Introducing the Vitafoods Europe Startup Innovation Challenge

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Introducing the Vitafoods Europe

Startup Innovation Challenge: Catapulting global nutraceutical startups to success

2 Read more on Vitafoods Insights Contents Introducing the Vitafoods Europe Startup Innovation Challenge 3 Four categories and eight reasons to apply 4 Pitch perfect: How to impress the judges at the Vitafoods Startup Innovation Challenge 6 A stellar panel of expert judges 8 Meet the full jury panel for the Vitafoods Europe Startup Innovation Challenge 2023 9 Vitafoods Insights: Shining a spotlight on startup innovation 12 Spotlight on startup innovation in the health, nutrition, and supplement sector 12 BCD Bioscience reinvents the fibre category with precision prebiotics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14 ‘The oceans cannot meet global demand’: Meet the startups exploring novel ways of producing omega-3 17

Introducing the Vitafoods Startup Innovation Challenge

Held for the first time at Vitafoods Europe from 9 to 11 May 2023, the inaugural Vitafoods Europe Startup Innovation Challenge offers health, wellbeing, and nutraceutical startups the chance to win a host of high-value prizes as well as unparalleled exposure and networking opportunities with key industry stakeholders at Europe’s leading nutraceutical trade show.

The free-to-apply competition is organised by Informa Markets, the company behind the Food Ingredients Startup Innovation Challenge, which has been propelling food ingredient startups to success since 2016.

Angelique Cachia, senior director of content and digital at Food Ingredients Global and Vitafoods Global, said: “After many years of championing startup innovation at Fi Europe, we are proud to launch the Startup Innovation Challenge at Vitafoods Europe in Geneva. Vitafoods is the annual meeting place of nutrition scientists, nutraceutical product developers, and senior management in the supplement industry.

“It is a gathering of thought leaders and trendsetters who are razor-focused on scouting out the most interesting ingredient solutions. The benefits to health and nutrition startups of such industry interactions are immeasurable.

“At Vitafoods, we are proud to make such connections possible and foster innovations that are truly disruptive, from precision nutrition supplements to digital health solutions. In this way, we hope to ensure that a fairer, more sustainable supplement industry – where affordable nutrition is a right, not a privilege – becomes a reality for all.”

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Four categories and eight reasons to apply

All relevant startups that have been active for five years or less are welcome to apply to the Vitafoods Startup Innovation Challenge

Startup Innovation Challenge categories:

Most Innovative Finished Nutraceutical Product

This category covers finished nutraceutical products offering innovation in ingredient composition, consumer focus, or delivery format .

Most Innovative Nutraceutical Ingredient

This category covers innovative ingredients for nutraceuticals, supplements, or functional food and beverages that can offer scientific substantiation of their efficacy.

Most Innovative Digital Solution

Supporting the Nutraceutical Industry

This category covers innovative business- and consumer-facing digital solutions supporting the nutraceutical industry, with the aim of improving the sustainable development and/or personalization of nutraceuticals

Most Innovative Service or Technology

Supporting the Nutraceutical Industry

This category covers innovations that support improvements in ingredients sourcing and production, food safety and quality, traceability, transparency, smart packaging, and/or supply chain management .

In addition, one of the finalists will receive a special jury’s prize for the Most Innovative Sustainable Solution, an award that considers the startup’s overall sustainability efforts.

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Still wondering if you should apply?

