Food applications a way to grow new consumers for omega-3s, exec says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Food applications a way to grow new consumers for omega-3s, exec says
The head of Norwegian company Pharma Marine said that creating new customers is the name of the game in the omega-3s business. Creating a new culinary oil enhanced with omega-3s will do this better than building a better soft gel product, he said.

CEO Leif Kjetil Gjendemsjø spoke with NutraIngredients-USA at the recent Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, CA. Gjendemsjø has a history in the fish oils business stretching back nearly 30 years. In that time he said he’s seen an evolution, and not a good one.

Gjendemsjø said he had come to believe that one of the things that could be driving the slowing sales in the omega-3s market is that the core consumers, the baby boomer generation, is slipping away without sufficient numbers of younger consumers to replace them.  It’s an observation that he said has been confirmed by his customers.

“I had a longtime client come to me and say, Leif, my customers are dying,​ he said.

Pressure from commoditization

Gjendemsjø said that in his time in the industry, in which he created and sold several omega-3s brands, the business seems to have come in some ways full circle. After starting Pharma Marine in 2008, in an era when base 18:12 oils saturated the market, it was all about securing a cost-effective source of supply in an era of competition on margins.

“We were always searching the world for cheapest oil,​ he said. “The most cost effective oils were those that provided EPA and DHA in the highest concentrations and had high volume.

As the omega-3s market moved toward every higher concentrations at ever lower prices, Gjendemsjø said that the company then sought to compete with new products.  Key to this strategy was tapping into as-yet underutilized resource, the off cuttings of food grade calamari production. That was brought to market via a product called Calamarine, a DHA-rich oil​. 

But this was only part of plan to grow the company.  Gjendemsjø said Calamarine forms one of what he called the ‘pillars’ of the company. The other two are Codmarine and Lipidmarine. For the first, the company has installed dedicated processing capabilities aboard ships to harvest cod livers at the peak of freshness.  In the second pillar are housed the company’s EPA and DHA fish oils for use in dietary supplements.

Finding a way in food

But it’s a fourth idea that forms a key driver of the brand’s strategy going forward. Placing fish oil in a food matrix will be one of the ways to attract new consumers who are looking for more healthful diets, Gjendemsjø said.

But putting fish oil into food is far easier said than done.  Lipid chemists have sought for years ways to best emulsify and stabilize fish oils and mask their off odors. Despite decades of development, omega-3 oils as a food ingredient has yet to take off in a big way.

Pharma Marine takes a different tack;  Gjendemsjø sought to keep it simple and find a way to make it palatable to consume the oil in its native state, rather than find a high tech solution to hide its presence. The idea is realized in the  so-called Gourmetmarine line of high purity fish oil blended with premium organic olive oil to form a product that Gjendemsjø said will accomplish what really needs to be done within the industry, and that is to grow a new category of younger consumers.  This is a demographic that is less connected to the idea of taking fish oils  or other active ingredients in capsules or soft gels and is more motivated by the idea of functional foods, he said.

The fish oil is processed with Pharma Marine’s proprietary technology to yield a 30% concentration oil with a clean taste profile.  Combined with the olive oil harvested in a centuries-old vineyard in Crete creates a product with a taste the company claims is clean enough to function as a salad oil or as basis for bruschetta dressing or other similar applications.  It’s not meant for cooking.

The traceability of the olive oil also fits into another of the company’s differentiators.  Pharma Marine has the ability to offer to consumers a way to find out exactly where the oil came from in the bottle they are holding by entering the lot number.  Interactive maps with pictures of the actual vessels show where and when they’ve been fishing.

“I think the younger generation thinks more abotu traceability than my genreation did, Gjendemsjø ​said.

“Traceability is just a word and it means nothing if you don’t have the data to back it up,​ said Baldur Hjaltason, director of sales.

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