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How plant-based omega-3s improve human health and the marine environment

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Omega-3 fatty acids are among the most comprehensively studied micronutrients on earth. The work has linked omega-3s to potential benefits for heart, brain and eye health. Yet, just a tiny fraction of people consume adequate omega-3 for their needs, and the current fish-focused supply chain is unable to sustainably support a significant increase in uptake. A new approach is needed. In the plant-based life’sOMEGA, DSM has developed such a new safe, scalable and sustainable single-source solution.

The need for a new source of omega-3s is clear. In aging populations with high levels of chronic diseases found around the world today, proactive approaches to improve health can have significant positive effects.

Omega-3s can contribute to that process. The US FDA has released qualified health claims for EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids covering the reduction of blood pressure and risk of coronary heart disease.1,2​ Across more than 4,000 clinical trials, researchers have also linked omega-3 use to a range of positive effects on heart, brain and eye health, and identified encouraging signs of the role it may play in areas including joint health, immunity, cancer and mood.3

Many consumers are aware of the benefits of omega-3s. One survey found 82% of global consumers are aware of omega-3s and 75% of people associate the fatty acids with positive health effects.4​ The potential benefits of omega-3s overlap significantly with the top concerns of consumers, who as per surveys worry about retaining mental sharpness, memory, vision and cardiovascular health.5​ In the age of COVID-19, when sales of immunity supplements are soaring, immune health is another key focus.6​ Yet, it is estimated that only 4% of people worldwide consume adequate amounts of EPA and DHA.7

Multiple organizations are working to increase that figure but will face a new set of problems if they succeed. Marine fish are the main source of dietary omega-3 and the oil found in EPA-DHA capsules. As such, people who try to increase their omega-3 intake will consume more fish, either directly in their diets or indirectly through the use of supplements derived from the marine animals.

That is a problem. A 2016 study found just 32% of global fisheries are in good biological condition.8​ The other 68% are being fished too intensively, in many cases to the extent that further depletion of stocks is likely.9​ Unless action is taken, the authors predict 88% of stocks will be overfished and well below their target biomass by 2050.

Those problems emerged at a time when the vast majority of people were consuming too little oily fish, suggesting the marine ecosystem could not cope with a significant global rise in use of omega-3s from traditional sources. Consumers are alert to how their choices are affecting fish stocks. A survey of 25,000 people in 22 countries found 83% of seafood consumers agree that more needs to be done to protect marine ecosystems for future generations.10

For those people, and the many others who are eschewing animal-based products altogether, EPA and DHA derived from plants could be an attractive alternative. Such a plant-based omega-3 product could satisfy consumer demand for products that have positive effects on their health and that of the wider environment.

Consumer testing carried out by DSM showed 62% of current omega-3 users would prefer a version based on plants. If provided with an effective plant-based option, a significant proportion of people may switch from their current brand. Three-quarters of people have changed purchasing habits for health or environmental reasons.11​ DSM found lapsed and non-users of omega-3s also favor plant-based products.

Creating a plant-based omega-3 product

DSM has developed life’sOMEGA in response to the need for a sustainable source of omega-3s that is a better fit for consumer demands and the state of the marine environment.

The production of life’sOMEGA starts with the non-GMO microalgae sources that fish get EPA and DHA from. DSM ferments the starting material and extracts omega-3s from it in a proprietary indoor process. The fully controlled, clean, pure-water process takes place in a manufacturing environment that eliminates the risk of exposure to toxins or environmental contaminants.

The result is a plant-based product with a scalable, fully traceable supply chain that has no impact on the world’s fisheries. Independent research shows microalgae-based omega-3 production has lower environmental impacts than wild capture or aquaculture, making it a good fit for the priorities of today’s consumers.12

life’sOMEGA is well suited to the needs of manufacturers, too. As the only commercially available single source of EPA and DHA, life’sOMEGA eliminates the need for blending and, in doing so, takes complexity out of the supplement production process. Life’sOMEGA contains more than 500 mg/g of EPA and DHA, making it 85% more potent than fish oil. 

Manufacturers that switch to life’sOMEGA to simplify their production processes will gain the ability to tell stories that are likely to resonate with consumers. Those stories will tap into many of the top priorities of consumers, from concerns about the future of food and dwindling resources, to the desire to proactively take control of their health and wellness. life’sOMEGA addresses all of those trends.

Through such product positioning, manufacturers stand to improve human health, by helping more people consume the recommended amount of EPA and DHA, and simultaneously reduce the impact humanity is having on the marine environment.

References

1.      Balentine, D. RE: Petition for a Health Claim for Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid and Reduction of Blood Pressure in the General Population (Docket No. FDA-2014-Q-1146).

2.      Hubbard, W. K. Labeling & Nutrition - Letter Responding to Health Claim Petition dated November 3, 2003 (Martek Petition): Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Reduced Risk of Coronary Heart Disease (Docket No. 2003Q-0401). (2004).

3.      Saini, R. K. & Keum, Y.-S. Omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids: Dietary sources, metabolism, and significance - A review. Life Sci.203​, 255–267 (2018).

4.      Marrapodi, A. GOED holds webinar on understanding the omega-3 consumer. Nutritional Outlook​ (2020).

5.      2019 US Trend Study. https://www.healthfocus.com/2019-us-trend-study-1/​.

6.      Runestad, T. Coronavirus causes ‘huge spike’ in immunity supplement sales. https://www.newhope.com/market-data-and-analysis/coronavirus-causes-huge-spike-immunity-supplement-sales​ (2020).

7.      Thuppal, S. V. et al.​ Discrepancy between Knowledge and Perceptions of Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake Compared with the Omega-3 Index. Nutrients9​, (2017).

8.      Costello, C. et al.​ Global fishery prospects under contrasting management regimes. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A.113​, 5125–5129 (2016).

9.      Worm, B. Averting a global fisheries disaster. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America​ vol. 113 4895–4897 (2016).

10.    Seafood consumers want less pollution and more fish in the sea. https://www.msc.org/media-centre/press-releases/seafood-consumers-want-less-pollution-and-more-fish-in-the-sea​.

11.    ARMarketingHouse. Do Consumers REALLY Care about the Environment? https://armarketinghouse.com/do-consumers-really-care-about-the-environment-survey-says-100-yes/​ (2019).

12.    Schade, S., Stangl, G. I. & Meier, T. Distinct microalgae species for food—part 2: comparative life cycle assessment of microalgae and fish for eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and protein. J. Appl. Phycol.​ (2020) doi:10.1007/s10811-020-02181-6.

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