Trends boosted by pandemic will benefit plant-based omega-3s, developer says

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

All of the work done on the cultivation of the Ahiflower raw material has been done in the UK. Nature's Crops International photo
All of the work done on the cultivation of the Ahiflower raw material has been done in the UK. Nature's Crops International photo

Related tags: Omega-3s, steriodonic acid

The convergence of trends in the marketplace boosted by changes wrought by the global pandemic will further boost plant-based solutions, a product developer believes.

Greg Cumberford, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for Nature’s Crops International, spoke with NutraIngredients-USA on the developing situation with regard to the plant-based products movement.  Cumberford said the picture of what this is going to look like in the post pandemic world is becoming a bit clearer.

There has been many ruminations on the part of thought leaders that things in the economy and in society generally should not necessarily simply return to the pre pandemic status quo.  Some have observed that income inequality had been increasing in the United States​ to levels that had not ben seen the robber baron era of the late 19th Century.  And environmentalists have noted that with the United States now newly reengaged with international organizations real measures may now be on the horizon to address climate change​.  In both cases activists have sought to view the pandemic as a watershed event where significant reversals of policy directions may be possible quickly.

Beneficial trends converge

Does some of that mentality also filter down to the nutrition sphere? 

“One aspect of this is that for consumers there has been this convergence of interest on sustainability, on traceability, and on plant-based nutrition. You see it all coming together,” ​Cumberford said.

That kind of convergence could give a significant boost to brands that are poised to take advantage.  And he believes his company, which is marketing a plant-based omega-3 alternative, is one such company.

“It’s an all natural, plant based, highly traceable omega-3s source.  Its production is verified as sustainable and regenerative,” ​Cumberford said.

Nature’s Crops International brands the product as Ahiflower.  The raw material comes from a proprietary cultivar of the corn gromwell plant (Buglossoides arvensis​), which was commonly thought of as a weed.

The seeds of the plant, though, deliver an oil naturally high in steriodonic acid (SDA).  SDA is an intermediate step in the conversion of ALA, the common omega-3 found in plant sources, to EPA and DHA, the bioactive omega-3s found in fish, krill and algal oils.  Cumberford said Ahiflower has the highest level of SDA of any known plant, and coverts to EPA and DHA at hundreds of times the rate as does the ALA found in flax seed oil and other plant sources.

Cumberford said that even with the more than 20 years of development on the plant and on the story of its nutritional benefits, communicating the “better conversion ratio with SDA” is still a hard sell for consumers. While the company says the claims have many studies backing them, for consumers it can sound like an overly fine distinction that doesn’t mean much for their overall health.

So the company has taken in recent years to talking more about the ingredient as a value “multi omega” source, providing a mix of omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids.  In addition, Cumberford noted the omega 6 source found in the plant is GLA, (gamma linolenic acid), which boosts both its anti inflammatory and immune health benefits.

Multiple product launches

However it’s communicated, Cumberford said the ingredient seems to be finding a place with consumers.  More that 100 brands now use Ahiflower either in a standalone product or as an ingredient in a multi ingredient formula.  Most of those applications are still in the supplement space, he said, including one focused on cognitive health.

Cumberford said that the new marketplace forces could also help boost the company’s other specialty seed oil offerings and product categories.  Those are Abyssinian seed oil (Crambe abyssinica​) and Meadowfoam seed oil (Limanthes alba​). The two oils have been teamed up with Ahiflower in what the company is branding its Natralipid platform aimed as personal care product manufacturers.

In addition, Cumberford said Purina recently announced a major launch of an Ahiflower oil product aimed at the equine market.

Cost, supply considerations

Cumberford said Ahiflower is currently competitive in price with what he called “premium” fish oil based omega-3 products.  Those would be supplements advertising a high concentration of EPA and DHA per softgel. 

One issue with the product is the supply of raw material.  The agronomical knowledge needed to cultivate the crop successfully and consistently was all developed in the UK, with the germplasm having originated in the steppes of Central Asia.  Cumberford said  Nature’s Crops, which has operations in North Carolina and Price Edward Island as well as in the UK, would look there first to expand acreage in order to eventually achieve greater economies of scale.  But in the future, the crop could be grown in many places, he said.

“You can basically grow it in any place that winter wheat will grow,”​ Cumberford said. 

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