Here are 8 reasons to enter the Vitafoods Startup Innovation Challenge in 2023:

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A chance to win highvalue prizes offered by the organisers and expert judges

Free access for all finalists to promote your innovation at Vitafoods Europe in Geneva, Europe’s biggest gathering place for nutraceutical stakeholders

Free stage time to pitch your company to the attendees of Vitafoods Europe

Free dedicated meeting area at the Startup Lounge

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Develop an innovative project through a specialised support programme

Meet other innovators, investors, industry leaders, and potential clients

Showcase your awardwinning innovation to international media

Gain broad international recognition and significant market visibility by showcasing your innovation

Pitch perfect: How to impress the judges at the Vitafoods Startup Innovation Challenge

We asked judges of the Vitafoods Europe Startup Innovation Challenge what they will be looking for in the winning startup Read the nine-point checklist

Niamh Michail

Held for the first time at Vitafoods Europe from 9 to 11 May 2023, the inaugural Vitafoods Europe Startup Innovation Challenge offers health, wellbeing, and nutraceutical startups the chance to win a host of high-value prizes as well as unparalleled exposure and networking opportunities with key industry stakeholders at Europe’s leading nutraceutical trade show.

Startups can apply for free to one or more of the following categories: most innovative finished nutraceutical product; most innovative nutraceutical ingredient; most innovative service or technology supporting the nutraceutical industry; and most innovative digital solution supporting the nutraceutical industry

We asked one Startup Innovation Challenge judge, Raphaelle O’Connor, what she was looking for in the winning startups. Founder and director of nutrition consultancy iNewtrition, O’Connor gave us her nine-point checklist, offering startups invaluable tips when preparing their application.

1 Uniqueness

This lies at the heart of innovation. How does your product stand out against its competition? An insightful innovation opportunity that can be communicated to consumers in a clear and engaging way is essential for success .

2 Functionality and health through nutrition

This topic matters more and more to consumers Bioactive ingredients that add value to the wellness space are becoming increasingly hot commodities . Judges will especially be looking for concepts in categories where there are enormous opportunities

4 Integrity

Honesty and transparency are essential to building trust and loyalty among consumers

Consistent messaging, meeting the startup’s goals and commitments, and the clear communication of progression are key.

5 Sustainability

Sustainability is a modern competitive edge The economic, social, and environmental costs of ingredients and packaging must be seriously weighed and honestly communicated to consumers, so that they can make conscious decisions about how their purchases impact the planet

3 Mission

Judges will be interested to see how the purpose-driven aspects of each startup are represented in their brand. From the management of authenticity, to supporting local producers, to sustainable packaging, the potential initiatives are unlimited. How is the brand contributing to the greater good, environmentally, or socially?

6 Innovation

Each product concept must show awareness, insight, and diligence in its approach to the ingredients, product format, supply chain, wellness, target audience, communication, environmental impact, and delivery .

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7 Market awareness

Branding and packaging that are clearly based in a knowledge and understanding of how the product or range is positioned within its category is fundamental in delivering something that stands out on the shelves

8 The experience

A product’s sensory characteristics are an important part of the consumer experience. In other words, how does the product feel to actually use? Judges will be looking for a product or service that offers a satisfying user experience.

‘You can only win or learn’

9 People and team

Judges will want to see how each startup team addresses the multi-disciplinary approach that is required to build a sustainable business. Synergistic combinations of skillsets and mindsets can make all the difference between innovation that is merely incremental, or truly disruptive .

Other judges encouraged startups to send their applications to the free competition.

“Not only do you get a great podium to showcase your startup to a broad audience but also, you’ll be scrutinised by some very experienced people,” said Nard Clabbers, chief science officer at personalised nutrition startup Happ, lead of the personalised nutrition and artificial intelligence community at the Dutch FoodValley, and Startup Innovation Challenge judge.

“I know all too well that it is never too early to get an outside view on your ideas and sharpen them,” he added. “As they say, ‘Just do it’. You can only win or learn.”

Meanwhile, Michael Stott, partner at legal firm Mathys & Squire and Challenge judge, said the competition was a great opportunity for startups to gain valuable industry insights and exposure, expand their network, and have their growth strategies pressure-tested by industry experts.

“The nutraceutical and nutrition industry is a challenging landscape to navigate, particularly from an [intellectual property] IP and regulatory standpoint, and the Startup Innovation Challenge is a chance for startups to learn from their peers and receive invaluable guidance from industry leaders,” he said.

