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Deciphering oils’ omega code

Deciphering oils’ omega code

Written by Dr. John Michaelides   
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Most consumers now understand that not all oils and fats are bad for the body, with healthy oils moving to the forefront of consumer interest. This is not a phenomenon that will fade away. In fact, it’s expected that consumer interest in healthy oils will continue to grow, boosting the markets for such products.

The reason for such optimism is that the science behind the health benefits of omega-3 oils is solid. More than 6,000 scientific studies, of which 1,000 are actual clinical trials, have examined the health benefits of omega-3 oils, with the great majority confirming positive results. The scientific evidence supports multiple health benefits, including cardiovascular and immune system health; improvement of cognitive performance as well as normal development of the brain in children; and overall infant health and vision. Plus, omega-3 oils possibly play a role in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.

Perhaps linked to cognitive improvement, studies have shown that omega-3s in the diet can improve depression, mood and behaviour. A small number of animal studies show that these oils may play a role in the prevention of certain cancers. Early research has shown that omega-3 oils, particularly from marine sources (EPA and DHA), might reduce the risk of developing age-related macular degeneration. Other evidence points to the importance of DHA during pregnancy for the healthy development of the newborn.

In addition to health, there is evidence that omega-3 oils contribute to skin and hair improvements and they are beginning to find their way into the cosmeceuticals market. The evidence for the health benefits of omega-3s — particularly EPA and DHA found in fish and some kinds of algae — is abundant and, as a result, consumers are becoming well aware and are seeking products with these ingredients.

The demand is growing and the market is increasing, perhaps moving away from the niche to the mainstream. The global market for food products containing omega and other healthy oils is exploding. Various reports suggest that the combined market of foods containing DHA, EPA and ALA in the United States is worth close to $2 billion, and they predict that the market will reach $7 billion by 2011.

Although there are several types of healthy oils, the market is focused on three. These, in simple terms, are: ALA or alpha linolenic acid, a plant origin omega-3 with 18 carbon atoms; EPA or eicosapentaenoic acid; and DHA docosahexaenoic acid with 20 and 22 carbon atoms, respectively, and both of marine origin.
For ALA to provide the necessary health benefits, the body has to convert it into the longer carbon chain containing the omega-3 oils EPA and DHA. The drawback for ALA is that only a small amount of it is converted into these highly beneficial oils. The maximum conversion from ALA to EPA is about 10 per cent. Some recent research has shown that women during their reproductive age convert ALA to EPA at a much higher rate than men. The conversion of ALA to DHA is lower, reaching a maximum of eight to nine per cent.

ALA is plant-sourced omega-3 oils often added to food products from flax, canola, soy and hemp. Flax contains high amounts of this polyunsaturated fatty acid, but as mentioned previously it is not as potent in the health delivery for the human body — although some of its benefits may be due to its ability to decrease inflammation.

The use of flax seeds either ground or whole has been practised for some time in the baked goods industry. Although delivering less ALA than the oil, the use of the whole seed provides other benefits, which originate in fibre and lignans. Lignans are phytoestrogens that population research suggests could play
a substantial role in protection against disease, especially hormone-related cancers such as those of the breast and prostate.

The marine omega-3 oils EPA and DHA, although more beneficial, are more challenging to incorporate into food products — particularly baked goods. The challenges are mainly in the areas of flavour and taste, but also stability. Food-grade fish oil can be incorporated into baked goods such as breads, buns, bagels, pizza dough, muffins, cookies and pastries. The shelf life of these fish-oil-containing products is very short and precautions must be taken to prevent the oxidation of the oil. Such precautions include good packaging, temperature control and the addition of antioxidants. The possible interaction of these oils with other ingredients such as vitamins should also be taken into consideration.

The short shelf life of unprotected fish oil ingredients dictates that when we are using these ingredients we should make sure they are fresh and, when in our plants, are stored properly (under refrigeration and away from light sources) to ensure maximum quality prior to addition to our products. However, the new and improved omega-3 oil ingredients now in the market are microencapsulated and in powder form. Microencapsulated powders are easier to mix into dry ingredients for even distribution, and they have longer oxidative stability. Using the new microencapsulated powders can significantly reduce the formulation challenges posed by the inclusion of fish oil — including unpleasant flavours and odours as well as oxidation and shelf life. Also, newly developed emulsification processes allow greater protection and the ability to incorporate higher doses of omega oils into various food systems.
With the advancement of the second-generation microencapsulated omega-3 powders, the incorporation of DHA and EPA into baked goods is becoming more practical and presenting fewer challenges as we can see from the appearance in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom of omega-3 bread, bagel, tortilla and ready-made pizza brands.

Though the main source of DHA and EPA is fish, there are other potential sources of these oils. Algae are known to contain DHA and EPA and some companies in the U.S. and Europe have commercially available ingredients.
Recently, a U.K. company developed the world’s first organic algal-sourced DHA and EPA. Other sources of omega oils include fungi and mollusks. The development of ingredients from such novel sources may be very valuable in the future as the demand grows and fish stocks are depleted. However, marine DHA and EPA may be produced from fish waste such as heads and other discarded parts, converting a processing byproduct into a valuable ingredient. Still, fish oil has to be purified of contaminants such as heavy metals and toxins prior to human consumption, while algae and fungi can be grown by fermentation and therefore they represent a more sustainable method of production, and their supply may not be as restricted.

The major players in the omega-3 ingredient market are Ocean Nutrition, Martek, Denomega and Lonza. Martek and Lonza supply DHA and EPA from algal sources with Ocean Nutrition following.

The choices are legion regarding omega-3 ingredients to be incorporated in baked goods. But a proper choice requires certain considerations such as quality and shelf life of the product, food safety, and the delivery of the proper and meaningful amounts of DHA/EPA per serving for the benefit of the consumer. It is also important to consider current Health Canada limits on the level of omega-3 oils per serving in a food.

The suppliers of these ingredients will have the information needed for incorporation but experimentation and optimization of the formulae for your product is required in order to have a successful product in the market.

Funding for this report was provided in part by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Agricultural Adaptation Council’s CanAdvance Program. For more information, or fee-for-service help with product or process development needs, please contact the GFTC at 519-821-1246, by fax at 519-836-1281 or by e-mail at  This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it Dr. John Michaelides is the director of research and technology at the Guelph Food Technology Centre, on the web at  www.gftc.ca.

 
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