Debate The growing popularity of EFAs has only magnified the dispute over which is the better option: plantor marine-based sources.
WIth a surge of studies done proving the numerous benefits of essential fatty acids (EFAs), the American public has accepted the fact that taking fish oil and omega-3 supplements is beneficial to their health.
According to ConsumberLab.com’s 2010 survey, among people who use dietary supplements, fish oils and omega-3s continue to rise in popularity and are used by 75.7 percent of those surveyed, up from 75 percent in 2009. Further, the survey noted that fish oil and omega-3 supplements rank higher in popularity than multivitamins. While fish oil and omega-3 supplements are on the rise, the survey found that multivitamin use continues to decline to 70.1 percent, down from 72 percent in 2009 and 73.8 percent in 2008. The ConsumerLab.com survey was conducted in November and is based on more than 6,000 responses from a sampling of subscribers to the website’s free e-Newsletter.
“Omega-3 is the fastest growing category within natural products with long-term growth projected,” said Marc St-Onge, president and CEO of Ascenta (Dartmouth, NS, Canada). “Awareness of fish oil/omega-3 is at an all-time high. Despite the global economic situation, North Americans continue to purchase their supplements as a way to stay healthy and prevent further health expenses.”
“It is our No. 1 category and we continue to get new people asking about them daily,” said Marc Stayton, sales manager at Martindale’s Natural Market (Springfield, PA), one of the nation’s oldest health food stores. “Some have an idea or a general recommendation from their physician, but they are looking for help picking out the right one for them and an explanation as to what makes them different.”
Edna G., manager and buyer for Sunshine Health Foods (San The Great EFA Debate The growing popularity of EFAs has only magnified the dispute over which is the better option: plantor marine-based sources.
Francisco, CA), agreed. “We get a lot of questions about fish oils and omega-3s. Customers ask which is the best quality and what the differences are between brands,” she said. “Many times they’ll come in and say that they don’t take vitamins. I always recommend that they take a fish oil along with a multivitamin.”
What’s the Difference?
EFAs support the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune, nervous systems as well as eye and brain health. But as more research and studies are done, adding to the list of the benefits that EFAs provide, there is a growing debate about whether a marine or plant source is more beneficial.
There are three main EFAs: alphalinolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3 EFAs fall into two major categories: plant-derived and marine-derived. ALA is found in plantbased sources such as flaxseed, chia seed, walnuts and dark green leafy vegetables. EPA and DHA on the other hand, are mostly found in cold-water marine animals such as cod, krill, sardines, mackerel and anchovies.
Research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and help prevent certain chronic diseases such as heart disease and arthritis. These essential fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and are important for cognitive and behavioral function. The body cannot make EFAs on its own, so they must be obtained from food or supplement sources.
When consumed, the body converts ALA to EPA and then eventually into DHA. The problem here is that it is a very slow process and some studies claim that in some people, ALA never gets converted into DHA at all. Fish and other marine sources are direct sources of EPA and DHA, ensuring that the body is actually absorbing the amount needed to ensure the greatest benefits.
“Research shows that flax is not an efficient source of EPA and DHA, the omega-3s our bodies need,” said Stuart Tomc, CNHP, national educator for Nordic Naturals (Watsonville, CA).
“Flax contains another omega-3 named ALA. Humans cannot convert ALA into EPA and DHA very efficiently. It was once thought that the human body could make that conversion, but current research shows that only a mere fraction of ALA converts to EPA, and that it may not convert to DHA at all. Fish oil is the best source of the omega-3s EPA and DHA.”
Nordic Naturals offers a plethora of omega-3 products in a variety of delivery methods to appeal to all ages. They include Nordic Naturals® Arctic Cod Liver Oil™, Nordic Omega-3 GummiesTM, Nordic Omega-3 Gummy WormsTM and Nordic Omega-3 FishiesTM. The Omega-3 EffervescentTM is a fruity drink mix and an easy, “drinkable” way to take fish oil. Nordic Naturals’ Ultimate Omega® is the company’s most popular supplement.
Retailer Stayton said that Nordic Naturals is Martindale’s top-selling line. “They support their products with literature, samples and staff training. They explain and supply us with testing results that verify the purity and freshness of their oils.”
Offering many options of fish oil supplements is desirable, however, quality and stability remain the major issue. For instance, according to Tomc, 100 percent of the fish caught by Nordic Naturals are wild caught (including Arctic cod from the Norweigen Sea ,Pacific sardines and pink and sockeye salmon from the Cook Inlet in Alaska), maintaining the sustainable harvest of marine life. None of the fish species are endangered or sourced from waters that are threatened by over fishing.
While smell and fish burp are a concern for some customers, Stayton noted that offering a high-quality product keeps those issues minimal. He also said he favors marinebased EFAs. “I have seen literature that supports both points of view. I am more convinced by the studies that indicate marine oils are the most reliable way to assure one that they are getting EPA and DHA. Of course, there are important plant-based oils that have benefits not provided by marine oils. We recommend those when the situation calls for that.”
Plant-based EFAs are essential for those living vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. The EFAs found in flax or chia seeds are a good alternative for the consumer that chooses not to take marine-based EFAs or may be allergic. Those consumers may also be concerned about digesting toxins and contaminants, such as mercury, that can be found in fish. In addition, while marine-based EFAs provide EPA and DHA, they do not provide ALA.
