The European omega-3 market is stagnating. From 2012 to 2017, the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in Western Europe was -1%, according to Euromonitor. With sales of omega-3 growing in other established markets and, to a greater extent, emerging markets, the data raise questions about why European markets are contracting and what can be done to reverse the trends.
Europe played a central role in the rise of omega-3 supplementation, notably through the long tradition of cod liver oil use and subsequent cardiovascular outcomes studies that influenced rapid market growth in the early 2000s. Manufacturers drove growth by introducing and scientifically validating higher-concentration omega-3 products consumers perceived to have a superior value propositions than traditional refined fish oil.
Superior product innovation coupled with benefit-focused marketing resonated with consumers and markets like the UK and Norway emerged from this period as two of the 10 biggest and fastest growing global markets for omega-3 supplements.
That proved to be a high watermark for European omega-3 dietary supplements growth. In 2017, the European market declined by 1.2% in volume and 3.1% in value, according to Euromonitor, making it the worst performing region globally.
This recent stagnation is not however, a result of European market maturity. On the contrary, studies show people in many European countries suffer from low levels of EPA and DHA that correlate to poor health outcomes.1 The rare exceptions, such as Norway, are typically countries with diets richer in fish and above average spending on omega-3.
The data paints a picture of a region that needs to significantly increase omega-3 consumption — and, in doing so, return omega-3 dietary supplement markets to growth — but this is not happening. The question for public health officials and manufacturers is why?
Why the European market is stagnant?
People in other regions with similar health needs and levels of income are consuming more omega-3 products than their counterparts in Europe.
Consumers in Australia spend around €10 per capita per annum on omega-3. In the UK, the figure is little more than €1. The US omega-3 dietary supplement category achieved a CAGR of 2.3% from 2012 to 2017, resulting in it ending the period more than 10 times the size of the largest European market.
One potential explanation is that superior products and associated benefits are more prevalent elsewhere i.e. higher-concentration omega-3 supplements are more common in Australia and the US than the 30% EPA-DHA products typically found in European retail.
Omega-3 trade group GOED has tried to shed more light on why Europeans are spending less on omega-3 products than in the past by running consumer surveys in eight countries in the region. The surveys reveal a consistent theme.
“In general, most European consumers are aware that omega-3 products exist, but not all consumers will use them. The reasons why not vary among countries but tend to be the kind of reasons that could be addressed with educating consumers and healthcare practitioners,” Ellen Schutt, executive director of GOED, said.
Some consumers do not take omega-3s because they do not think they need to. Others believe the benefits are unclear, or have not been advised to take them by a healthcare professional.
These reasons are different but, importantly, all stem from a lack of information, meaning they can be addressed through education and outreach. If consumers or healthcare professionals see strong evidence that supplementation with omega-3 has positive effects on meaningful health outcomes, their reasons for not using such products could evaporate quickly, leading to a new era of growth.
That conclusion is in keeping with historical market trends in the European market. When marketeers began promoting innovative, higher-concentrate omega-3 supplements using compelling evidence of their benefits, European markets grew.
The downturn came as investment in innovation slowed, leading to category commodification. In the absence of novel omega-3 products and claims, marketing departments and retailers turned to price and promotion tactics, thereby constraining a virtuous growth cycle for the category.
If the current shelf (in traditional or e-retail channels) of European omega-3 supplements were optimal for the needs of modern consumers, an obvious solution would be to re-invest in marketing efforts. However, there is strong evidence that today’s supplements fail to deliver the expected benefits, firstly because of a disconnect between how people should supplement and how they supplement in practice and secondly, because existing portfolios have not typically evolved beyond 30% concentrates.
How innovation can re-energise the market
Schutt thinks the European omega-3 market can return to growth if there is “more education about the existing science.” BASF has laid the groundwork for such educational initiatives by striving to understand the needs of today’s consumers and develop innovative products that address them.
Consumer research by BASF shows people typically take omega-3s in the morning with little to no food or with breakfasts high in carbohydrates. Breakfast skipping is fairly common in Europe, with calculations of the proportion of adults who miss the meal sometimes ranging from 10% in France to around one-third in Finland.2,3
These conditions are suboptimal for omega-3 absorption. A breakfast featuring foods with dietary fats are required to maximise omega-3 absorption, but modern lifestyles and health concerns mean few people regularly start the day with such meals.
As consumers are unlikely to stop eating convenient, yet high-carbohydrate breakfasts and start eating higher fat-based breakfasts, or taking omega-3s with lunch or dinner, the onus is on manufacturers to create products that better fit with modern lifestyles.
BASF responded with a solution that delivers both optimal absorption, regardless of food and intake, and with sufficiently higher EPA & DHA content than standard market fish oils; with a specially designed formulation for EU markets, Accelon is a self-microemulsifying delivery system is designed to mitigate the need for fatty foods and the bile salts they stimulate. In validating the technology in clinical tests, Accelon increased absorption by a minimum of four times compared to standard fish oils.4,5 These absorption levels were achieved in the absence of specific meals or conditions.
Accelon is an example of the type of consumer relevant innovation that gives omega-3 brand owners a new story to tell, based on modern lifestyles, needs and benefits.
By telling that story, European omega-3 brand owners are more likely to influence a return to a virtuous growth cycle: where the availability of novel, scientifically-validated products provides exciting innovation to support with marketing, which drives awareness and interest and, ideally, encourages more healthcare recommendations and more consumers to return to omega-3 as an essential dietary supplement.
Join us at Vitafoods
BASF will be attending Vitafoods Europe in Geneva, May 7th-9th. Visit us at the Omega-3 Resource Centre, Booth H142, and have your omega-3 index tested. Our experts are happy to answer your questions and discuss solutions for growing your omega-3 business. To schedule a meeting in advance please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Stark, K. D., Van Elswyk, M. E., Higgins, M. R., Weatherford, C. A. & Salem, N., Jr. Global survey of the omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in the blood stream of healthy adults. Prog. Lipid Res. 63, 132–152 (2016).
2. Preziosi, P. et al. Breakfast Type, Daily Nutrient Intakes and Vitamin and Mineral Status of French Children, Adolescents and Adults. J. Am. Coll. Nutr. 18, 171–178 (1999).
3. Keski-Rahkonen, A., Kaprio, J., Rissanen, A., Virkkunen, M. & Rose, R. J. Breakfast skipping and health-compromising behaviors in adolescents and adults. Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 57, 842–853 (2003).
4. West, A. L., Kindberg, G. M., Hustvedt, S. O. & Calder, P. C. A Novel Self-Micro-Emulsifying Delivery System Enhances Enrichment of Eicosapentaenoic Acid and Docosahexaenoic Acid after Single and Repeated Dosing in Healthy Adults in a Randomized Trial. The Journal of Nutrition (2018). doi:10.1093/jn/nxy127
5. Qin, Y., Nyheim, H., Haram, E. M., Moritz, J. M. & Hustvedt, S. O. A novel self-micro-emulsifying delivery system (SMEDS) formulation significantly improves the fasting absorption of EPA and DHA from a single dose of an omega-3 ethyl ester concentrate. Lipids Health Dis. 16, 204 (2017).