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Published October 18th, 2023

Fishing for solutions: omega-3 alternatives for alt seafood

When consumers opt for a seafood substitute, they expect the taste, aroma, texture, and nutritional value to closely match that of the original product. Since one of the key nutritional benefits of consuming seafood is its high omega-3 content, including essential fatty acids like DHA and EPA, manufacturers of plant-based seafood are prioritizing the incorporation of these nutrients into their products.

However, finding a reliable and cost-effective source of animal-free omega alternatives has proven to be a difficult task.

In this article, we'll dive into the importance of omega-3 alternatives for seafood substitutes, explore the current and emerging sources, and discuss the challenges that companies face when incorporating these essential nutrients into their products. We'll also provide practical solutions, covering everything from the latest cutting-edge technologies to collaborative approaches.

Join us as we navigate the sea of omega-3 alternatives and help you to hook the right solution for your needs.

First, know your omegas (ALA, EPA, and DHA)

ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are all types of essential omega-3 fatty acids, but they differ in the length and structure of their chains of carbon atoms. The longer the chain and the greater the number of double bonds, the more biologically active the omega-3 is in the body; EPA and DHA both have longer chains with more double bonds compared to ALA.

EPA and DHA are classified as essential because they play a critical role in various bodily functions and health benefits, such as fetal development, reduced inflammation, improved cognitive function, and heart health. On the other hand, ALA doesn't have many biological functions other than being used for energy. Nevertheless, it's still classified as an essential fatty acid because the body can convert it into EPA and DHA.

Why omega-3 alternatives are important for seafood substitutes

The alternative protein industry has come a long way since the days of Sosmix and textured vegetable protein. To meet rising consumer expectations, manufacturers need to deliver products that not only taste and smell similar to conventional seafood but also provide comparable, if not better, nutritional benefits.

Plant-based seafood products should aim to mimic the sensory and nutritional qualities of traditional seafood

Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, are one of the key nutritional components found in seafood. Therefore, alternative seafood products that contain omega-3 alternatives are more likely to meet consumers' expectations for nutritionally similar products.

In addition, while plant-based diets contain omega-3s in the form of ALA, the only abundant natural sources of EPA and DHA are marine algae and bacteria. The body can only partially convert ALA to EPA and DHA. What’s more, conversion rates are generally low and can vary from person to person, making it challenging to obtain adequate amounts of EPA and DHA without supplementation or fortified foods.

Consequently, seafood substitutes containing EPA and DHA omega alternatives are likely to be more appealing to consumers who follow a plant-based diet or to those who can not or choose not to eat seafood.

Animal-free omega-3 alternatives

In general, the choice of omega alternative depends on various factors such as the specific needs of the product, the cost of sourcing, and scalability. By understanding the benefits and drawbacks of each source, plant-based seafood companies can make informed decisions about which omega-3 alternative to use in their animal-free products.

Common sources

The most common sources of omega-3 alternatives are:

Microalgae and bacteria

Some species of microalgae and bacteria are favored sources of omega-3 alternatives because they are rich in EPA and DHA. They are advantageous due to their ease of cultivation, scalability, and harvestability.

However, the production and extraction process can be costly. What’s more, at present, while numerous alternative protein ingredient companies are using algae to produce seaweed protein, few have ventured into the field of fatty acid production. Brands that have demonstrated interest in supplying bulk amounts of omega-3 from microbial sources include Algarithm, Royal DSM, and iwi.

Macroalgae (seaweed)

Macroalgae, also known as seaweed, is another potential source of omega-3s for seafood substitutes. Like microalgae, some species contain high levels of EPA and DHA. Additionally, if managed properly, macroalgae is a sustainable crop that can be grown in the ocean, making it an attractive option for alternative seafood producers looking to reduce their environmental impact.

