The wealth of science supporting the health benefits of omega-3s, as well as their safety profile, has already been recognized as a key factor behind the success of these lipids in functional foods.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and heart attack, and may also play a role in preventing depression and protecting against Alzheimer's.
According to the US-based ProductScan Online, this research has translated into a trend for new omega-3-fortified foods that has gradually been building in both Europe and the US.
"There were practically no omega-3 fortified food products to speak of in Europe until 2001 when we reported 17 launches. Since that time, the number has grown slowly and steadily," Tom Vierhile, director of Productscan Online, told NutraIngredients.com.
In 2002 and 2003, new foods fortified with omega-3s numbered in the low 20s, but last year there were 28 new products containing the fatty acids launched in Europe.
So far this year, the company has recorded 16 new omega-3 foods in the region already, including Nestle's Yoco P'tit Yoco a Boire Omega 3, a strawberry-flavoured dairy drink for kids that is fortified with omega-3 fatty acids plus calcium and vitamin D.
"One thing that stands out is there seems to be a greater variety of products in Europe that are fortified with omega-3's, including sliced meat products," said Vierhile.
"This is unheard of in the USA, but we have seen a handful of high omega-3 sliced meats in Europe."
One of these is a line of sliced pork delicatessen products under the Pimor Omega 3 banner in Portugal, with omega-3 added for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases.
Vierhile added that the first omega-3 fortified breads hit Europe in 2001, well ahead of similar products just coming onto the market in the USA.
Cookies, desserts and ice creams are three other categories more inclined to go the omega-3 fortified route in Europe than in the USA, he said.
"One of the strangest products we have seen in Europe that is fortified with omega-3 is an olive product called La Espanola Te Cuida Aceitunas - Anchoa + Omega 3 from La Espanola Alimentaria Alcoyana based in Spain."
The olives were launched last year in Spain.
The strong science on omega-3s suggests that they may gain a general health claim under forthcoming European legislation, giving them guaranteed growth momentum.
Several health claims authorities, including the US Food and Drug Administration, and the UK's voluntary body the JHCI, have approved health claims for omega-3 fortified foods and their benefit to heart health.
The ingredient seems to be one area where health authorities are all in agreement over the benefits.
In addition, heart disease continues to be the leading global health concern, according to the WHO, confirming the need for heart healthy products. In Europe cardiovascular disease is responsible for 38 per cent of deaths in men and 41 per cent of deaths in women.
This trend led Leatherhead food to predict that heart health products will grow 60 per cent over the next five years in the US, Japan, Australia and five major European markets.
Currently the main heart health ingredients being used in this $3.6 billion market tend to be those where scientific evidence of their efficacy is strongest, such as soya, omega-3 fatty acids, phytosterols, fibre, vitamins C and E, folic acid and potassium.