Algae: The Obvious Choice for Omega-3s
It’s the ultimate underdog story—and it’s eventually coming to a grocery or health-food store near you.
Right now, the story of the booming global omega-3 market is undoubtedly a fish tale. Fish oil accounts for the majority of the global supply of the two most beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and represented about 80 percent of the world market for human-consumable omega-3 in 2010, according to American market research publisher Packaged Facts.
But there are those who believe that size matters, in this case, the smaller the better, and that those wondrous single-cell organisms known as algae will one day dominate the omega-3 nutraceutical and food additive markets, eclipsing the likes of fish, krill, fungi, hemp, and genetically modified oilseeds.
“The best answer, I think, is the simplest one,” says Mark Edwards, an award-winning author, Arizona State University professor and renowned expert in the algae industry, particularly where it pertains to resolving world hunger and pursuing sustainable energy. “Algae are the natural source of omega-3s in the food chain. Fish do not synthesize omega-3. They get it from their diet of algae,” adds Edwards, who’s also vice president of corporate development and marketing at Algae Biosciences Inc., a new Arizona-based player in the omega-3 industry.
“Why not go to the original source?” he asks. “Why go to a secondary source? Algae is the most sustainable source. It’s the original source. And it’s the most efficient (at producing omega-3s), because it’s lower on the food chain.”
Algae Wins Sustainability Argument
With the world’s population expected to hit 7 billion people in late 2011, and 200,000 more mouths to feed every day, the sustainability argument for sources of omega-3 is very hard to ignore.
Fish-sourced oils appear to be at a distinct disadvantage on the sustainability, health, and even taste fronts. Harvesting cold-water oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines for omega-3 deprives humanity of critical food supplies, and with global fish stocks declining, fish-sourced omega-3 oil is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Those same ocean fish may also carry pollutants and heavy metals, such as mercury, lead, and arsenic, which find their way into the resulting omega-3 oils. And harvesting small fish for omega-3 oil, of course, curtails the food-chain source that larger fish need to survive.
Krill are extremely rich in omega-3 oils but, like fish, are a necessary part of the marine ecosystem. These tiny shrimp serve as food for birds, fish, and mammals in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Global warming, it should be noted, has resulted in an 80 percent loss in krill stocks in Arctic waters.
Meanwhile, genetically engineered monocultures, such as omega-3 oilseeds, are considered vulnerable and unstable by critics who fear the potential of side effects, contamination via cross-pollination, and widespread crop failure. Genetically engineered oilseed crops are not approved by the European Union, and some observers believe that consumer awareness of GE products will skyrocket when producers are finally required to label genetically modified nutritional products.
“It takes a lot of sardines to make omega-3 oil,” Edwards notes. “You’re wasting a lot of fish. And the oceans are running out of fish. We’ve lost 92 percent of our large fish from the oceans since 1950. Much of this loss came from overfishing large fish, but some of it came from diminishing the food source that large fish depend on. And people are becoming more sensitive all the time to removing those vital small fish from the ocean.”
Edwards continues, saying, “As for krill, it takes a lot of those little guys, 10 pounds, to create 1 pound of whale blubber. And everything in the Arctic eats krill—birds, seals, everything. It’s a most critical food source. The interesting thing about algae is that we harvest it for a whole range of products. Omega-3 fatty acid oils account for less than 5 percent of the total biomass. After we strip the omega-3s, we have oil for other purposes. We’ve got pigment, protein, animal feed … Consumers prefer an omega-3 source that is naturally biodiverse. I believe algae will replace most of the omega-3 currently harvested from unsustainable sources.”
EPA plus DHA
While fish oil accounts for most of the EPA and DHA being consumed today, producers in the algae industry are now able to offer both of these fatty acids in one fell swoop.
V-Pure, in Europe, and Pure One, in the United States, were the first algae products to market containing both DHA and EPA, while Martek, now a division of DSM, recently announced a new algae-oil strain with a different DHA-EPA ratio.
Meanwhile, AlgaeBio, with production facilities based in the Painted Desert of northeast Arizona, is using its special niche in the marketplace to soon offer a custom blend of EPA and DHA.
