That was the view expressed by Goh Lay Kwan, BASF Human Nutrition's global marketing head.
Goh said that while awareness of omega-3 supplementation and its health benefits had grown across APAC, consumers needed more knowledge on the importance of not just intake, but uptake and self-assessment.
She said: "The conversation in the past was always about EPA and DHA intake. Now, it has evolved to include not only uptake, but measuring that uptake. This is where the omega-3 index comes in."
She added that the three aforementioned factors were also required to make omega-3 index testing mainstream — accessibility would entail making easily portable self-testing kits that could be bought online and delivered to one’s doorstep, while affordability would ensure that more people used such kits.
Finally, accuracy would allow consumers to have a better understanding of their own omega-3 levels, and assure them such kits were reliable aids in this area.
This would in turn open up greater opportunities for personalisation. Goh said: "In personalisation, knowledge is key. When you have an accurate reading of your omega-3 level, when you read labels and understand what they mean for your health, and when you understand how gaps can be filled in your intake, you can make better decisions on what supplements you need and don't need."
To this end, BASF entered a three-year partnership with Australian consumer healthcare firm Xerion last year, providing an omega-3 self-testing kit that used the brand's proprietary dried blood spot technology to achieve 97% accuracy in test results.
Goh went on to talk about Accelon, another product BASF launched last year. Designed as an omega-3 absorption accelerator, it is said to help deliver four times more omega-3 than regular supplements.
Omega-3 supplements enriched with Accelon can not only increase the absorption rate of omega-3, but also deliver more EPA and DHA to the body's cells as a result. Its efficacy has been supported in clinical and non-clinical trials, which, according to Goh, is one of the reasons it has received positive market response so far.
The second reason, she said, was consumer insight.
"The science shows a four-fold increase in absorption even on an empty stomach, which is particularly relevant in this part of the world, where people tend to take their supplements in the morning before eating anything. That resonates with our customers and their customers."
Such innovations, she added, were vital to helping brands diversify their offerings and meet consumers' ever-changing needs and demands.
"Innovation has made the category very diverse. Apart from the traditional capsules and soft gels, there's also functional nutrition, which includes delivery formats like gummies, beverages, oils and powders. The awareness of the convenience provided by these different formats has picked up.
"At the end of the day, it's all about compliance. We want to make it easy for consumers to be able to take omega-3 supplements in ways that best suit their needs. Someone who is older, for instance, may not want may prefer a gel to a large pill. A child, on the other hand, may prefer a gummy."
A pressing issue
Despite the multiple health benefits attributed to omega-3 and the continued growth of the category, negative press in recent times have cast doubt over its cardiovascular health benefits.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in October 2018 concluded that there was no significant difference in the risk of vascular events in diabetics who were administered omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and diabetics who had received placebo.
Furthermore, in December, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) ruled omega-3 'not effective' in preventing additional heart problems in those who had suffered already suffered heart attacks.
Two recent trials, however, reported results to the contrary. The VITamin D and OmegA-3 TriaL (VITAL) — found that omega-3 intake led to a significantly lower risk of total and fatal myocardial infarction, and total coronary heart disease.
Similarly, the Reduction of Cardiovascular Events With EPA – Intervention Trial (REDUCE-IT) — found that daily omega-3 supplementation in cardiovascular disease patients or diabetics significantly reduced their risk of the primary composite end-point of heart health, non-fatal myocardial infarction, non-fatal stroke, coronary revascularisation or unstable angina.
Goh said: "Recent trials confirm all the decades of research before them, and reinforce that EPA and DHA are good for heart health. Both studies have robust samples — VITAL had 26,000 and REDUCE-IT had 8,000, and the results of both were statistically significant.
"With any ingredient, there will always be positive and negative results. But when we look at what has already been done and build on it, we can be sure omega-3 has strong benefits for cardiovascular health."
She also acknowledged that while negative results could be attributed to issues with omega-3 absorption and oxidation, advancing technology and science could change that.
"BASF invests heavily in R&D, and when we put our technology to the test, we do see good results. This helps us to set the standard for the whole industry."
When it came to the topic of sustainability and how much consumers and industry in APAC know, Goh said this differed across countries.
"In Australia, it's fairly high, whereas in other APAC countries, people are less aware because industry doesn't talk about it. Interest is rising at different rates in different countries, and bands are driven by consumer sentiment.
"If consumer awareness is low, brands can choose to raise awareness. On the other hand, they may feel the market is not ready for a discussion on sustainability."
She further stated that BASF's ingredients were all sustainably source and packaged, and that the firm carefully monitored its carbon footprint and avoided over-fishing.
Opportunity-wise, Goh believes there are "two big pockets of opportunity" within APAC. The first includes less mature markets such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, where the rate of intake is low and it is important to help to reverse this pattern through education on omega-3's health benefits.
The second, Goh said, consisted of more mature markets, such as Australia.
"Five out of 10 Australian consumers are aware of omega-3 and its benefits, but only three out of 10 take omega-3 supplements. Here, it is a matter of helping people increase intake by introducing new technology and product formats."
She also mentioned China, where the rate of adoption tends to be faster than in most other Asian countries. E-commerce is also a major factor, with platforms like WeChat and daigou helping to accelerate the proliferation of omega-3 supplements.
Cutting across categories
Finally, Goh emphasised the importance of diversifying omega-3 research as part of a more well-rounded approach to the market.
"We look at omega-3 across different consumer and category segments — how it will benefit mothers and infants, for example, as well as its benefits beyond cardiovascular health. We also look at omega-3's applications for medical food, pharmaceutical products and early life nutrition."
At the same time, it is 'critical' for companies to unite cross the omega-3 sector to increase awareness and promote the health benefits of omega-3 supplementation.
In this regard, BASF's Newtrition Asia grant has been instrumental in advancing the category in APAC — the primary focus of the firm's collaborations with researchers, Goh said, is to find ways to adapt omega-3 intake to the dietary preferences of local populations, which vary greatly across the region.
The NutraIngredients Omega-3 Summit will be held from February 20 to 22 in Singapore. Register to attend here.