Certain species of algae are promising sources of omega-3 alternatives and can be sustainably farmed in the ocean

One of the challenges with using macroalgae as a source of omega-3 is that it can have a strong taste and odor, which may not be desirable for all types of alternative seafood products. However, researchers are working to develop methods for mitigating this while still retaining the nutritional benefits.

In addition, macroalgae farms typically operate on a seasonal basis, which can negatively impact the reliability of the supply chain. Seaweed also requires extensive processing to be used in food products, which adds to the overall production costs.

Fungi

Fungi are another source of omega-3 alternatives that have gained attention in recent years. They may provide a more cost-effective option than microalgae and can be grown on waste products. However, the amount of EPA and DHA in fungi is generally lower than that in microalgae, which can limit their use in some applications.

Plant sources

Plants like flaxseed and chia seeds are also good sources of omega-3s, particularly alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). However, as discussed, the body must convert ALA into EPA and DHA, which is not very efficient. As a result, these sources may not be as desirable as algae or fungi.

Emerging sources

The following technologies provide promising solutions to the challenges of sourcing omega-3 alternatives sustainably and affordably:

Precision fermentation

Precision fermentation is an exciting new source of omega-3 alternatives for seafood substitutes. This process involves using microbes, such as yeast or algae, which are programmed to produce high levels of omega-3s in controlled environments, resulting in a highly concentrated and pure form of fatty acids.

This approach has the potential to be more sustainable than traditional sources of omega-3s, including fish oil and algal oil, as it eliminates the need for the farming of aquatic organisms. However, while it’s not a new technology, precision fermentation within the alternative protein industry is still in the early stages of development and numerous bottlenecks need to be addressed before it can be widely adopted as a source of omega-3 alternatives for seafood substitutes.

Discover this technology's latest developments and opportunities in our corporate guide to alternative protein precision fermentation.

Plant molecular farming

Another approach is to genetically modify plants to produce omega-3s, adding them as non-native components to the seed oil profile.

Transgenic plants allows for the production of large quantities of omega-3 fatty acids

One successful example of this approach is transgenic Camelina sativa, which has been engineered to produce EPA and DHA using seven genes from microalgae. This method has resulted in the production of seeds containing up to 20% EPA and DHA and has been shown to be safe and effective in aquafeed trials.

However, some concerns remain regarding the use of genetically modified organisms, including their potential impact on the environment and human health, as well as their impact on consumer acceptance.

In vitro enzymatic methods and cell-free systems

Enzymatic methods and cell-free systems enable the synthesis of fatty acids from simpler starting materials outside of living cells. These approaches have several advantages, including faster production rates, precise control over the production process, scalability, and easier automation when compared to traditional cell-based systems.

Despite the progress made in enzymatic methods and the potential of cell-free systems, a true cell-free system for FA synthesis has not yet been developed. Further research is needed to determine whether these approaches can be optimized to produce the desired omega-3 alternatives in commercially viable quantities while maintaining consistency.

Hook the right solution for your needs

Establishing a reliable supply of animal-free omega-3 alternatives has the potential to enable plant-based seafood companies to achieve nutritional and price parity with conventional seafood. The incorporation of EPA and DHA is particularly beneficial for manufacturers as it can help them attract more customers, meet nutritional needs, enhance product quality, and gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

While several sources of omega-3 alternatives exist, including microalgae, bacteria, macroalgae, and fungi, there are various factors to consider when choosing a source, including cost, scalability, and reliability of the supply chain. Promising alternatives can also be found in innovative technologies, such as precision fermentation, plant molecular farming, and in vitro enzymatic methods and cell-free systems.

Bright Green Partners, the leading alternative protein consultancy, offers solutions for companies looking to incorporate omega-3 alternatives and other essential nutrients into their products. We specialize in providing comprehensive support for the alternative protein industry, including insights and guidance on the latest developments and opportunities.

Don't hesitate to reach out to us for more information on how we can help you grow and win the future of seafood.

Ready to discover what alt protein strategies could mean for your business? Discuss it in a 30 minute call with our Managing Partner, Floor.
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