The issue of supply – and especially reliable, good-quality supply – not keeping pace with demand is a problem common to many active ingredients in the food and nutrition sector, but attendees at this year’s Fi Europe Conference will hear how these challenges are particularly acute for omega-3 ingredients, and how they could be addressed.
Rick Miller, associate director for specialised nutrition at Mintel, will highlight the steady global growth in demand for these important ingredients over the past 10 to 15 years. “This has been both in terms of the range of applications and in terms of consumer demand,” he confirms.
“In terms of global demand, the US and Asia-Pacific account for around two-thirds by volume,” he says. “Europe follows closely behind, but some of the largest growth potential is in the Middle East and North Africa.”
From the standpoint of consumers and brand-owners the upswing in interest can to some extent be explained by the increasing amounts of research uncovering the benefits of these ingredients, and better understanding of those benefits. In Europe, the recognised health impacts are reflected in claims permitted under the EU’s Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation – a relative rarity in ingredients beyond basic vitamins and minerals.
“But the increase is also partly to do with the different ways omega-3 can be incorporated into a wider range of products, from protein bars to beverages,” says Miller. At the same time, the ingredient can be better protected from oxidation through techniques such as microencapsulation.
The boost to consumer demand appears to come most consistently from Gen Z and other younger demographics, Mintel reports. It is reinforced by the range of formats available across food, drink and supplements, and sources including algae and krill, as well as fish oil. The research company’s reporting on the fish and seafood sector, on the other hand, confirms that a larger proportion of older consumers prefer to access omega-3s through consumption of oily fish.
Climate change is reducing omega-3 content
But when it comes to supplementation, Miller injects a note of urgency into the debate. “The problem is that there is evidence that global supplies of omega-3 are falling,” he says. “Warmer seas are potentially leading to a drop in the omega-3 content of sea algae.”
Given the important preventative effects omega-3 has had in areas from cardiovascular health to dementia and eye health, Miller warns, “It’s a potentially huge issue.”
In his presentation, Miller will recommend a threefold strategy to address these challenges.
Solutions: From precision fermentation to precision nutrition
Firstly, he proposes a significant increase in production from alternative sources, including plant-derived omega-3 from, among others, hemp seed and walnut oil. “We need to produce enough from these sources so that we can close the gap with predicted demand,” he says.
Hand-in-hand with this approach, he would like to see more precise targeting of individual omega-3 requirements as a part of the broader trend towards personalised nutrition. “That way, you’re less likely to over-consume, and can supplement your diet with just what you need.”
The second part of his response involves the application of precision fermentation for omega-3. “Up to now, production has been limited to dairy proteins, but trials are ongoing with omega-3,” Miller reports.
The third strand is, he admits, more controversial. “Transgenic crops allow the production of plants with higher yields of omega-3,” he says, pointing to Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire and its work with crops such as flax.
There is, he agrees, much to debate and encourages those interested to come along to the conference for that very reason.