Ingredients with healthful omega-3s eschew their reputation for needing extensive formulation.
Omega-3 fatty acids' potential to improve cardiovascular health has had them poised as the next major health trend for years. Studies indicate the American consumer is aware of the benefits of omega-3s, specifically their heart-healthy nature. Meanwhile, heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States and several European countries.
But ingredients containing the healthful long-chain or short-chain fatty acids got a bad rap in the industry. The ingredients were pegged as negatively affecting stability and shelf life, or being too expensive. Plant-based flax sources were said to be more difficult for the body to convert into the most helpful variety of omega-3 acid, while marine-based ingredients were said to carry a strong fishy flavor and aroma that had to be masked.
Bakers looking to incorporate omega-3s into their products undoubtedly ran into these and other hurdles along the way. But over the past few years, manufacturers worked to fine-tune their ingredients to remove some of these barriers, and bakers have worked on tricks of their own to implement omega-3s more successfully. All the while, studies continue to show the American public knows what omega-3s do, will seek them out and will pay a premium for them. Manufacturers' primary goal now is to remove perhaps outdated stigmas about omega-3-rich ingredients and to align bakers' perceptions of the ingredients with the positive perception of omega-3s among consumers.
All about omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids can be added whenever a formula uses fat. Ingredients such as fish oil, algae and krill are marine-based sources of omega-3s, while flaxseed, soybeans and walnuts are plant-based sources. To a lesser extent, chia, hemp and soybeans are used in baking applications for bakers looking to enhance the healthful properties of their products.
Marine-based sources of omega-3s contain large amounts of long-chain omega-3s called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Plant-based omega-3s stem from alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is a short-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid.
The short-chained ALA is a precursor to omega-3s EPA and DHA, in that the body has to convert ALA to create the omega-3s. Disagreement exists about how efficiently the body is able to do so, though, and the marine- and plant-based manufacturers are in distinct camps. Some marine-based manufacturers contend that the inefficiency of conversion delivers fewer of the benefits of omega-3s per amount of ingredient used.
“There are lots of clinical studies on the body's utilization of EPA and DHA for cardiovascular health, and many conversion studies on how the body converts ALA into EPA, DHA. Studies show conversion of up to 20 percent, and it's on the higher end in women, but it depends on the individual,” says Marilyn Stieve, food scientist and business development manager for flaxseed with Glanbia Nutritionals, Monroe, Wis. “What we have focused on, and where we now have supported clinical work, is looking at ALA for other unique benefits [separate from conversion to EPA and DHA], such as decreasing inflammatory markers and decreasing heart inflammation.”
Fish oil is the most commonly used source of omega-3s. Manufacturers are steadfast in the benefits of directly adding EPA and DHA without having to count on the body's inefficient conversion of ALA. But fish oil manufacturers have perception problems of their own. First, products using it had to be frozen or refrigerated; second it was thought to impart a fishy flavor to baked products; and finally, it was perceived to be more difficult to clean from equipment, thus more likely to impart the flavor to other baked products. But recently, manufacturers have developed fish-based omega-3 ingredients specifically for the baking industry that are stable at ambient temperature and devoid of any fishy flavor.
“We'll put our Omega-360 PureMix fish oil out at trade shows and have people taste it, and they can't believe it — it's completely flavor and aroma neutral,” Ron Wheelwright, senior account manager, Norway-based Denomega Nutritional Oils, said. “It's easy to clean. Plus, it is so highly refined, products that use it don't have to carry the warning label for fish allergies that many other fish-based products do.”
Espen Thomassen, sales and marketing director for TINE Epadha, Norway, agrees the perception of off flavors isn't valid. “What we are saying to our customers is they don't have to compromise on taste,” he said.
TINE sees roughly 32 mg EPA and DHA per 50 g of product as typical in the U.S., but in Norway, the ratio can be as high as 150 mg per 50 g of product. And one U.S. bakery tested as much as 500 mg of EPA and DHA per 50 g of product with no effects to flavor profile.