A stellar panel of expert judges

The panel of judges is made up of health and nutrition experts, including Aline de Santa Izabel, entrepreneur and biosciences specialist; Giancarlo Addario, principal at Five Seasons Ventures; Raphaelle O’Connor, director of nutrition consultancy inewtrition; and Michael Stott, patent attorney and partner at Mathys & Squire LLP.

Addario said: “[The] Vitafoods Startup Innovation Challenge is indeed a unique opportunity for startups to gain visibility, to build their network – meeting investors, customers, and suppliers – and to achieve valuable inputs and opportunities for their business.

“It is a great honour for me to be a jury at the Startup Innovation Challenge. I can’t wait to spend time with companies, discuss with them and – why not? – find hidden gems that could be a good target for our investments.”

Giancarlo Addario, principal at Five Seasons Ventures

O’Connor added: “Medical foods, nutritional therapy, and functional foods and beverages can support us throughout our lives. Beyond the new products emerging in these categories, we also have increasing access to medical devices, technologies, and services that can support our personal journeys through health and nutrition.

“It is refreshing to see such a dynamic startup ecosystem that is willing to challenge the status quo. Entrepreneurs are pushing innovation across our industry and its adjacent sectors, and across every product category. I feel proud and privileged and am genuinely excited to see what the next generation of innovators has created.”

Vitafoods Europe Startup Innovation Challenge partners

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Meet the full jury panel for the Vitafoods Europe Startup Innovation Challenge 2023

Aline de Santa Izabel Alves

Aline de Santa Izabel is an entrepreneur and biosciences specialist with a broad experience and network in entrepreneurship and innovation at a European level. She has been working with different startups and scaleups operating at the intersection of business, science, and tech focused on impact Aline is currently supporting the development of the Deeptech ecosystem in the Nordics and Baltics by accelerating innovative startups through her work as an Expert Advisor at the European Commission’s European Innovation Council (EIC) Accelerator and Women EUTech Horizon Europe funding programmes. She also lectures at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) and works as an ecosystem builder at DigitalWell Ventures and DigitalWell Arena, an innovation platform from the Compare Foundation supported by the Swedish Innovation agency.

Giancarlo Addario

Giancarlo Addario is Principal at Five Seasons Ventures, and has been with the fund since February 2018. Prior to that, he spent 20+ years at leading pasta and bakery goods Barilla, covering various roles from Quality Assurance/Food Safety to Research & Development across several product categories in Italy and internationally. In the area of Open Innovation, he led various collaborative projects with research institutes, enterprises and startups worldwide, also providing valuable mentorship to food accelerators and incubation programmes to the likes of Startupbootcamp, FoodTech, MassChallenge, H-Farm, and Future Food Accelerator. Giancarlo holds a BSc in Food Science and Technology and Masters in Total Quality Management

Grégory Dubourg

Grégory Dubourg is an agro engineer specialized in agri-food and nutrition, graduated from AgroParisTech. After 10 years of experience in marketing and innovation in the agri-food and nutraceutical industries, he founded Nutrikéo in 2009. Since then, he has managed this Nutrition Strategy Consulting agency whose expertise covers Studies, Innovation, Marketing and Communication strategies across the entire supply chain: agri, food, nutra, health & cosmetics .

Mariette Abrahams

Mariette Abrahams is the CEO and founder of Qina, a platform and specialized consultancy that helps companies explore, connect and innovate in Personalised Nutrition. Qina provides market intelligence, research, and innovation services by combining intelligence tools and consultancy services via a global network of domain experts. Mariette has worked in clinical and medical nutrition industry for over 20 years and leverages her combined expertise in nutrition, business, and research to advance the industry at the intersection of nutrition, health, tech, and society .

