Ismail said that when looking at the market potential of the sector, there is really no limit in sight on the demand side.
“The problem is very clear. It’s clear where we need to go. Basically every populated area of the world is below optimal omega-3 status,” Ismail said at the recent GOED Exchange, the organization’s biannual membership meeting, which took place last week in Seattle. Ismail’s address to the organization will be his last as it was announced recently that he will leave the organization at the end of the month.
The omega-3 industry has weathered a significant soft patch after years of reliable double-digit growth. The slowdown saw sales growth decline into the low single-digit range and also saw a market contraction in North America, still the largest market for the ingredients. The decline came on the heels of several well publicized null studies on the ingredients, coupled with a dearth of supportive advertising of the sort that is common in other sectors of consumer packaged goods. Ismail helped address the latter issue by organizing a national ad campaign called “Always Omega-3” that served to help halt the sales decline. In his report on market conditions, Aldo Berlasconi, PhD, GOED’s director of information and research, said the market has generally recovered, with 4.4% growth forecast for the coming few years.
Ismail said if another soft patch is to be avoided, more collective effort of the sort that underpinned the ad campaign will be needed. The campaign was an attempt in part to arouse an industry that had been resting on its laurels. A similar commitment of funds is called for to redirect an industry that has been on the defensive for the past few years, he said.
“We need to show leadership. We need to provide investment in science,” Ismail said.
“Leadership is about studying the consumer at a deeper level than we do today. Leadership is about controlling our own destiny and not letting others control it for us,” he said.
Supporting basic research to regain control of message
The industry had become complacent about sales gains, and Ismail said a similar lethargy has taken hold when it comes to supporting basic research. EPA and DHA have an impressive research history, and broadly speaking are among the dietary ingredients that are best supported with high quality evidence.
But Ismail said relying solely on what university researchers might think is important can be a dicey proposition. Studies can show up with end points such as the effect of omega-3s on secondary cardiovascular disease outcomes that don’t yield clear cut results that support the ingredients’ health effects. These in turn can lend themselves to splashy negative reports in the mainstream media. It’s time for the industry to pool resources to conduct large scale trials with end points that can unequivocally support the benefits of these ingredients, Ismail said.
“We are letting the media control the message when they report on poorly designed studies,” Ismail said. “We need to change our behavior. We invest very little in the kind of science that builds the whole category.”
Ismail pointed to large-scale, longer-term studies such as the two AREDS studies using macular carotenoids or the VITAL study being done in Utah using a prescription omega-3 product as examples of where the omega-3 industry ought to go.
“There is no reason why we couldn’t fund a VITAL study of our own. That’s $5 million a year. We could afford that,” Ismail told the audience. “We have to show the world that increasing omega-3 status is actually linked to health outcomes.”
Understanding the consumers better
Similarly, Ismail said more collective effort is now called for to better understand the omega-3 consumer. Who are they, what informs their buying decisions, and what impediments keep them from engaging more fully with the category? Omega-3s need to be seen as a standard prophylactic measure for leading a long, healthy life, like wearing seat belts. Ismail said that even with its long history, the category is still a long way from that kind of recognition.
“We have relied on this model of new consumers coming into the category and now they are not coming. The growth in Asia is primarily being driven by economics, by the overall growth of those economies,” Ismail said.
“You need to take some of the money you have made off of growth and funnel it back into investment. In Asia, for example, only 11% of consumers take omega-3s daily. That level of intake has led to 90% of the world being below optimal levels. We are trying to change consumers’ behavior and I don’t think anyone in nutrition is doing a good job at changing behavior,” he said.
William Reed, publishers of NutraIngredients-USA, will be partnering with GOED to host a biannual Omega-3 face-to-face event in the years between formal GOED Exchange meetings. The first NutraIngredients Omega-3 Summit will be held in Singapore, February 20-22, 2019.