The idea that flax is the best source of omega-3 is half baked!” screamed an advertisement that ran in the pages of this magazine last year. And so began the fatty acid battle. In one corner stood flaxseed suppliers. In the other, a new breed of fish oil suppliers. In the middle, hundreds of bakers who want to boost sales by offering points of distinction.
To say the baking industry is changing is an understatement. Ever since Dr. Atkins topped bestsellers’ lists, the baking industry has jumped to the forefront of ingredient technology, offering compounds and nutrients that no one ever associated with baking before. Omega-3 fatty acids are the perfect example of this. Almost overnight, many bakers decided that omega-3s are a really good thing to put in bakery foods.
This logically led to a debate about the best way to fortify bakery foods with omega-3 fatty acids. To date, there are two choices: flaxseeds and fish oils. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all.
Who wants to put fish oils in bakery foods? For starters, Wegmans and George Weston’s Arnold’s brand. And there probably are countless of other bakery food producers in the industry that have samples of encapsulated fish oils in their research and development labs right now.
Fish oils have stepped up as a legitimate competitor for omega-3-fatty acid dollars in the market. However, while fish oils have made a slight dent in the baking marketplace, flaxseeds already have a convinced customer base that continues to grow.
Suppliers of both these ingredients have waged a quiet war, much like suppliers of trans-fat free shortenings and oils. This competitive spirit benefits bakers, who are reaping the gains of more information and increased technology.
Baking Management provides a comparison of fish oils and flaxseeds. In the end, it’s up to the baker to decide which ingredient is best for boosting omega-3 fatty acid content.
A baker can count on one hand the number of fish oil suppliers in the North American baking industry. For flaxseed suppliers, it may take two hands. However, this small group of suppliers has done an excellent job educating bakers about what is available, and how each ingredient benefits health and bottom lines.
Flaxseeds are available in a variety of forms, including whole flaxseeds, milled/ground flaxseeds and flaxseed meal. Whole flaxseeds mainly are used to enhance texture and appearance. These ingredients, however, do not offer the full nutritional benefits of flaxseeds because “seeds are designed by nature to pass through the digestive system undigested,” one flaxseed supplier says.
Milled/ground flaxseeds offer full nutritional value, and are processed for incorporation into breads, rolls, pizza crusts and other bakery foods. When using milled/ground flaxseeds, it is important to buy from a reputable supplier with a solid track record of quality assurance. When processed correctly, the ingredient remains stable for as long as two years in ambient temperatures. “If it has been mishandled, you will have oxidation,” one flaxseed supplier says, “but it won’t smell like fish, it will smell like paint.”
Flaxseeds also are available as meal, but many flaxseed suppliers caution against using this ingredient in bakery food applications. Flaxseed meal is the defatted byproduct from oil pressing operations. The omega-3 content of this ingredient is low, and stability is a major issue because of the disruption in the flaxseed oil.
Fish oil suppliers to the baking industry generally use a combination of conditioning and encapsulation technology to enhance stability and shelf life, and to mask off flavors and off tastes. The end result is a free-flowing granulation that is blended with dry ingredients at the mixer.
One supplier of fish oils specifically broke into the market because the company was experienced in encapsulation technology, and the supplier saw immense opportunities with omega-3 fatty acids. “There was a clear need in the marketplace, and we stepped into this technology race to fill the need,” the fish oil supplier says. “There have been several companies in the market who, over the years, have claimed that their products are stable, but really, very few of them are.”
Stability is the main concern with encapsulated fish oils. Because many suppliers are on their first generation of products, long-term stability issues are undetermined. As a result, fish-oil-fortified products mainly appear in the bread aisle, where shelf lives rarely extend beyond two weeks.
One fish oil supplier uses vacuum sealed blister packs to ensure the ingredient’s stability. The encapsulated fish oils are packaged immediately after manufacturing, and refrigerated to maximize shelf life. In refrigerated conditions, the supplier says the product lasts as long as a year. Once the product is removed from refrigeration and opened, shelf life decreases to two months.
Until recently, most consumers believed that fats were fats, and they all were bad. This model of thinking has changed dramatically. Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids that include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These long-chain fatty acids possess a bounty of healthful benefits, which has spurred Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve various health claims for the inclusion of ALA, EPA and DHA in bakery foods. For more information on these labeling claims, turn to page 32.
Much of the debate over which source of omega-3 fatty acid is best has centered around the types of omega-3 fatty acids that are present in flaxseeds and fish oils. Fish oils are rich in EPA and DHA, and flaxseeds contain ALA.
So what’s the difference? A lot.
One flaxseed supplier touts ALA as “the only essential omega-3 oil.” ALA cannot be synthesized by the human body, therefore it has to be incorporated through the human diet. Flaxseed suppliers also stress the point that ALA converts to DHA and EPA in the body.
Although these are valid, scientifically proven points, fish oil suppliers use the same information to promote the benefits of EPA and DHA.
The strongest argument for EPA and DHA, one fish oil supplier says, is the FDA-approved heart health claim granted to EPA and DHA, and not ALA. One fish oil supplier also says the conversion of ALA into DHA and EPA varies from person to person, making it impossible to ensure ideal EPA and DHA consumption.
Beyond omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseeds do possess an advantage in overall nutrition. These ingredients contain soluble and insoluble fiber, and are a rich source of lignans.
Baking with omega-3
The final battle between flaxseeds and fish oils is fought on the plant floor. Flaxseeds provide bakers with a level of familiarity because this ingredient has been used in the baking industry for years. “Flaxseed behaves like other whole grain ingredients, so the more you add, the more likely it is that you might want to add a bit of wheat gluten to strengthen the dough,” one flaxseed supplier says.
Flaxseeds’ fiber content also necessitates more water. One flaxseed supplier recommends increasing water by an amount equal to 75% of the total flaxseed use. In addition, as much as 25% more yeast is needed to maintain proof times, texture and consistency. Flaxseeds also can replace oil content at a 3:1 ratio.
Usage levels vary from product to product, but one flaxseed supplier says most bakers use the ingredient at levels as high as 8%. “You don’t need that much flaxseed to make label claims,” one flaxseed supplier says. “By using only 1.3 grams of flax per serving, you can say a product is an ‘excellent’ or ‘rich’ source of ALA omega-3.”
Using encapsulated fish oils to boost omega-3 content requires a small amount of product. One manufacturer says that bakers can add 50 mgs of EPA/DHA per serving of bread by adding 0.333 grams of the company’s encapsulated fish oil to each serving of bread. The ingredient is added at the mixer with other dry ingredients. Necessary formulation adjustments vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but more water generally is needed.
So, who wins the competition between flaxseeds and fish oils? Bakers.
Both sides of the flax or fish oil argument have taken ingredient technology to new levels. And, this is just the beginning. As the science behind omega-3 fatty acid fortification grows, so will bakers’ options for using this beneficial ingredient in a wide variety of bakery foods.