Omega-3: Fishing for alternatives

Related tags Omega-3 fatty acids Omega-3 fatty acid

Short of an earth-bound deity walking amongst us and miraculously multiplying our fish stocks, industry must invest more in alternative sources of omega-3 to meet nutritional needs.

Last week, Canadian scientists reported that current fish stocks are insufficient to meet the nutritional demands of the human population, and that, if current trends continue, all commercially exploited fish stocks will collapse by 2050.

Such statements make for sobering reading. Are they sensationalist? Concerns over fish stocks are nothing new, but the Canadian scientists go further and state that establishing dietary guidelines for omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA would have “large-scale environmental consequences” ​(Canadian Medical Association Journal​, Vol. 180, pp. 633-637).

The weight of the science to support the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly for cardiovascular health, is enough to make even Atlas go a little knock-kneed. So, denying the public these vital nutrients is not an option.

And with the benefits of omega-3 firmly engraved in the minds of the consumer, demands for omega-3 will continue to rise. Indeed, market researcher Frost & Sullivan​ predicts that the omega-3 ingredients market will grow at a rate of 24.3 per cent annually, and be worth a whopping $1.6bn by 2014.

Sustainable fishing

Many companies involved in the production of omega-3-rich fish oil state that their sources are sustainable. Moreover, figures from the Global Organization for EPA and DHA (GOED), an omega-3 trade association, state that only around 6-10 per cent of the total 1m tons crude fish oil produced per year is refined to produce omega-3 for human consumption.

The trade association’s executive director, Adam Ismail, has previously said the claim that fish oil production is contributing to depleting global fish stocks is a “misconception” because fish oil generally comes from fish such as anchovies, herring, mackerel and sardines, only a very small portion of which are sourced for human consumption.

Despite these caveats, it is still imperative to continue to develop alternative sources for omega-3 fatty acids. I’m not saying we should stop all fishing, that would be naïve and pointless.

Offering alternatives will ease the burden on fisheries, and that is why progress on the development and commercialisation of these alternatives needs to accelerate.

The opportunities for industry are clear: Consumers are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of their food supply, and offering omega-3 from sustainable, alternative sources, will undoubtedly appeal to the greener-minded consumers.

The search for alternatives

Looking beyond the doom and gloom, alternative sources are already available or in advance stages of development, and the potential is big.

The Canadian researchers dismiss fish farming as a red herring, unable to meet the demand for omega-3 fatty acids. The most potential is clearly to exploit algal sources of omega-3, à la​ Martek with its DHA which continues to make a big splash in infant formula and elsewhere.

Obtaining the longer chain omega-3 from plants via genetic engineering is also gathering pace, with biotech giants Monsanto, DuPont, and BASF reporting progress. Indeed, Monsanto recently published safety data for stearidonic acid-rich soybean oil.

Going one step further, while at the summing up of the EU-funded Lipgene project I heard from UK and German scientists of the progress by BASF towards achieving EPA-rich rapeseed oil, but market introduction, I was told, is still quite a way away.

And only last week researchers from Virginia Tech, in collaboration with USDA scientists, reported fungal treatment of biodiesel waste may one day (three to four years) give us another source of EPA, assuming all goes well optimising the process.

The options are out there, and the time for action is now. There may no longer be plenty of fish in the sea, but there are ideas in the ether.

Stephen Daniells is the Science Editor for and He has a PhD in Chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.

If you would like to comment on this article please contact stephen.daniells'at'

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