“I think when people think of omega-3s from a plant-based source, they think right away of flaxseed because that's been around forever. And to a lesser extent, probably chia and then the newcomer hemp, although it has been around as long as man. Hemp is kind of a new up-and-comer even though it also has been around for quite a while,” explained Randy Kreienbrink, VP of Marketing at botanical firm Martin Bauer North America.
Plant-based omega-3 alternatives like chia, flaxseed and hemp offer a reliable supply -- something firms can’t afford to take for granted in the current climate.
In order to meet the demands of the market, plant-based omega-3 alternatives that relieve harvesting pressure on wild fish populations are popping up.
“Our company follows and is very into not only sustainability, but zero carbon emission,” noted Kreienbrink. “All the pillars fit into the program globally dealing with sustainability and climate change and we constantly work with our growers for best practices and we make sure that they're doing all the right things so that we are keeping the net carbon exchange at zero. So we're trying our best to make sure everything is sustainable.”
Hemp seeds are incredibly rich in two essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6. The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in hemp seed oil is typically between 2:1 and 3:1.
However, the thought of hemp likely prompts many to think of hemp-derived CBD, rather than the omega-3 profile of the seeds, which are sold as a food source rather than as a raw material for extraction.
Kreienbrink said this may be why the category hasn’t matured. However, he did add that consumers are slowly warming up to the idea of hemp.
“Even though with the Farm Bill that passed, hemp being legal and the hemp seed proteins being generally recognized as safe, there’s always been a little bit of a stigma, kind of more of the ‘hippie-dippie culture’ type of product would be the hymn. But it's changed, it’s changed a lot. The whole perspective of hemp--it's really changing.”
Consumer behavior is also changing. Kreienbrink said the pandemic has re-shifted everyone’s focus, with an uptick in all platforms and categories within the health and wellness plant-based category, particularly immunity support products.
“It's interesting because we talked in the past about hemp and that's kind of taken a backseat because just the overall wellness and consumers looking for products for the immune system,” said Kreienbrink. “So we're just keeping up with the demand for wellness and immune response. So things like echinacea, elderberry, acerola, acai, all those products have been resurging and promoting themselves.
Indeed, immune health has become a top health priority for consumers. While not traditionally thought of as an immune support product, omega-3, namely DHA, does support immune system development in early life. According to a 2010 study, toddlers that consumed DHA formula daily were found to have fewer adverse events and a lower incidence of respiratory illness compared to the toddlers consuming formula without DHA. The study also noted that modest increases in DHA intake in toddlers might improve development, including respiratory health.
EPA and DHA in omega-3 is beneficial for adults as well. The anti-inflammatory properties of EPA and DHA benefit the immune system and promote healing.
According to the 2019 study “Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Immune Cells,” EPA and DHA modulate inflammation and boost immunity by enhancing the function of immune cells.
“People are really taking their own health into real consideration, so I think that this is a core part of the general wellness concern and of course omega-3s play an important part in that,” said Kreienbrink.