The most common source of omega-3 in the human diet is fish, which is naturally rich in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), both of which have been well researched for their role in cardiovascular health. Existing plant sources such as flax and rapeseed yield ALA (alpha linolenic acid), which has a relatively low conversion rate in the human body.
In recent years the race has been on find a way to source DHA and EPA directly from plants for human use. Solae and Monsanto teamed up in 2007 to commercialise the latter's soybean variety developed specially to be rich in SDA. The rate of conversion of SDA to EPA is understood to be comparatively efficient - between 5.5:1 and 6:1.
After having attained GRAS status (generally recognised as safe) last year, Solae has been sending out samples to potential customers to try it in their products and is talking about it with visitors at the IFT trade show in Chicago this week for the first time.
Al Gallegos, Solae marketing and sales director, said the new ingredient, called Soymega, has been successfully tested for use in soups, sauces, yoghurts, dressings, snack bars and industrial margarines and shortenings.
It is pending completion of regulatory approvals in the US, but the formal launch is expected to take place in 2012. Meanwhile, the GRAS status has allowed the company to start sending out samples; he declined to give details of the regulatory processes which are currently in the works.
Gallegos said that the development process for a food product generally takes around 18-24 months, just the length of time before Solae expects to have US regulatory approval.
He explained that Solae can work with food manufacturers to examine the lipid structure in an existing food product and find some way to replace some of the fats with SDA without having an effect on the overall nutritional profile.
When asked about whether the biotechnology aspect of the new SDA could prove off-putting for consumers in some markets, Gallegos pointed out that "consumers want choice". While the US is the priority, there are already plans to the launch the ingredient in other, undisclosed global markets in 2014 or 2015 depending on regulatory procedures and acceptance.
As for how the new SDA from soybeans will compare cost-wide, Gallegos said: "Pricing has not yet been announced but is expected to be competitive with omega-3 sources for the food industry".
Other big companies are also active in the search for sustainable omega-3 fatty acids. Research is still ongoing at BASF Plant Science, DuPont, and universities on both sides of the Atlantic in the race to develop new omega 3 products from GM soy and rapeseeds as well as algae.