“Research indicates ALA consumption may provide a number of health benefits including cardiovascular, brain and immune system support, as well as support of a healthy inflammatory response by reducing inflammatory compounds called cytokines and eicosanoids,” said Dean Mosca, president of Proprietary Nutritionals Inc., an ingredient supplier based in Kearny, NJ.
Proprietary Nutritionals offers Benexia Omega-3 Chia, an organic, gluten-free, ancient whole grain that is one of the richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids. “Seeds typically contain 20 percent protein, 34 percent oil and 25 percent dietary fiber. Benexia is also a super antioxidant, delivering a higher ORAC value than fresh blueberries,” explained Mosca. “Benexia Chia is the only ISO certified source for highest purity and quality. It is available in bulk seed,Sprouted seed, milled seed, flour and oil. It is ideal for drink mixes, bars and incorporates easily into other foods.”
Why Not Both?
“Companies are starting to introduce non-fish sources of EPA and DHA as a result of consumer concerns around fishery sustainability,” explained Ascenta’s St-Onge. “These new products would include algal sources of DHA, making it appealing to vegetarians. Ascenta has gone one step further and combined algal DHA with echium oil, a unique plant that can supply the body with a reliable source of EPA and GLA. Last year, the company also launched a squid-based omega-3, rich in DHA and EPA, with a delicious flavor and a relevant and interesting eco-friendly and sustainable story.”
Manufacturers such as Ascenta see the benefits of both plant- and marinesourced EFAs, and in turn are producing both. “We have strategically focused on using the most sustainable sources of omega-3 and have progressively worked toward diversification to avoid putting pressure on any one resource,” said St-Onge. “We have selected both marine- and plant-sources for our latest product launches.”
Ascenta has recently introduced two new products, NutraSea DHA and NutraVege. NutraSea DHA is sourced from wild squid. Typically known as calamari, wild squid is rich in omega-3 and very high in DHA—containing 35 percent more EPA and DHA than salmon and 100 percent more than krill, according to the company. The oil is derived from the parts of the squid not used for the calamari industry, making maximum utilization of this resource. Wild squid is also a sustainable species and the eco-friendly catch method has no impact on the marine environment. NutraVege is sourced from echium and algae, and, according to the company Offers vegetarians and consumers not wishing to ingest marine products, the possibility of obtaining omega-3 benefits similar to those derived from fish.
In addition, Ascenta offers The Pure Check quality guarantee to the consumer. “The Pure Check quality guarantee, through which the consumer can look up online the quality test reports for their own bottle, which provides full transparency and guarantees purity and potency,” explained St-Onge.
Barlean’s (Ferndale, WA) also sees the benefit of offering both plant- and marine-sourced EFAs. “The way I see it, as long as our food sources continue to lack sufficient omega-3 levels, the market demand to supplement it back into our diet will only gain more momentum,” said Andreas Koch, marketing director for Barlean’s. “Though fish oil is much more in the spotlight, flaxseed oil will gain ground as shoppers increasingly realize that this source is cheaper and yet provides comparable omega-3 nutrients than fish oil.”
Barlean’s line of EFAs includes both flax oil and fish oil blends. According to Koch, the company only uses the highest quality, 100 percent organically certified North American flaxseeds combined with Barlean’s proprietary cold pressing method that consistently delivers a great tasting, highly nutritious oil. Additionally, Barlean’s Five Layer Oxidation Protection System guarantees the freshest and most nutritious fish oil.
The company has an extensive line of EFA products for children and adults. Barlean’s popular Omega Swirl line is offered with fish oil as well as flaxseed oil in a variety of flavors.
Additionally, companies like Barlean’s are deciding to go even further, offering both plant- and marine-based EFAs as combination blends, possibly proving that there is no need to choose one or the other. Barlean’s Total Omega Swirl Complete Omega-3,6,9 is made with both organic flaxseed oil and well as Fresh Catch® EPA/DHA fish oil. “Perhaps more companies will jump on the bandwagon and promote that consuming ALA, EPA and DHA are all key to maintaining optimal health,” said Koch.
The Savvy Consumer
The debate over which EFA source is more beneficial may never end, but maybe it is exactly what both manufacturers and retailers need to keep them on their toes. “There are so many companies bringing the latest and greatest EFAs to market, some with sophisticated delivery systems or harvested from other sources, like krill and calamari,” said Stayton. “Knowing what to stock and when to recommend them is a challenge. The category is getting congested and we are always evaluating products, and discontinuing some to make room for the new.”
With the standard American diet as it is today, many people do not get even close to the recommended daily amount of EFAs. Thankfully, consumers are realizing that their diets are lacking in EFAs and are turning to supplements to compensate. Further, many doctors are also recommending them to their patients. “Demand continues to grow because more of the general population is realizing the importance of having an omega-3 balance in the body,” said Koch. “Doesn’t matter if it’s liquid or capsules, flax or fish—they’re buying them off the shelves.”
“Consumers are becoming more savvy and concerned about the side effects of medications that are often prescribed for common health conditions like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, and they are often asking their health care provider if they can try a natural alternative first,” said Tomc. “The medical community is aware of the research on omega-3 fish oils and is including it as a component of medical treatment. There’s also been an increase in anecdotal experience; people who’ve experienced positive changes in their lives by supplementing with essential fats are sharing this information with their friends.”