Michael Dovbish

Mike Dovbish is the Executive Director and a founding member of Nutrition Capital Network (NCN), a founder and investor community and data platform for growth companies in health and nutrition (acquired in 2016 by New Hope Network, a division of Informa). Mike led the NCN team in 2020 in successfully transforming in-person investor meetings into immersive, digital events for 2020, and hybrid events and community platfor m for 2021 and beyond.

9 Introducing the Vitafoods Europe Startup Innovation Challenge

Michael Stott

Michael Stott is a UK and European Patent attorney and Partner at Mathys and Squire LLP, a full-service intellectual property firm with offices in the UK and Europe. Michael has worked in the patent profession since 2008 and, prior to that, worked in the pharmaceutical industry. He has significant experience of drafting and prosecuting patent applications in the UK and Europe, managing international patent portfolios, and providing freedom-to-operate advice. He works with a wide range of clients, including startups, University spinouts, SMEs, and multi-national corporations, across a wide range of technologies and has particular expertise in the field of food chemistry and pharmaceuticals.

Nard Clabbers

After his study of Human Nutrition at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Nard Clabbers worked for the food industry for more than a decade as the liaison between marketing and science. In 2011, he joined Dutch applied research organisation TNO to lead their nutrition and health business line. Also at TNO, he then set up the world’s largest public-private research consortium on personalised nutrition and health, together with Wageningen University and Research. This led him on a path of ‘personalised nutrition’, involving co-founding Happ, a personalised nutrition platform as their Chief Science Officer, public appearances, consultancy and working for Foodvalley NL as their Lead Personalised Nutrition.

Paula Giser

Paula Giser is a pioneer in Foodtech, developing novel products and startups, as well as corporate consulting. She has experience working as R&D Manager at Foodlab Tel Aviv, which is an emerging global R&D centre in Foodtech. Paula completed a master’s degree in FoodTechnology at University of Natural Sciences of Buenos Aires and a Postgraduate Degree in Innovation and Design Thinking at Pompeu Fabra University.

Raphaelle O’Connor

Raphaelle O’Connor is highly experienced in the ideation, development and commercialization of food chemistry, food science and food technology using strategic partnerships, collaboration and systematic governance processes in the functional foods and beverages, consumer’s health and wellness categories. With inewtrition, she is acting as an innovation catalyst and ambassador for the product portfolio management, leading and supporting the regions through sharing knowledge and technical support within converging product categories . Raphaelle has led numerous international and regional interdisciplinary teams, supporting the implementation of product development projects with Johnson & Johnson, Wyeth Nutritionals, Nestlé and Pfizer. Her range of experience also includes the introduction of several infant formula brands and maternal nutrition food and beverage dietary supplements, functional foods and beverages, and nutriceuticals containing bioactives (including probiotics) in numerous international markets, with a specific focus on China. Currently, Raphaelle is also supporting Amgen, a worldwide pioneer in biotechnology. She is part of the External Supply network where she leads cross-functional technology transfers projects to Contract Manufacturing Organisations (CMOs) and ensures adherence to client business processes to support robust transfer of clinical and commercial products, technologies and services

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Sandra Einerhand

Sandra Einerhand is the founder and director of Einerhand Science & Innovation, an award-winning nutrition consultancy that provides tailored solutions to the food and dietary supplement industry. Since 2016, she has assisted startups in product development and connected them with the right partners to help bring their products to market successfully. Sandra is also an active jury member in several global startup innovation challenges. Throughout her career, she has focused on scientifically substantiating the health benefits of food and food ingredients. She has over 25 years of experience in infant, senior, and sports nutrition, both as an associate professor in academia and as an R&D director for companies such as Tate&Lyle ingredients, Lipid Nutrition, and Danone Nutricia.

