Omega-3 is the undisputed champion of the supplement and health food world. Yet its translation into everyday food products is slow and challenging because of the complex interactions that need to be tracked in a finished food, say experts.
The success of omega-3 ingredients in the supplement arena has translated well into certain health foods and niche areas of the finished and processed food market, however the complexity of many foods has seen big challenges for the nutritional lipid.
So, will the star of the supplements and health food ever make the big time in finished products? What are the challenges in producing a sauce or ready meal that offers your daily recommended level of omega-3, and what can the industry do to tackle these challenges.
While it is clearly much easier for manufacturers to keep omega-3 ‘side-lined’ to supplements and niche products within the finished product arena, it is important that the industry remembers that not all consumers are keen to take supplements, said Dr Rob Winwood of DSM.
“There are many countries where consumers, I think it’s fair to say, don’t want to take supplements,” Winwood told us in a previous interview . “They have the idea of having a natural foodstuff, and would prefer to have a ‘natural food’ as they see it.”
Therefore, he said, it is important to have a simple way of adding omega-3s to foods: “Now the particular challenge we have is that these have to marine omega-3s, rather than terrestrial omega-3s, because it is the DHA and EPA which are particular pertained to the health claims.”
“But we have ongoing challenges with that,” said the DSM expert. “The first thing we have to say is that it’s very difficult for food manufactures to include these very long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.”
A holistic approach…
Speaking to NutraIngredients Els de Hoog of NIZO Food Research in the Netherlands explained that modifying the lipid content of a complex finished food so that it can contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids means modifying every aspect of the food matrix – to ensure that it is still acceptable.
“It is a big challenge to put a nutritional lipid into a food in a way that keeps it in a stable form but is also acceptable for the consumer to eat the product,” said de Hoog.
“In that sense, we have to go for at least four different aspects at the same time,” she added; explaining that the addition of omega-3 must not alter the texture, flavour, mechanical strength, and breakdown rate of the food in any way.
“By having a holistic approach and assessing all four areas, we can find which is the most dominant part and then work from there, but keeping in mind always the other components,” said the NIZO expert.
“You need to handle those at the same time because you can consider the flavour – which we know omega-3 can often have the off taste that is not appreciated by the consumer – so we have to deal with that, but then we need to keep track of the texture and check that the modifications to improve flavour do not make the texture unacceptable.”
De Hoog said that the main challenge for any food manufacturer looking to utilise omega-3s in their products is to manage these at the same time, and to ensure that they do not change from the original product.
‘Bolt on’ or replacement?
One of the key questions to ask is whether the omega-3 will be added ‘as an extra’ or whether it will replace exiting oil phases within the product, explained de Hoog.
“There is a huge difference in how these approaches affect perceptions,” she said. “If you add the omega-3 as a ‘bolt on’ then you are adding more lipid to your product and this will obviously affect the texture and overall structure.”
“The same holds for flavours: If you add additional components that bring a new flavour then that affects the overall flavour balance,” she added, commenting that flavour compounds are soluble in either oil or water, and by adding additional oil and changing the balance of the oil and water phase of a product, you can disturb the balance and release of flavour and aroma compounds.
“As this balance changes, it has a negative effect on perception.”
However, de Hoog also warned that while the ‘off taste’ traditionally associated with fish oils and omega-3 rich oils is a problem thinking solely about such ‘off notes’ is overly simplifying the complex relationship between flavours, aromas and texture.
“You can tune that with various technologies,” she said. “Obviously you can use encapsulation, which is used quite a lot. But you can also consider flavour and texture interactions.”
“For example, if you have your nutritional lipid incorporated into a gel, then you can also tune the strength of the gel, to tune the flavour perception,” she said, explaining that a stronger gel reduces flavour perceptions because less flavour and aroma compounds are released when the products are consumed.
“In this sense, you can make use of the texture to solve your flavour problem. And that is the main challenge for us – to find other solutions rather than only using encapsulation.”
Indeed, the NIZO researcher noted that although encapsulation will solve a number of issues with the perception of the oil itself, manufactures must still pay attention to how the encapsulate itself affects the food.
“Will the encapsulate be cross-linked in to your food matrix, or will it be there more as a filler material?” she questioned.
“The important thing is to judge the in vivo perception. So when you have a food do not only judge on the shelf, or in vitro.”
“You need to give it to humans and watch how the structures change and how perceptions change over time with this,” she said. “It’s quite a dynamic process – when you eat there are quite a lot of structure changes and that will influence the perception of the consumer.”