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Keeping A Category Afloat

EFAs may be more popular than ever, surpassing multivitamins with experienced supplement users. But recent Proposition 65 claims will act as a call to action for retailers and manufacturers to keep the positive light shining on this ever-growing category.

Multivitamins, because of their very nature, have always been popular with newcomers to the industry and avid supplement buyers alike. Often the first foray into the supplement aisle, a multivitamin is applicable to virtually every shopper walking through the doors of a natural products store. But the multivitamin has a competitor, at least among some shoppers.

According to a ConsumerLab.com survey released February, among people who use multiple dietary supplements, fish oil and omega-3 supplements now top multivitamins in popularity.

The survey was based on 6,012 responses collected in November from a sampling of subscribers to the ConsumerLab.com free e-newsletter.

Fish oil and omega-3 supplements were used by 74 percent of respondents (up from 71.6 percent in 2008); multivitamins, however, were used by only 72 percent (down from 73.8 percent in the prior year). Among the heaviest supplement users (10 or more per day), 87 percent used fish oil. The percentage of people using fish oil or other omega-3 supplements remained steady among those aged 35-74, dropping slightly among older people. And while it’s interesting that a once fringe supplement category has surpassed the popular multivitamin, it is perhaps no surprise To those in the omega-3 industry.

“Every health-related news source covers it in some way repeatedly, which explains why essential fatty acids (EFAs) have evolved to become a household word,” said Andreas Koch, marketing director at Barlean’s (Ferndale, WA). “The Western medical community is also recommending fish and flax oils to patients more than ever now.” “I definitely sense an increased awareness from the public that fish oil is good, so they’re getting information somewhere and getting more interested,” agreed Ann Berndt, co-owner of The Supplement Station in Salem, OH.

“Shoppers still don’t start out at the health food store necessarily; they might look for the least expensive product they can buy, thinking that they’re all created equal—but they’re still buying it. Somehow we need to get that difference out there.” Cross-Functional Formulas and Speedy Deliveries It’s clear that more shoppers are reaching for EFAs than ever before. And while one catalyst might be the raised sense of awareness from the media, manufacturers contend that yet another reason why EFAs experience such success is that they can be used for so much more than heart health.

According to Guy Devin, PhD, national science educator at Source Naturals (Scotts Valley, CA), “the category is starting to present EFAs from a therapeutic point of view, which means we begin to see EFAs combined with other compatible ingredients like CoQ10.” Devin went on to explain that this trend leads EFAs to become more formulabased, rather than simple combinations such as EPA and DHA.

In line with this trend, Nordic Naturals (Watsonville, CA) recently introduced several condition-specific EFA products.

Omega Phospholipid offers DHA-rich omega-3 phospholipid from wild herring roe; Omega Probiotic combines fish oil and spore-form probiotics; Omega Joint combines fish and shellfish- free glucosamine sulfate and vitamin D3; Omega Joint Xtra combines fish oil, shell-fish-free glucosamine sulfate, vitamin D3 and UC-II; and, finally, Baby’s DHA offers 100 percent Arctic cod liver oil, which also contains healthy levels of naturally occurring vitamin A and D3, and a measured dropper for ease in adding to babies’ formula or food.

“These products can be cross-merchandised not only where fish oils are found in the store but also in the areas that match the support functions of the additional ingredients,” said Nordic Naturals National Educator Stuart Tomc, CNHP.

“For instance, Omega Joint can be placed in the fish oil area as well in the joint health area, giving consumers an opportunity to be introduced to the new product in either section.” But some retailers have yet to be convinced.

Betsy Hershfield-Cohen, health and beauty manager at Woodlands Market in Kentfield, CA, agreed that these types of products might appeal to shoppers, but added that she wouldn’t recommend them. “Any of us that would stop and think about these products would know that the therapeutic doses of omega-3s are large enough all by themselves, so if you add another ingredient to it, you might end up having to take more pills in the end,” she said. “It might appeal to people that don’t understand that you need large doses to accomplish anything and mixing them together doesn’t do anything other than dilute the strength of each. If the customer doesn’t see a result from these lower doses, then we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.” “I sell more basic omegas than the combinations,” agreed Berndt.

“Sometimes I specifically talk customers out of combinations, because if people ask me what is more cost effective—if they’re wanting to get their CoQ10 or Lutein, for instance, in addition to the fish oil—I will point out to them that they get a better value from buying the omegas separately. They get more of the supplements that way.” As a result of facing arguments like these, Tomc wanted to set the record straight with doubting retailers, at least with regards to Nordic Naturals’ new products: “Nordic Naturals new combination products provide double strength EPA+DHA to give 1,000mg dosage per two soft gels. A maintenance dose is considered to be a total of 500mg EPA+DHA so these products provide double that for therapeutic dosing needs,” he said. “In addition, the latest human clinical trials show that the combination of 1,000mg EPA+DHA from fish oil and 1,500mg of glucosamine sulfate work better together than glucosamine sulfate alone. So, you can take Omega Joint or Omega Joint Xtra and get results without having to buy two products and take higher doses to get those same results.” How these products will ultimately work at retail remains to be seen. But once these customers are introduced to the EFA section, through combinations or not, they will find yet another trend awaiting them: an array of delivery forms.