Stephen Beveridge

Stephen Beveridge is external innovation & partnering leader for Bayer Consumer Health in Basel and is responsible for the digestive and nutritional health categories. He’s responsible for finding external solutions to address innovation needs in-line with category strategy, expanding innovation with a broad range of outside partners – including key suppliers and vendors, startups, incubators, accelerators, innovation networks, retailers, tech players and public institutions – to fully leverage innovative ideas and solutions that are currently outside Bayer’s expertise, allowing for flexibility to react to consumer and market trends. He has more than 20 years of experience in innovation and new business development in the fields of nutritional supplements, digestive health and beverages with a broad geographical focus covering Europe, NA, LATAM and APAC markets.

Nicolas Carbonnelle

Nicolas Carbonnelle is a partner with international law firm Bird & Bird, where he practices food law and advises on regulatory matters affecting the conduct of food businesses from R&D to post-marketing.

Vitafoods Insights: Shining a spotlight on startup innovation

Spotlight on startup innovation in the health, nutrition, and supplement sector

Vitafoods Insights’ weekly newsletter covers nutraceutical news and analysis all year long, including the best of startup innovation. Here is our pick of three articles showcasing startups making waves thanks to their disruptive ingredients, products, and tech solutions

The femtech pioneers revolutionising the personalised healthcare market©

Female entrepreneurs weary of gendered marketing strategies such as “shrink it and pink it” are taking matters into their own hands

Femtech innovators are leading the way on personalised, consumer-focused solutions specifically targeting women’s health needs.

Dr Colleen Fogarty Draper is the co-founder and CEO of PhenomX Health, a pioneer in perimenopausal health and nutrition. The startup, which was founded in 2021, is a platform “for women who wish to know more about their personal experience during this life transition and how to treat their health symptoms using nutrition therapies for a healthy and empowered ageing experience”.

It is one of many businesses in a burgeoning category that has experienced incredible growth over the past few years.

A burgeoning category with space for all

Despite the fact that the term was only coined in 2016 – by entrepreneur and Clue CEO Ida Tin –femtech has a market size that is estimated to be worth anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion, according to analysis by McKinsey

However, the same report found that femtech companies currently receive just 3% of all digital health funding.

“The [personalised nutrition] industry is just beginning to realise how important it is to target women, since they are the largest purchasers of personalised nutrition and health for themselves, as well as their families,” said Draper.

She highlighted the work of investor groups such as Goddess Gaia Ventures and Portfolia, which are stepping up to specifically support femtech.

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An unequal history: Lack of female-specific research

Draper highlighted the historical lack of female-specific research as a major challenge for the sector, citing a 2020 study that found women experienced twice as many adverse reactions to drugs as men.

“Historically… results were analysed by including males and females in the same group and statistically adjusting for their differences to sufficiently normalise the data so that both groups could be included in one larger group to be analysed,” she said. “Higher numbers of people in the same group equated to stronger statistical results.

“Unfortunately, this also equated to serious consequences, such as women experiencing adverse drug reactions nearly twice as often as men. The NIH [US-based National Institutes of Health] now requires sex as a biological variable to be considered in all research. This is an important step in the right direction.”

She pointed to an expanding body of research, including global impact publications “on pregnancy, preconception, lactation, fertility, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, bone health, and even sports nutrition”.

She added: “With more and more digital health products, like the one we are building at PhenomX Health, we are in a position to collect data that help the end user which can concurrently be used to research impact of nutrition interventions on health outcomes.

“This is a less expensive way to conduct clinical studies, which may not replace classic clinic research but can augment and substantiate research to propel the field forward.”

Femtech startups in the UK, France, and Switzerland

Draper conceded that within the startup community, there have been “improved efforts” to support women’s health entrepreneurs in the femtech arena

She said: “There are new accelerator programmes, such as Tech4Eva, the first femtech accelerator in Switzerland; Station F, Paris’s startup megacampus, [which] initiated a femtech programme last year; and Femtech Lab in the UK, which helps gear up new startups to obtain their first rounds of funding.

“These programmes are helping founders take the early steps they need to build meaningful business enterprises.