Denomega uses an easy-to-picture slice of bread as a metric and finds an inclusion rate of about 16 mg per slice of bread most common in the U.S. As few as 6 mg per slice are used.
“With functional foods, you aren't talking about a remedy. Instead, they are preventative in their contribution to a group's health, so that means small amounts over time, not large, corrective doses,” Thomassen said.
Another source of DHA is algae, providing a vegetarian option for marine-based DHA. Algae-based omega-3s don't contain EPA, and most of the cardiovascular clinical research has centered on the effects of DHA in conjunction with EPA. Still, DHA alone has been linked to good eye health, brain development and recollection. And surveys show that memory loss is a major fear of aging Americans.
The reason fish are so rich in DHA is because they sit at the top of a food chain in which DHA algae-rich microalgae form the base. No technical difference between fish-based and algae-based DHA exists, but algae-based ingredient manufacturers advocate going directly to the source for DHA.
“Life's DHA™, an algae-based omega-3, is derived directly from microalgae, a renewable, sustainable source of DHA that does not deplete the ocean's resources, and is produced entirely in an FDA-inspected facility with controls to ensure the highest quality,” said Cassie France-Kelly, director, corporate communications, Martek Biosciences Corp., Columbia, Md.
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Some bakers are experimenting with krill oil, a relatively new entry to the omega-3 market, as a source of EPA and DHA. Jonathan Miller, president of Element Bars, a custom energy bar company based in Chicago, has used flaxseed oil as an omega-3 source since the company's 2008 inception. He is now formulating with krill oil and believes it has a future as an omega-3-rich ingredient.
“A couple grams of krill oil has the same amount of omega-3s as a couple tablespoons of flaxseed oil. And Krill has the best ratio of EPA and DHA,” he says.
Like algae, krill is low on the food chain, so there's less potential for mercury or other toxins that can build up in fish and other high-up predators. Of course, other omega-3 manufacturers distill their oils to remove impurities and toxins, but for Miller and his customers, starting with a purer source gives peace of mind. Also, krill is one of the most abundant marine organisms, so it's a sustainable source of omega-3s.
A downside to krill oil is its price, but the high concentration of omega-3s means bakers don't have to use as much of it. And that's lucky, due to the fishy flavor and pink color the oil imparts to baked products. Because of its potency, bakers must ensure it is well mixed with fats or other liquid ingredients prior to mixing with dry ingredients. Because krill oil hasn't solved some of the flavor problems that fish and algae oils have, Miller recommends it for use in robustly flavored, richly colored products, so other ingredients stand up to the flavor, aroma and hue.
Thanks to its grain-like characteristics, nutty flavor and plant background, flaxseed is the go-to ingredient source for omega-3s in baked products. Flavor has never been an issue. Because milled flaxseed is 48 percent oil, 23 percent being omega-3 oil, the ingredient does have to be handled properly for stability. But because most baking processes are high hydration, low pressure and relatively low heat, stability isn't much of a problem.
“Also, flaxseed has functional abilities. It acts like a hydrocolloid, so it can actually extend shelf life,” Stieve said. “We have a line that has the ability to replace gums. Instead of using xanthan gum in cupcakes, bakers can use a specially milled flaxseed that would allow for an omega-3 claim, but also produce a cleaner label.”
With plant-based ingredient sources of omega-3s, ALA is the unit addressed. According to the Institute of Medicine, men should consume 1.6 g per day of ALA and women 1.1 g.
“Omega 3 is an essential fatty acid in that your body cannot produce it, it must be consumed through diet. Because of that, omega-3 ALA has two nutrient content claims that have been approved,” Stieve said. “Within that, they have to meet certain milligrams per serving — 130 mg per serving is a good source, 260 mg is an excellent source. That's 0.65 g of milled flax per serving for a good rating, and 1.3 g for an excellent rating.”
Market research group Datamonitor studies and manufacturer surveys all indicate consumers recognize the impact of omega-3s on heart health, and they are willing to pay a premium for them. It's now up to bakers to revisit omega-3 ingredients to take advantage of the demand.