In the swim of things1 October 2020
The omega-3 industry is doubling down on research to support various health claims, from reducing blood pressure to prenatal outcomes. Elsewhere, recent dietary trends – such as veganism – could open up new doors as Chris Gearheart, GOED director of member communications and engagement, tells Ross Davies.
Taking a seat in one of the Hotel Arts Barcelona’s labyrinthine public spaces, Chris Gearheart takes a moment to complement the local Catalonian surroundings. “It’s quite a place, isn’t it,” he says, motioning beyond the four walls to the sweep of waterfront below him.
Gearheart is here on the first day of GOED Exchange 2020, the omega-3 industry’s flagship event. The event consists of a melange of CEOs, scientists, marketers and other professionals who are concerned with all things EPA and DHA.
Representing over 200 member companies, global organisation for EPA and DHA omega-3s (GOED) is the industry’s central trade association. The theme of the conference – held every two years – is growth. Organisers hope the event will serve to spark debate over ways in which innovation can help drive market potential. This is mirrored in the eclectic range of themes on this year’s agenda, from big data and telemedicine to new product launches and marketing claims.
The theme of the last GOED conference, held in Seattle, 2018, was ‘moving forward into the future’. In many ways, the omega-3 industry has made good on this pledge, having finally received approval from the US FDA on a list of qualified health claims on the remedial effects of omega-3 on blood pressure.
Having first submitted a petition for the claims to the FDA back in 2014 – based on the meta-analysis of some 70 studies on the impact of omega-3 on blood pressure – the FDA’s nod of approval, after five years of toing and froing, is something of a vindication for GOED.
“It was really exciting to get,” says Gearheart, GOED’s director of member communications and engagement. “It’s hard to explain why it took so long in the first place, but to have all that suspense pay off in such a tangible way was great.”
There are caveats to the green light, however. Health claims qualified by the FDA can be notoriously ambiguous and the claims regarding omega-3’s ability to lower blood pressure are no exception. “FDA has concluded that the evidence is inconsistent and inconclusive,” reads the FDA’s equivocal wording.
It is, therefore, important to make the distinction between a qualified health claim that meets the FDA’s standard for ‘credible evidence’ and an authorised health claim, where the FDA adjudicates that a food product or dietary supplement meets the agency’s more rigorous ‘significant scientific agreement’.
GOED had originally been hoping to achieve the latter assertion, but Gearheart isn’t complaining. A qualified health claim, he says, could still open up new avenues for the industry, especially when it comes to marketing in the US – the world’s largest region – in gross terms for EPA and DHA ingredients.
“It provides very specific, prescribed language that marketers can now use to connect consumption to a decrease in blood pressure,” he says. “This kind of language carries a lot of significance to American consumers. It’s a cool thing to have in your marketing toolkit. It’ll be interesting to see how many people decide to start taking omega-3 because of this.”
The Salt Lake City-headquartered GOED is all too aware of the role that positive and accurate marketing of omega-3 can have, in both informing consumers and educating policymakers. On occasion, the industry is forced to contend with media accusations that other purported health benefits of omega-3, such as improving arthritis, constitute one big fish tale.
A case in point, one receptionist, upon learning the reason behind Gearheart’s visit to Barcelona, claimed to have stopped taking omega-3 supplements as they had recently read an unfavourable article in the New York Times. As a keen bodybuilder, they had simply swapped cod liver oil for eating more fish.
When he recounts this conversation, Gearheart produces a wry smile. “It’s hard to condense a complicated topic like nutrition into a headline,” he says.
“It’s important, even for researchers, to keep in mind that the dosage intake levels of omega-3 are very low throughout the world. So, yes, adding fish to your diet will be good for you, but if you are wondering whether omega-3s will behave like a medicine, research tells us that dosage matters a lot. It may be that you are not seeing effects for specific outcomes because the dosage needs to be higher.”
But the sheer weight of medical research and literature on omega-3’s health benefits are helping the industry put its case across in other areas. Gearheart cites research into the likes of heart and brain outcomes, and eye health as being established “beyond controversy”.
Shift to omega-3
More recently, GOED has been buoyed by efforts to establish a link between omega-3 consumption, and prenatal and maternal health. This was backed up in a review by the Cochrane Collaboration, the respected international medical research organisation, which suggested fatty acids could reduce the risk of premature birth.
“The Cochrane Review said that no further research is needed to establish that adequate DHA consumption prevents preterm birth to a reliable degree,” says Gearheart. “In academic circles, that’s pretty rare.”
Driven by a shift to healthier eating and sustainability, new dietary trends, such as veganism, are impacting the ingredients sector. In his opening keynote speech, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a former data scientist at Google, pointed out that an increasing number of online searches for omega-3 featured the words ‘vegan’ and ‘veganism’.
“Most mainstream omega-3 products are not vegan, but algae is,” explains Gearheart. “A lot of our member companies are aware of this and they’ve been boosting production in this area over the past few years, with more and more facilities coming online. This has led to an increase in algal omega-3 in the global market.
“The good news in this area is that the value is starting to decrease, which means lower prices for consumers, who have more opportunity to buy affordable vegan omega-3,” says Gearheart.
Returning to the topic of innovation, GOED has been heartened by some of the imaginative ways in which its member companies are developing new products. He alludes to Calanus, a Norwegian biomarine company, which sources its omega-3 supplements from calanus finmarchicus, a krill-like species found in abundance in the Norwegian sea.
Having already attained novel food approval from the EU in 2017 for its flagship product, Calanus Oil, the company was given a boost in 2019 when the Norwegian government approved the further harvesting of the copepod species. Speaking at the time, Calanus CEO Gunnar Rorstad said the decision would help the company increase its supply.
“Calanus is a great example of some of the new, fun ways of sourcing omega-3,” says Gearheart. “They have researched the health benefits, the production and ability for this species to be made into an ingredient that really caters to the people out there looking for new ways to take omega-3.”
There are opportunities to move into new geographies too, in line with the growing intake of omega-3 in markets such as China, South Korea and India. Calanus is said to be seeking regulatory approval in the latter two.
Some constants remain preserved, however. The humble Peruvian anchovy is still the dominant source for omega-3, as it has been for the better part of 40 years. According to Gearheart, concentrates made from these anchovies are becoming more popular.
“We are seeing an increase in the volume and value of concentrates made from these anchovies, as well as similar fish sources, from a few different fisheries across the world,” he says.
“This is a really interesting shift when it comes to the importance of dosage. These concentrates allow consumers an intake of as much as 1–2.5g a day with just a couple of capsules – as opposed to five or six. That’s a trend that looks set to continue.”
The year Calanus received a boost from the Norweigan government, which approved the harvesting of the copepod species –after attaining novel food approval from the EU in 2017.