“What was different before this? Women’s health startup ideas were often squashed in favour of more masculine solutions. This natural, subconscious bias has occurred as most investors and even startup coaches are male.”

However, she highlighted the fact that femtech companies “are supported by men and women”, adding: “The truth is, the more we collaborative inclusively, the more likely we will be to successfully commercialise meaningful solutions to women’s health challenges.”

Investing in female-focused research

What might these meaningful solutions look like?

“I do think brands need to find ways to invest in the research needed to cover the female life cycle,” said Draper. “It would be great to see how programmes could be developed that could incentivise this, since direct-to-consumer brands often lack the funds to invest in the research that is needed.

She added: “In recent years, more and more research has been conducted on the menstrual cycle and nutrition, including athletic performance; and now we see publications in the area of menopause and the Mediterranean diet.

“A recent study of over 100,000 women on menopause symptoms is very encouraging.”

BCD Bioscience reinvents the fibre category with precision prebiotics

US startup BCD Bioscience is making precision prebiotics through a proprietary process that breaks down polysaccharides into bioactive oligosaccharides with highly targeted health benefits.

BCD Bioscience’s first product is a barley beta-glucan for specific health outcomes – namely improved glycaemic response and the associated cardiometabolic effects.

“We’re trying to actually reinvent prebiotics and instead of going from a standpoint of, ‘We’ve developed a prebiotic. Let’s see what it does,’ we’re [...] going after specific applications and finding the right prebiotic for that application,” said Matt Amicucci PhD, co-founder and vice president of R&D.

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The California-headquartered startup has a public partnership with major US pomegranate producer The Wonderful Company, and is exploring oligosaccharides derived from pomegranate pomace, a major sidestream of the juicing industry. It aims to have its first ingredients on the market in 1.5 to two years and is currently in the process of putting together a Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS) application, with plans to submit a novel food dossier for the EU market.

A depolymerisation process that unlocks prebiotic benefits

So, how exactly does BCD Bioscience create precision prebiotics? The company takes natural raw materials – fruit, vegetables, cereals, or agri-food side-streams – and breaks the fibre or polysaccharides into smaller, more bioactive fragments of fibre, called oligosaccharides. It then has a screening process – high-throughput functional assays, bioinformatic tools, and phenotypic screening – that allows it to test how each of these fibres impacts the gut microbiome and the metabolites that the gut microbiome produces.

“[These] are really the bioactives that affect health. So, instead of just having this small palette of two or three different prebiotics to work with, we’ve actually created dozens of new prebiotics that nobody else has been able to get their hands on yet,” Amicucci said.

These prebiotics have targeted health benefits on areas such as immunity, gut inflammation, lowering the glycaemic response to certain foods, and cardiometabolic disease.

A ‘carbohydrate encyclopaedia’ helps identify unique and promising traits

BCD Bioscience’s proprietary process does not involve gene-editing, but the startup has some “very unique tools” that allow it to alter the carbohydrate composition of natural products, said the co-founder.

“A lot of the technologies used to look at carbohydrate structure were developed in the 1960s and really not modernised at all,” he said. “So, people are looking at a couple [of] samples a day. We’ve developed methods that allow us to analyse hundreds of samples a day.”

BCD Bioscience stores information about these different samples in its “carbohydrate encyclopaedia”, an inhouse resource that contains the carbohydrate compositions of between 2,500 and 3,000 different natural products. This resource allows it to explore the various features of carbohydrates – the most abundant biomolecule on earth – and look for unique combinations of carbohydrates that look promising.

From there, it extracts the fibres or polysaccharides from the material and applies a Fenton depolymerisation process. This is a non-enzymatic and non-biological chemical process that “chops” the fibres within the raw materials into smaller oligosaccharides – a modification that enhances the fibre’s fermentability by the microbiome.

