Bakers can choose from a variety of ingredients when seeking sources of omega-3 fatty acids — the choice depends on the application, cost constraints and desired use level, among other considerations.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been getting a lot of press over the past several years — their heart-health benefits have been widely reported and are now generally understood by the public. Yet they still don't mirror the popularity of other healthful ingredients commonly seen in bakery items.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be added wherever fats are used in baked products. Baked products formulated with these fatty acids often rely on ingredients, such as fish oil, or other marine-based sources, flaxseed, soybeans, walnuts or less familiar ingredients, such as chia and hemp, to enhance their healthful properties. But, walnuts aside, adding omega-3 fatty acids to baked products can be a challenge for the wholesale baker, says Gary Gibbs, technical manager, British Bakels, a bakery ingredients company, Bicester, England.
That's because the ingredients that boost omega-3 fatty acids must be formulated to avoid unpleasant flavor and should easily be converted into omega-3 fatty acids within the human body. And, of course, cost is a consideration, Gibbs says.
Breaking down omega-3s.
Adding omega-3s from fish oil into bread mixes can be challenging because of its instability and its potential to give a fishy flavor when added directly as oil, Gibbs notes. Still, fish oil is the most readily available source of omega-3 fatty acids to the human body, which is why suppliers of fish oil-based omega 3s have worked toward resolving the flavor and stability issues.
Fatty acids derived from marine sources — either fish or algae — are high in long-chain omega-3s known as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These differ from plant-based fatty acids, such as those found in flaxseed and walunts, which contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) — a short-chained polyunsaturated fatty acid.
While the body can convert ALA to the longer chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA, this metabolic process happens at a slower pace than consuming EPA and DHA directly. Still, evidence suggests that ALA plays a role in mitigating the risk of coronary heart disease.
Marine-source omega-3 fatty acids are typically less stable than other fats when exposed to heat, light and air, Gibbs says. “In order to add them to bakery products, they need to be protected if they are to remain stable and offer a positive nutritional benefit,” he adds.
Two years ago, British Bakels launched a marine-based omega-3 shortening designed specifically for bakers that doesn't leave a fishy flavor behind. The product is stabilized in a fat matrix made from usual bakery ingredients, which allows it to be stable for up to a year at ambient conditions and still provide the omega-3 fatty acids in the bread after baking, Gibbs says.
Bakers can add plant-based omega-3 fatty acids to their products by using walnuts or flaxseed, both good sources of omega-3 fatty acids according to the American Heart Association.
Ground flaxseed is reportedly easier for the body to digest than whole flaxseed. As a result, many bakers will grind the ingredient before adding it to their final product, says Jonathan Miller, president, ElementBars.com, Chicago. The company lets users design their own custom energy bars by selecting organic and conventional ingredients.
ElementBar customers walk through a five-step process that involves selecting a base for the bars, then adding fruits, sweets, nuts, and what the company calls boosts. The most popular base — a chewy base — includes ground flaxseed, which provides fiber in addition to omega-3 fatty acids, Miller says.
Customers who seek even more omega-3 fatty acids in their bar can choose to include an omega-3 boost, which is organic flaxseed oil that Miller says is easily absorbed by the body. Consumers also may choose to add whole flaxseed to their custom bars, he adds. So, in all, the company offers three ways to boost the omega-3 fatty acid content of the customized energy bars.
“One of our cofounders is finishing her Ph.D. in molecular nutrition and she's very in touch with the nutritional benefits of omega-3s,” Miller says. “We believe in the science and research that's already gone into adding omega-3s to the diet.
Doug Radi, vice president of marketing for Charter Baking Co., Boulder, Colo., also notes that customers are specifically asking for products high in omega-3 fatty acids. Rudi's Organic Bakery 7 Grain with Flax bread is one of the company's best sellers.
“People are looking for healthful ingredients in their bakery products; they're looking to add more omega-3s, and fiber and antioxidants to their diets and breads fortified with flax is a way to do it,” Radi says.
Of course, the time-honored way of adding omega-3 fatty acids to bakery products is through the addition of walnuts. Like flaxseed, walnuts are a good source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, says Carol Berg-Sloan, dietician, California Walnut Board, Folsom.
While Berg-Sloan does say that the plant-based omega-3 fatty acids don't metabolize in the body as effectively as the fish-based sources, walnuts and flaxseed do offer other benefits.
“Walnuts are good in almost every kind of baked product,” Berg-Sloan says. “They give a crunch and a richer flavor to muffins and to breakfast cookies.”
Also, the nuts don't include the flavor or pretreatment challenges that fish oils and flaxseed present to wholesale bakers, she adds.
The Institute of Medicine recommends ALA intake levels of 1.6 g per day for men and 1.1 g per day for women, Berg-Sloan says. For comparison, 1 oz. of walnuts, about one-quarter cup, is equivalent to 2.6 g of ALA.
When wholesale bakers include omega-3 fatty acids within their products, they need to adhere to FDA labeling standards, Berg-Sloan notes. The labeling issue can be tricky because, at present, the FDA has set no daily value on desirable omega-3 fatty acids intake.
According to FDA literature, however, a food manufacturer may make a statement about a nutrient for which there is no established daily value — such as omega-3 fatty acids — as long as the claim specifies only the amount of the nutrient per serving.
Thus, wholesale bakers can use the words “contains” or “provides” omega-3 fatty acids on their packaging, but the specific amount of the nutrient must be stated. For example, the label could say: contains x grams of omega-3 fatty acids per serving. However, the statement “contains omega-3 fatty acids” without including the specific amount is prohibited. And, the claim must be outside the nutrition facts label.
Bakers should also be aware that the FDA doesn't permit a good source claim for nutrients that don't have established daily values. Thus, the label on a loaf of bread that contains flaxseed couldn't include the phrase “a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.”
So while adding omega-3 fatty acids to boost health benefits and sales can be challenging, those challenges likely are worth the effort. Consumers continually are demanding products with added functional benefits, such as those derived from omega-3s. And baked products have become the ideal vehicle for adding healthful ingredients.