Martek eyes European potential for DHA food and formula

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Docosahexaenoic acid

Martek Biosciences is pressing ahead with its plan to grow sales of
its microalgae-derived DHA in European infant formula and
mainstream foods now that supply issues have been resolved, despite
pending patent litigation with competitors.

In the US, Martek claims that its omega-3 is in 83 to 86 per cent of fortified infant formulas, and it hopes to have full penetration soon as it is working with four remaining states which have not yet granted approval under Women, Infant and Children (WIC) programmes.

Phillip Fass, Martek's executive director of sales told NutraIngredients.com that the majority of the formulas available in Europe are fish oil-based, and this there is an opportunity for Martek to grow in that category "but we need to invest time and talent to get the message and story across"​.

The company has already started making moves in that direction, with the recruitment of two sales executives, one in Poland and one in the UK. Within the next 18 months, it expects to have a distributor in place to sell into all corners of the continent. Warehousing premises in Europe are likely, and a facility is also "certainly a possibility"​, according to Fass.

The Maryland-based company has taken its time to make a big splash in Europe since it had limited capacity to produce material, and almost all of it was taken up by the growing US market.

But two new facilities in the US are now up and running. "Now we have the capacity to support growth,"​ said Fass. The growth the company envisages is not only geographical, but also into the functional foods category.

Martek's lifeDHA is not the only microalgae-derived DHA source available in Europe. Another has been introduced by Nutrinova (now owned by Lonza).

However there is ongoing patent infringement litigation between the three players which does not look likely be settled any tome soon. Fass said that a court decision may be forthcoming next year, but the loser may then decide to go through the appeals process.

Nonetheless, none of the three companies are letting the litigation curtail their activities for the time being. "It is not holding us up,"​ said Fass. "We are moving ahead and they are too."

Martek offers two DHA products from different algae sources, both of which it recently stamped with its new life'sDHA brand.

The original product is currently used in infant formulas, and was 'grandfathered in' under European novel foods legislation since it was already available on the market prior to May 1997.

The second, launched last year, is more economical and cheaper to produce, and is aimed at food manufacturers. This currently has novel foods approval for limited categories, but Martek is expecting that more categories will open up in the future.

Martek has a long-term aim of seeking its DHA used in mass market food products, and has two license and supply agreements with Kellogg and General Mills, with a third likely with Hain Celestial. The first products are expected to come to market in 2007.

Fass said that he expects such foods to do well in Europe, because of Europeans' attitude to food.

"For Europeans, food is a more holistic experience than for us Americans. Americans consume food just for pleasure, and we overdo it. In Europe, it revolves more around the social and health aspects."

Martek is currently sponsoring studies using its DHA, but because it is a relatively new market entrant, the majority of research conducted to date into the manifold health benefits - including heart health, cognitive function and children's behaviour, joint health, and eye health - has used fish oil.

But Fass agreed that the attention such research has garnered form industry and consumers is paving the way for alternative, more sustainable sources.

There are real concerns about the impact of over-fishing on the environment, and as people become more aware of this, this may cast about for an alternative.

"One of our tasks is to educate consumers and opinion leaders about omega-3,"​ said Fass. "We are not saying don't eat fish, but here is an alternative and it should be part of the overall mix."

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