According to Amicucci, the depolymerisation process is clean, using food-safe iron as a catalyst and then hydrogen peroxide (which later degrades into water) to induce the “chopping” of the polysaccharides into oligosaccharides

User-friendly prebiotic fibres for beverage and bakery brands

The final product is an ingredient that is very user-friendly from a formulation perspective.

“One of the features of the process is that [...] you enhance the ‘formulateability’ – meaning that the [oligosaccharides] are highly soluble and can be formulated like sugar,” said Amicucci. “They don’t have the same sweetness as sugar, but they provide a lot of those binding and bulking [properties] and things like that. But they retain all of those biological properties that make fibre good for you.”

An additional benefit is that these “stealth health” ingredients could allow brands to make fibre-related health claims that were previously unattainable because the required fibre content made the final product unpalatable. While some probiotic brands may wish to add BCD Bioscience’s prebiotics to their products, Amicucci sees bigger opportunities in the bakery and beverage categories.

“Right now, just about any juice or plant-based milk or soda on the market is completely devoid of fibre. And even something you might think has fibre in it – orange juice with the pulp – really has less than one gram per serving. What we can do is [...] take the orange peels that are left over from orange juice processing, apply our process, solubilise all that fibre, and put it back into the orange juice,” he said.

“So, now you have a clean-label juice product that is orange juice with orange fibre. You’re making juice healthier, you’re lowering the glycaemic response to all that sugar in the juice, and [you’re] enabling all of these microbiome-type benefits that are intrinsic to the prebiotic aspects.”

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From transgenic plants to cell cultivation and from precision fermentation to high-omega algae, industry disruptors are developing novel methods to produce omega-3 that are fish- and krill-free.

EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids that bring numerous proven health benefits for brain function, vision, blood pressure, and heart health, and demand for omega-3 supplements is increasing, with an expected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 8% from 2020 to 2028, according to Grand View Research.

However, levels of over-fishing mean that the oceans’ resources are already stretched. What’s more, 70% of fish oil that is produced is currently used by the aquaculture industry to improve the nutritional quality of fish feed and is therefore not available to meet rising consumer demand for omega-3 oils

In addition to addressing the issue of overfishing, there may another reason to develop alternative sources of omega-3 Rising sea temperatures linked to climate change mean that natural levels of these fatty acids in the oceans may be falling.

The Global Organization for EPA and DHA omega-3 (GOED), which represents the interests of the omega-3 industry, supports the development of novel methods to produce fish- and krill-free omega-3.

“It’s a fact that the total EPA and DHA currently supplied by the oceans cannot meet global demand for even the most conservative recommended daily intake,” said Chris Gearheart, director of growth and engagement at GOED.

“We fully support all companies developing scalable ways to produce EPA and DHA without adversely affecting marine resources, especially as nutritional literacy increases and global demand for omega-3 continues to grow.”

Non-profit organisation the Good Food Institute (GFI), which champions an animal-free food system, echoes this. “There is a need for a more robust supply chain for animal-free omega-3s as ingredients for all three alternative protein production platforms: cultivated, fermentationderived, and plant-based,” it says.

So, what are the next-generation alternatives? How are they being produced, how do they compare nutritionally, and how much potential do they really have to alleviate pressures on wild fish and krill stocks?

‘The oceans cannot meet global demand’: Meet the startups exploring novel ways of producing omega-3

Transgenic crops

UK-based non-profit research centre Rothamsted Research has produced plant-based omega-3 fatty acids by genetically modifying the common commodity crop Camelina sativa to synthesise EPA and DHA. According to the lead scientist behind the research, Professor Johnathan Napier, transgenic plants are a sustainable and environmentally friendly source of omega-3 fish oils for use in novel foods.

Napier and his team of researchers say they have scientifically demonstrated there was no difference in the bioavailability of their EPA- and DHA-rich plant oil in human studies compared with conventionally produced fish oil.

“The only difference [was] that our plant oil is significantly more sustainable!” he said.

