Updated 01/14/15: Also read: Test campaign to revitalize omega-3 sales works
Almost everyone today knows someone who takes fish oils. While fish have been swimming in Earth’s waters for millions of years, their precious oils in the form of capsules, capsules, and spoons have found an indirect route to human stomachs and hearts. When sales figures are an indication, consumers usually feel very comfortable taking their fish oils. But something happened last year.
Nielsen data estimates that omega-3 fatty acid sales have declined over the past year, to put it lightly. Between mid-2013 and April 2014, fish oils were under-sold by 10 to 11% every month compared to the previous year. The decline was even manifested in krill oil. There are many theories for the recent decline from omega-3 oil, but there are some likely culprits. So what happened to fish oil and where does it go from here?
A prostate cancer study
As much as factors such as the introduction of fish oil medicines and sustainability concerns about fish stocks can affect sales of fish oil, a case cohort study published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in July 2013 received surprisingly high levels of mainstream attention.1 It concluded that that men with high levels of omega-3 blood may have an increased risk of prostate cancer.
Lots of sharp headlines can emerge from such an outcome, and lots of them – from FOX News, CBS News, NBC News, NPR, the New York Times, Men’s Health, and so on. With today’s fast-paced style of following the news, many consumers likely saw some initial coverage and immediately gave up encapsulated fish species.
A somewhat buried story, however, is based on some stark tidbits from this 2013 study that took a few months to fully uncover, but ultimately gave fish oil suppliers something positive to hold on to. By the time companies started to publish these results, however, food industry press releases and conferences on the global decline in sales were already on the move.
To go back a little, a team of researchers led by Theodore Brasky, PhD, at Ohio State University’s Comprehensive Cancer Center tried to study omega-3 fatty acid intake in relation to prostate cancer risk by taking blood samples from 834 participating men The famous SELECT study conducted a 10-year multi-center analysis of over 35,000 men to determine whether selenium and vitamin E supplements could reduce the risk of prostate cancer.
While the SELECT study ran from 2001 to 2011, Brasky et al. Prostate cancer diagnoses were only made between 2005 and 2009 in order to select the 834 subjects and the matching cohorts. Oh, and data from 75 more men diagnosed with high-grade prostate cancer in the SELECT study in 2010 and 2011 was later included in the data collection.
The particular selection of men diagnosed with prostate cancer is strange, not only because it only covers 5 of the 10 years of data collected in the SELECT study (plus 75 additional men selected with prejudice for high-grade cancer), but also because these cancers diagnoses were tied to blood samples taken at the start of the study – and at no other time during the study.
“If I look at the data, it is theoretically possible that someone was enrolled in 2001, had their blood drawn in 2001, and was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011 – which is a 10-year gap.” Jay Udani, MD, said in a video interview with the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED; Salt Lake City). As a board certified internist, Udani was actually an original researcher for the SELECT study. He adds that Brasky et al. based their conclusions on longitudinal blood values for omega-3 fatty acids, although the SELECT study did not include monitoring of fish or omega-3 supplements at any point during the study.
“We have absolutely no idea what happened to these men between the ages of 1 and 10, between the blood draw and diagnosis,” said Udani. Men may have started or stopped taking fish oil supplements, increased or decreased their fish consumption, or made a number of other lifestyle adjustments knowing they were now being enrolled in a study of prostate cancer. The mere fact that the SELECT study was intended to examine the effects of selenium and vitamin E supplements, not omega-3 data of any kind, on human health is reason enough for other researchers to understand Brasky’s findings, intentions and To question design, to doubt this results.
For what it’s worth, GOED has just commissioned its own meta-analysis of the omega-3 uptake and biomarker studies. The results are pending, but Harry Rice, PhD, GOED’s vice president of regulatory and science affairs, says no link has been found between long chain omega-3s and prostate cancer risk.
Even if the controversial prostate cancer study is the easiest to remember for some, many industry experts point out that there are literally hundreds of other published omega-3 studies to consider, many of which have drawn more positive conclusions about blood levels of omega-3 and / or omega-3 Ingestion, whether from fresh fish or dietary supplements.