AlgaeBio has exclusive, and unlimited, aquaculture use of remarkably pure aquifer brine water, as well as 360 days per year of free, plentiful Arizona sunlight. The resulting combination creates perfect growing conditions for photosynthetic marine algae cultures.
“We can grow multiple species of algae from our source water,” says Andy Ayers, the CEO of AlgaeBio. “Some of them produce EPA, and some of them produce DHA. As a result, we can create a custom omega-3 blend, depending on customers’ wishes. We simply dial in the EPA-DHA ratio to maximize the desired health benefits to consumers.”
AlgaeBio, which is now ramping up to large-scale commercial production by very early 2012, has a short-term goal of a 40 percent product; that is, 40 percent of the fatty acids in the company’s oil will be a combination of EPA and DHA.
“Our ultimate goal is 50 percent in a naturally derived oil,” says Ayers. “And because we are using a photosynthetic process, we not only extract EPA and DHA, but various other elements like carotenoids, chlorophylls, and Vitamin E. That not only adds nutritional value to the consumer, but those products also act as antioxidants for the omega-3s, which gives the product a longer shelf life.
The Key to Improved Health
Scientists are constantly discovering more health benefits of omega-3 fatty acid oils. From this family of polyunsaturated fatty acids, EPA and DHA are considered to be the most beneficial to the human body, particularly for the heart, brain, joints, and cardiovascular system.
DHA is especially important to babies’ visual and cognitive development, as well as the growth and development of the central nervous system. DHA is also believed to protect against the increased risk of heart attack associated with stress and depression.
EPA is considered beneficial for numerous inflammatory and autoimmune disorders, including asthma, arthritis, and bowel disease; it has also shown, through limited research, to improve symptoms of schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder.
Both DHA and EPA are essential for heart health, having been credited with lowering blood pressure, reducing fat levels in the blood, and decelerating the development of clots.
Omega-3 fatty acids have also demonstrated an ability to reduce blood vessel stiffness, according to the British Journal of Nutrition. They’re also believed by some to provide cell lubrication, the same way oil lubricates the moving parts in an engine, reducing inflammation and reducing joint pain. And they’ve been linked to a reduced risk of certain cancers, as well as improved behavior and mood.
“Each new piece of research tells us a balance of these two long-chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA) is what humans use best,” says Edwards. “We just don’t get the full benefit set from one or the other.”
Omega-3 Market Still Booming
The global appetite for omega-3s grows more voracious all the time, according to Packaged Facts. In its August 2011 report entitled “Omega-3: Global Product Trends and Opportunities,” the company predicts that worldwide consumer spending on omega-3-enhanced food and beverage products, health and beauty care products (including nutritional supplements), and pet products will hit the $13-billion mark by the end of 2011.
Packaged Facts predicts that the industry is far from reaching saturation, and that consumer demand for omega-3 products will “continue to grow briskly” through 2015.
Adam Ismail, executive director of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), was recently quoted as saying, “We are only at the beginning of this market. There is still too much of the world’s population with insufficient intakes, and too much supportive science to deny that they are necessary nutrients.”
The most rapidly growing markets for omega-3s are in Asia, with three times the rate of North America and Western Europe.
“Growth in developed countries has shown that EPA and DHA can be accessible to almost everyone, so there is no reason that we cannot get to the point where almost everyone in the world is getting sufficient intakes through their diet,” Ismail said.
One of Edwards’ 18 books, “The Tiny Plant That Saved Our Planet,” was published in 2010 and earned a silver medal in the Best Children’s Book category at the 2011 Nautilus Book Awards. It tells the story of Tiny Mighty Al, and about how one microscopic cell of algae can become the power plant of the future—and make the world a better place, one molecule at a time.
Can algae put on that cape and transform itself into a superhero again, becoming the dominant global source of omega-3s, proliferating health benefits, and stabilizing the ocean’s fish stocks as a result?
“I think that if people have a choice between a natural source, and raiding the ocean for a nonrenewable source,” says Edwards, “that choice will be obvious.”
Author: Todd Kimberly
Director of Media Relations, Algae Biosciences
The claims and statements made in this article belong exclusively to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Algae Technology & Business or its advertisers. All questions pertaining to this article should be directed to the author(s).