According to Greg Cumberford, general manager of the Ahiflower Division of TCI, the oil derived from the species Buglossoides arvensis offers the highest levels of non-GM omega-3 essential fatty acids among commercially available dietary plant oils, combining ALA (alpha linolenic acid) and a uniquely high level of SDA (stearidonic acid). Ahiflower also contains significant levels of GLA (gamma linolenic acid), an omega-6 essential fatty acid, and oleic acid, an omega-9 fatty acid, to complement the overall healthy profile of this completely unique plant oil.
“Omega fatty acids are essential and they bioaccumulate preferentially in certain key body tissues like retina, brain and heart tissue,” Cumberford told NutraIngredients-USA. “When we offer the body a healthy omega 3-6-9 ratio that’s what the emerging science says is most healthy. It is driven by a desire to more accurately reflect the balance of naturally occurring omega fatty acids in our own tissues.”
A key differentiator in TCI’s ingredient is its SDA content, Cumberford said. One issue with all plant based omega-3 sources has been the very low conversion ratio of ALA, the predominant omega-3 in plant sources such as flax, chia and hemp, into EPA, one of the two (along with DHA) omega-3 fatty acids for which most of the research on health benefits has been done. Most experts peg this conversion at as low as 3% to as much as 20% for vegetarians. The proportion of ALA converted to DHA is vanishingly small.
SDA, on the other hand, is a much more efficient plant-based source of omega-3s, Cumberford said, and this is where Ahiflower shines.
“SDA is the metabolic product of the conversion of ALA in the body. SDA converts to EPA at ratio of 30% to 35%. Direct consumption of SDA is therefore far more efficient than consuming large amounts of ALA. Our specification is for an 18% to 20% SDA content in Ahiflower oil, which is the largest SDA content of any non GM plant source such as echium, black currant seed or hemp,” Cumberford said.
Raising SDA levels in plants has been a target of developers for a number of years. TCI, which is based in Winston-Salem, NC, has had its crops under development for about 10 years in the UK, Cumberford said.
“As a plant, Buglossoides arvensis is pretty much endemic in the whole Northern Hemisphere. It has traditionally been seen as a weed species associated with the cultivation of wheat. TCI procured naturally occurring germ plasm from all over the world and selectively bred it over a period of years,” he said.
Natural positioning, traceability benefits
That natural breeding process is a differentiator, Cumberford said. With the big benefits the higher SDA conversion ratio offers, raising those levels in plants has been the target of genetic modification experiments, with DSM and Monsanto cooperating on the commercialization of a GM soybean variety that has enhanced SDA levels. Ahiflower offers a non GMO alternative, an attribute that is becoming increasing attractive as the various mandatory labeling initiatives make their way through the legislative process.
The ingredient offers traceability and sustainability benefits, too, Cumberford said.
“In addition to being non GM, it is far more sustainable in the long run as an essential fatty acid source when you look at the issues that marine fatty acids are facing. It is also fully traceable to the fields where it is grown. Flax and chia tend to be highly commoditized oils,” Cumberford said. The crop is also one of the plants that can be used as a “break” crop in the UK’s crop rotation system, Cumberford said, and seems to support a large number of insect pollinator species. The crop is currently being grown conventionally, but TCI might look at an organic version if it appeared the market would support it, he said.
Cumberford said the oil is aimed both at food and supplement markets. In foods, it has applications in sports recovery drinks or as an addition to dairy products to improve their nutritional profiles. The oil is highly refined as is said to have a mile taste. For supplements, Cumberford anticipates it being offered both as a bulk oil and in softgels. As far as price goes, Cumberford said the ingredient will be competitive with existing plant-based omega-3 sources, especially when the more efficient SDA conversion story is taken into account.
Cumberford wears a number of hats, including one as vice president of strategic initiatives of the Bent Creek Institute, based in Asheville, NC. Bent Creek was formed to expand the development natural products businesses in North Carolina.
“This is project that was spearheaded by TCI. Bent Creek Institute’s role was to be involved with the business operational plan development,” Cumberford said.
That plan including introduction into the North American market. But hard on the heels of that will come the EU, with an application to the European Food Safety Authority in the works. South Korea and Australia are also other potential targets for near-term development, he said.