Why we don’t see more products containing omega-3s
With all that omega-3 fatty acids have going for them, it’s easy to see why fortifying foods and beverages with the omega-3s DHA/EPA is a good idea. Study after study has demonstrated a dizzying array of health benefits of omega-3s – from mental clarity and mood enhancement to cholesterol reduction and weight control for patients on chemotherapy.
The research is clear: most of us are terribly deficient in EPA/DHA, and get far too much of the omega-6 fatty acids from our processed foods. This is no small matter. Even 30 years ago, veteran omega-3 researcher professor Michael Crawford predicted that humanity was in danger of becoming “a race of morons” if long-chain DHA and EPA omega-3 dietary intakes were not increased. Indeed, what we are seeing in the western world are spiraling rates of depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders.
So you would think that it would be a no-brainer, so to speak, to create products containing these fatty acids that consumers would be scooping off the shelves of the supermarket. And have the government cheer you on because it is in the interest of public health.
Woefully, this is not the case.
But why not? After all, the FDA long ago mandated that breads be fortified with folic acid because it can prevent neural tube defects(most commonly spina bifida and anencephaly) in developing fetuses. Calcium is so good for bones that it gets put in milk and juices, and so does vitamin D.
One large and well-run study even demonstrated clearly that the children of mothers who ate more seafood or fish-oil supplements during their pregnancy consistently had higher IQs than children whose mothers consumed less.
So why aren’t more EPA/DHA-fortified foods out there? Is it the taste? Most sources of EPA/DHA today are from the sea, and plenty of people associate things from the sea with an unpleasant “fishy” taste.
But food researchers have long since overcome that problem using technology such as micro-encapsulation, a method that literally encases the taste and smell of the fatty acids and allow manufacturers to bake them into breads or add them to drinks.
One company has figured out how to make the oil from krilland put it inside of something called micelles, which renders it tasteless and odorless so it can be added to things like sport drinks and dairy products.
Of course there are inferior products out there that when consumers get one nasty taste of it, that will be the end of their forays for food with omega-3s in it. But the problem is bigger than that.
The big problems facing omega-3 functional foods
Robert Orr, the former chairman at Canadian fish-oil producer Ocean Nutrition, says, “North Americans are too conditioned to see food as energy rather than nutrition. Communicating the value proposition of good nutrition has not been the forte of the North American market. We've got the most efficient distribution system on the planet and it is, by and large, safe. But we create vast amounts of unhealthy food cheaply, and there is a clear correlation between what we’re eating and how our bodies are responding [i.e. obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc].”
Getting Americans to pay attention to the health aspect of what we are eating, and to buy products that are good for them is no easy job. Convenience takes precedence over just about everything else in the US.
Then there’s the government.
The two regulatory bodies that directly affect this situation are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). They determine what kind of health claim a manufacturer can put on its product label. This has proved to be a major hurdle, for despite the decent (and prolific) science that has been done on omega-3s, these two agencies are extremely conservative about what they will allow companies to say. The hurdles are far too high for anything but the largest companies to overcome (and afford).
Nonetheless, according to an organization whose members are all DHA/EPA suppliers (GOED), since 2008 there have been two to three new omega-3 food product launches a week, presumably all but a few without health claims on their labels. Many of them, however, never get out of the test-marketing phase. Others remain stuck in niche markets after years, never crossing over into the mainstream.
The intention of certain companies is clear. In just one example, Aker BioMarine in Norway, a major supplier of krill oil, announced that krill oil has been granted status for inclusion in foods known as GRAS (generally recognized as safe). The company says it can be used in cereals, beverages, cheese and other dairy products.
The long road to public awareness
Cultivating public awareness traditionally has taken a long, long time. Consider that the organic movement began in the 1960s with hippie farmers and the “back to the land” movement. It has taken 50 years to bubble up into mainstream awareness to the point where WalMart is now selling organic stuff.
Public health will surely improve with the widespread acceptance and successful marketing of functional omega-3 products. However, if this were a race between the negative health effects of too few omega-3s in our diets and the health benefits that would come with more of them, most observers would have to bet on the former, not the latter.