“For omega-3 and other EFAs, we expect to see a move away from classical dosage forms such as capsules as the industry aims to provide higher doses of nutrients and new products for specific demographic groups,” said Mark Broughton, director of ESB Developments Limited (Nottingham, UK), maker of the Opti3 line. “The benefit of EFAs to the young and old, especially where capsules can be hard to administer, means liquids, chews and, above all, great-tasting products will become the mainstay of products to come.” Adding to that, Tomc offered that effervescent technology is giving shoppers a whole new way to take their cod liver oil. “Nordic Naturals’ new Omega-3 effervescent is a revolutionary way to drink your omegas, with no oily feel and a creamy orange taste,” he said. “And the convenient singleserving packets let you drink your omegas anytime and anywhere by just adding water.” Tomc also pointed out that with traditional delivery systems like soft gels, the omega-3s in cod liver oil need to be gradually broken down by stomach acids in order to be absorbed in the small intestine. “With effervescent technology, the omega-3s get to the point of absorption and enter the blood stream faster—in as little as 15 minutes, studies show,” he said.

Indeed, it seems that there are more ways than ever to open new shoppers and old up to the omega-3 market. But, as seen in so many instances of celebrity, with popularity comes intense scrutiny.

Courtroom Drama Recently, some fish oil supplement manufacturers have been accused in California court of illegally undisclosed, unnecessarily high levels of contamination with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds, citing California’s Proposition 65. The plaintiffs maintain that PCBs are known in the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects. If the plaintiffs get their way, defendants will be forced to compensate consumers $2,500 per person per day exposed to the PCB-containing products. It would also require the companies in question to place prominent warnings on their products’ labels.

According to Chris Manthey, one of the plaintiffs in the case, fish oil manufacturers know that their products are high in PCBs, and purposefully withhold actual PCB content from shoppers. But According to supplement industry attorney Mark Ullman, these charges are essentially a ploy, with plaintiffs needlessly scaring the public to collect damages.

“Fish oil supplements are among the safest, most beneficial health products on the market. [This] announcement of a lawsuit against companies manufacturing or selling popular products is just that—a lawsuit looking for media attention, not a public safety concern for consumers,” agreed Andrew Shao, PhD, senior vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs, Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN). “The FDA has established a tolerance level for PCBs in fish, which is

2. 0 parts per million (ppm, also expressed as mg/kg) or 2,000 parts per billion; in comparison, the Prop. 65 daily limit for PCBs for a cancer warning is 90ng/day, which is significantly lower than what FDA deems safe.” According to Tomc, PCBs are ubiquitous in the environment and all fish, whether caught for food from the ocean or a river, or used to make fish oils, will contain at least trace amounts of PCBs.

“In fact, since whole fish filets are not purified before arriving at the store, there is a much greater chance that our fish dinner is higher in PCBs than our fish oil supplementation,” he added.

But the real question remains: are fish oil buyers deterred by this lawsuit?

According to the ConsumerLab.com survey, the answer seems to be no; however, according to retailers, shoppers may need an extra push to continue to use the supplements.

Berndt, who is located in Ohio, explained that she has heard more about Proposition 65 from suppliers than she has from shoppers. And while she thinks that if warning labels began to appear on fish oils, it might deter some shoppers from buying, consulting a staff member might convince them otherwise. Still, Berndt’s customers are not seeing Proposition 65 attacks on fish oils on their local nightly news, as are some shoppers in other areas of the country.

Hershfield-Cohen noted that since her California store would be directly affected, Proposition 65 could greatly affect sales. “What’s frustrating is that it seems like the good, pure companies a lot of the time are the ones that have a Proposition 65 warning on their labels.

A lot of the time there are other companies that might not be so scrupulous and therefore won’t have the label warning; they’re trying to fly under the radar,” she added. “It’s the good companies that are getting penalized.” Hershfield-Cohen also added that omega oils can go the way of the Chinese herbs that she sells in the store: carrying a Proposition 65 label, shoppers tend to avoid them unless they are educated by a staff member.

Ensuring Purity One positive aspect coming out of this event is that manufacturers are becoming more transparent than ever when it comes to purity.

Source Naturals, for example, instituted a policy many years ago to only use fish oil suppliers that molecularly distill their products, to reduce and/or eliminate PCBs. “The suppliers must provide proof of test results for PCB levels at or below our specifications that are based on government standards,” said Devin.

“Source Naturals then confirms the PCB results from its suppliers by third party independent testing before releasing any fish oil products for sale.” New to the market is EuroPharma’s (Green Bay, WI) salmon-sourced Vectomega, which, according to the company, is a fish oil without the oil.

“There is no PCB concern with this product,” said Cheryl Myers, a member of EuroPharma’s scientific affairs and education department. “The amount of PCBs in this product is so low it is measured in picograms. In fact, if it was measured by less precise machinery that only tested in parts per billion, it would be completely non-detectable.” Nordic Naturals guarantees freshness by utilizing its oxygen-free manufacturing process, which ensures that peroxide values are kept approximately 14 times below limits set by the Norwegian Medicinal Standard and European Pharmacopoeia Standard. “The bottom line?” asked Tomc, “The lower the peroxide value, the fresher the fish oil.” Some companies are avoiding fish oils altogether, in light of recent court actions. “In Europe, we are not impacted by Proposition 65 but have had similar controversy with leading fish oil brands being removed from shelves and at-risk groups such as pregnant women and young children being advised by governments to restrict intake of fish-derived products in case of heavy metal, dioxin exposure, etc.,” said Broughton. As a result, ESB has decided to remove all risk by sourcing EFAs produced from algae and vegetable sources under controlled conditions.

“In short, we can be sure by design we can never have a problem with purity or quality.” “I don’t just buy everyone’s fish oil,” said Berndt. “I make sure that I am buying from companies I trust—and I point them out to our customers.”

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