Since the publication of another controversial study in which Rizos et al. Omega-3 supplementation does not appear to be associated with a lower risk of death and heart complications such as stroke and heart attack. 2 Casula et al. and Chowdhury et al. have come to more uplifting conclusions.3,4 Casula’s team in Italy found in 11 qualified studies a 32% reduction in the risk of cardiac death and a 25% reduction in the risk of heart attack when patients with heart disease were supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids. Chowdhury’s research, funded in part by the British Heart Foundation, found a statistically significant protective effect on coronary outcomes (a 13% risk reduction) with omega-3 supplementation.
Further studies have shown and are likely to continue to show benefits of omega-3 fatty acid intake and blood omega-3 increase in conditions such as inflammation, cognitive health, and bone and joint health. Some will also produce poor results. If well designed, these should deserve everyone’s full attention. For the curious maker, most omega-3 ingredient suppliers keep extensive records of historical and ongoing research.
Forget the excitement of the “Prostate Cancer Study” for a moment as the omega-3 oil industry is getting at least a push in the right legislative direction. In August of this year, a joint nutrient evaluation working group in the US and Canada announced that the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA had made the first cut in the nomination process for a Food Intake Review (DRI). Unsurprisingly, omega-3 suppliers are being pumped.
“The [potential] Planning omega-3 EPA and DHA for food intake and possibly assigning daily values to food labels and nutritional supplement labels here in the US would definitely increase the importance of EPA and DHA in the North American diet, “says Bob Green , Chairman of Novel Ingredient Services (West Caldwell, NJ), an exclusive US distributor of omega-3 concentrates for GC Rieber Oils (Bergen, Norway).
Product manufacturers are already enthusiastic about formulating products with omega-3 fatty acids. According to Green, some research suggests that manufacturers prefer foods with added ingredients (like omega-3s) rather than without certain ingredients (like fat or sugar).
While the opportunity for a DRI review keeps the omega-3 industry ready to celebrate, suppliers and manufacturers have to be patient. The next step in this process is a joint meeting on “The Potential Use of Chronic Disease Endpoints in Establishing DRI Values” that will not take place until next year.
An FDA Health Claim?
If the idea of daily omega-3 levels isn’t enough to make you have fun, here’s what: The FDA has just announced its intention to review a health claim for omega-3 EPA and DHA for use in lowering blood pressure.
Thanks to a lengthy petition from GOED last November, the FDA decided to consider a qualified health claim for EPA and DHA as well as lowering blood pressure. According to GOED, the FDA prefers the “qualified” route as the federal agency said the petition is unlikely to meet the Major Scientific Agreement (SSA) standard required for unqualified health claims. The omega-3 industry already has a qualified health claim and reads as follows: “Supportive but inconclusive research shows that the consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of coronary artery disease.”
If, after the October 7 public comment deadline, the FDA decides that more thorough scientific information is available, the agency may refer to this SSA and consider an unqualified health claim.
The comeback of fish oil
Only time will tell if fish oils and the larger omega-3 market can return to their former glory, but recent legislative action coupled with positive clinical trials and greater promotion of a sustainable harvest suggest that the future is unlikely to be so bad will fish oils be. Industry does not sit idly either. With the help of its numerous member companies, GOED forms an Omega-3 coalition, which is to promote public relations and advertising in a large, new way with at least 5 million US dollars for investments.
A supplier’s opinion: DSM on the omega-3 downturn: We have great confidence in the future omega-3 market
The omega-3 market only grew for years. Here’s a look at the omega-3 ingredient sectors of the omega-3 market: Omega Fatty Acids Everywhere
The FDA does not allow claims for DHA / EPA content
The FDA approves three other omega-3 drugs. Is this good news or bad news for supplements?
1. T Brasky et al., “Plasma Phospholipid Fatty Acids and Prostate Cancer Risk in the SELECT Study,” Journal of National Cancer Institute, vol. 105, no. 15 (Aug 7, 2013): 1132-1141.
2. EC Rizos et al., “Relationship Between Omega-3 Fatty Acids Supplementation and Risk of Serious Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 308, no. 10 (September 12, 2012): 1024-1033.
3. M. Casula et al., “Long-Term Effects of High Dose Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation for Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trials,” Atherosclerosis Supplements, vol. 14, no. 2 (August 2013): 243-251.4.
4. R Chowdhury et al., “Association of Dietary, Circulatory, and Supplementary Fatty Acids with Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Annals of Internal Medicine, vol. 160, no. 6 (2014): 398-406.
Nutritional Outlook magazine