are declining."
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a qualified health claim about the cardiovascular benefits of EPA and DHA in 2004, and while it proposed a prohibition on nutrient content claims about omega-3s in 2007 given that there were no established RDIs, such claims are still permitted until at least 2012.
A final ruling has not yet been made by the FDA, but experts believe that when the Institute of Medicine (IOM) establishes a daily reference intake (DRI) for long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, a final ruling from the FDA should follow.
*Packaged Facts figures cover retail food and beverage products that are marketed as containing omega-3 or DHA. It includes breads, cooking oils, nut milks, and hemp milk that explicitly refer to their omega-3 content but excludes fish products, dietary supplements and infant formula.