Bakers Journal

Features Technical
Technical Talk – October 2010


September 24, 2010
By John Michaelides

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There are so many benefits to omega-3s, yet consumers are too confused to totally buy in to the many real health benefits they afford.

There are so many benefits to omega-3s, yet consumers are too confused to totally buy in to the many real health benefits they afford.

While consumers understand that some oils and fats are good for their diet, confusion still lurks when it comes to omega-3s. Indeed, this is in part because it is challenging to define omega oils in simplified terms and explain how the various types differ from each other. In the Bakers Journal November 2008 edition of Tech Talk, I described the different types of the omega-3 oils as follows: They are basically three polyunsaturated fatty acids of different carbon chain length. Alpha linolenic acid, or ALA, is a plant origin omega-3 (mainly from flax or sesame but also in others) with 18 carbon atoms. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are mostly derived from fish or algae, and are composed of 20 and 22 carbon atoms respectively.

The definition is rather technical, and clarifying the health benefits of omega-3s for consumers is equally challenging. Nonetheless, consumer interest in these healthy oils is expected to grow. Various U.S. reports suggest that the combined market value of foods containing omega-3s is worth close to $2 billion and predicted to reach $7 billion by 2011. There is so much optimism because the science behind the health benefits is so solid.

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Thousands of scientific studies and clinical trials have confirmed positive results. Their conclusions support the multiple health benefits associated with omega-3s, which contribute to cardiovascular and immune system health, improvement of cognitive performance and mood and behaviour, the normal development of the brain in children and overall infant health. Omega-3s may also play a role in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Other studies have shown that omega-3s, and especially DHA, may specifically reduce the risk of developing age-related eye degeneration from retina damage. In addition, evidence points to benefiting child development in pregnant women. These long chain fatty acids may improve metabolic syndrome implications. These oils are also beginning prove worthy contributors to skin and hair in the cosmeceuticals market (cosmetics and pharmaceuticals).

There are so many benefits, yet consumer understanding is too muddy to completely influence their buying decisions. Perhaps too many health benefits add to the confusion and introduce an element of suspicion. Adding to the difficulties, many consumers are still under the perception that omega-3 oils in foods will taste unpleasant and fishy.

Omega-3 oils can be incorporated into our diet by eating foods that naturally contain them, such as fish, or formulated food products. For ALA to provide the necessary health benefits, it has to be converted by the human body into the longer carbon chain omega oils like EPA and DHA. However, only a small amount of ALA is converted into these highly beneficial oils by the human body. The maximum conversion from ALA to EPA is about 20 per cent. The conversion of ALA to DHA is much lower, with a maximum of eight to nine per cent.

Another way is to eat products from animals that have been raised on specific diets to elevate the oil content. Omega-3 eggs are an example of this. The hens are fed a diet containing flax seed resulting in the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA by the hen and ending up in the eggs. Similar research is being conducted on pigs to produce omega-3 pork meat.

Omega-3 oil ingredients are particularly difficult to blend into baked goods. The challenges are mainly due to the flavour and taste, as well their stability. Traditional fish oils ingredients can be added into various baked goods such as breads, buns, bagels, pizza dough, muffins, cookies and pastries, but the taste and odour are challenges. The shelf life of fish oil products is very short due to oxidation and development of rancid flavours. The new and improved omega-3 oil ingredients currently on the market are microencapsulated and available in powder form. They are easier to blend into dry products and have longer oxidative stability. The issues of off-flavours and odours are eliminated, and these new formulations have a much longer shelf life. Additionally, new emulsification processes and encapsulating media have been developed that allow greater protection and ability to incorporate higher doses of these omega oils into various food and beverage products. The advancement of the second generation microencapsulated omega-3 powders that incorporate DHA and EPA provides new opportunities for the baking industry.

Flax and sesame seeds contain a high amount of ALA and their addition, either ground or whole, has been practised for a while in the baked goods industry. When these seeds are ground and exposed to air, they are more likely to become rancid and this affects their shelf life. Specialized ground flax is available and has a fairly long shelf life. 

The choices of omega-3 ingredients are many. The proper choice needs 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 consumer. The suppliers of these ingredients will have some information, but experimentation and optimization of the formulation for your product is required in order to be successful in the market.


Dr. John Michaelides is Guelph Food Technology Institute’s director of research and technology. For more information, or fee-for-service help with product or process development needs please contact the GFTC at (519) 821 1246 or gftc@gftc.ca.


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