EPA-only ingredients and products are gaining traction in the supplements marketplace as more scientific evidence piles up for the ingredient as a standalone entity, independent of its source in oils that contain both EPA and DHA omega-3s.
Omega-3s from fish oil, and more recently from other sources, have been the most successful nutraceutical ingredients on the market, both from a sales standpoint and from the standpoint of scientific backing. Starting with epidemiological research among the Inuit people of Greenland followed by hundreds of other studies, the importance of the oils from fatty fish for heart heath and more recently other health indications has come to be gospel.
But as more research piles up, it seems that referring to these ingredients in the plural is no longer appropriate in all cases, and that DHA and EPA have their own functions and applications. One of the reasons why fish oil was originally looked at in combination is because that’s really all that was available in the beginning.
“It’s the unfortunate reality that when you have so many big omega-3 companies that cannot make these blends, that’s what you tend to focus on, “ Chris Speed, a Brooklyn, NY-based dietitian and omega-3 expert told NutraIngredients-USA.
Omega 3s individual stories
DHA has long been a standalone ingredient, with strong scientific backing for its role in brain development in utero and in young children. This long chain fatty acid makes up a significant portion of the structure of the brain. And the development by Martek (now part of DSM) of a DHA ingredient from heterotrophic algae that can be easily formulated into milk and other products that reach children has worked to increase the ingredient’s consumer awareness.
For EPA the message took longer to come together, but has been driven by the clinical research connected to the approval of Vascepa, Amarin Corporation’s triglyceride-busting patented synthetic EPA. But in addition to heart health, EPA has also been mentioned in connection with inflammation and cognitive health, too.
“We tend to look at DHA as a structural omega-3, whereas EPA is a functional omega-3,” said Michael Kagan, vice president of new product development at Qualitas Health of Israel. The company is set to introduce a new EPA-only algal ingredient at the upcoming Supply Side West trade show in Las Vegas.
Pharma led the way
But purveyors of EPA only ingredients or products, such as Qualitas, Aurora Algae or Nordic Naturals, are frank in admitting that the pharmaceutical development plowed the way.
“It’s really been the pharmaceutical companies pushing the omega-3s research saying let’s look at these standalone EPA uses,” said Keri Marshall, ND, chief medical officer of Nordic Naturals. In March the company launched its own EPA-only product called EPA Elite which provides 1,660 mg of EPA per serving.
And it was from that research that arose idea that DHA could actually act as a drag on the function of EPA.
“When you are looking at cardiovascular disease and high triglycerides specifically within that category, the little bit of DHA was altering the lipid profile in some people by a small amount in such a way that the pharmaceutical companies were saying, what happens when we remove the DHA. And then we don’t see those effects. So the high EPA formulas are now very clearly indicated in people who have high trigylceride levels,” she said.
“An EPA only product will lower triglycerides, but the ones that also had DHA tended to raised LDL, the bad cholesterol, and the EPA only products don’t,” said Bill Harris, PhD, an omega-3 researcher and professor at the University of South Dakota. “So that is the beginning and end of why we have EPA only products, because they think they can market the EPA only pharmaceutical against Lovaza (basically a super-high concentrated fish oil), because Lovaza can in a certain populations lower triglyceride levels but can also raise LDL levels.”
Room for both
So EPA has been proven to have these triglycieride lowering benefits and it is being studied for other benefits, too, including mood and memory support. But after years of pushing the benefits of omega-3s in general, does the industry risk confusing customers by now telling them that sometimes you need one, and sometimes the other?
“For general health, I still think people should get both,” Harris said.
Marshall said there is room for both products in the marketplace without confusing the issue. The issue raised in the pharmaceutical research on Amayrin’s product, that DHA can have this slight LDL-raising effect, is not an issue for most consumers, according to Marshall who said the current narrow focus on cholesterol numbers can be somewhat overemphasized.
“I’m a huge proponent of everyone getting enough both EPA and DHA,” Marshall said. “But if your triglycerides are between 300 and 400 you are going to want to get aggressive because you have to. I tell my patients that if your cholesterol levels are 230 I’m not going to lose sleep over it if your other risk factors are low. But if your triglycerides are high that’s more of a direct indicator.”