Rothamsted Research is collaborating with a US company, Yield10 Bioscience, to commercialise the novel crop. Yield10 Bioscience says its engineered camelina lines produce approximately 20% of EPA and DHA fatty acids, which is similar to the composition of northern hemisphere fish oil.

It has conducted several field tests in the UK, US, and Canada for four years, collecting the oil samples and conducting further studies on both salmon and human consumption. “Equivalence to natural fish oil has been demonstrated,” it says.

While admitting that he was biased, Napier said there were clear benefits of using transgenic crops to produce omega-3 over other approaches

“I am not too familiar with the [cell-cultured] approach, but I can’t imagine that any system that relies on cell culture could compete economically with a plant-based approach. I mean, the cost of growing a plant in a field, versus culturing cells in a sterile environment and using expensive reagents to allow the cells to grow, means that agriculture always comes out on top. This is also true if you compare with systems that are making EPA and DHA via algal fermentation,” he said.

“In addition, whilst it is simple to scale up with a plant-based system – you just plant more fields – if you are trying to scale up with a cell-culture system or fermentation, you need significant infrastructure to support this, plus energy costs, which are obviously increasing dramatically,” Napier added.

Precision fermentation

Precision fermentation uses microorganisms, such as yeast or bacteria, as a production host to synthesise a specific molecule of interest, and could also be a promising way to produce animal-free omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA).

The GFI notes that oleaginous yeast, such as Yarrowia lipolytica, may be the most suitable candidate for synthesising fats because it can accumulate large amounts of intracellular lipids.

Scientists have already produced EPA using this method. In 2013, the researchers described how they metabolically engineered the yeast lipid to comprise 56.6% EPA and fewer than 5% saturated fatty acids by weight. “[These] are the highest and the lowest percentages, respectively, among known EPA sources,” they wrote.

However, numerous variations on the idea of producing long-chain omega-3 PUFAs via fermentation may be imagined, according to the GFI.

“Different hosts will pose different advantages and disadvantages. They can be optimised for greater efficiency, and the variety of metabolic pathways through which these compounds can be produced allows a great deal of room for optimisation, both in the interest of cost and scale and in the interest of optimising the fatty acid profile of the final product,” it says.

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Cell cultivation

Cell cultivation, also known as cell culturing, is another method being used to produce animal-derived ingredients without the use of animals. While the technique is mostly being used to develop meat products, it can also be leveraged for omega-3 fatty acids

Spanish startup Cubiq Foods is developing cell-cultured DHA and EPA in addition to a range of cultivated fats for food applications. It has already partially submitted a novel food dossier to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and aims to have a cultivated omega-3 product on the market by 2025.

It uses duck cells in its cell-culturing platform. According to the company’s CEO, Andrés Montefeltro, this is ideal for producing omega-3 in a laboratory because Cubiq wants to produce fats in an animal format, with the right ratio of fatty acids by triglycerides and phospholipids.

“If we produce just fatty acids and then reassemble triglycerides by enzymatic steps, we will produce non-natural fats that probably can be less efficient to become active in the body. Duck cells produce the fat in the proper format, and we don’t need to add steps in order to have the ingredient ready for food development.”

Montefeltro added: “[...] Animals are the perfect production machine for animal fats. Years of evolution bring this capacity. Replacing the animal synthetic pathways by a combination of microbial and chemical steps will be always less efficient for complex molecules. For example, bacteria cannot [make] fatty acids longer than C18. If you push that, by genetic engineering, to C22 and polyunsaturation, you will have a product, but the efficiency will be lower.”

Besides the sustainability argument, another benefit of producing DHA and EPA via cell culturing is the ability to tweak the nutritional format. Cubiq Foods is also working on a second product that uses genetic engineering to achieve even higher levels of DHA and EPA than conventionally sourced omega-3 fatty acids.

Indoor vertical farming

Fish and krill do not produce omega-3 themselves; it is present in plankton and builds up in their bodies through bioaccumulation. Using microalgae as a source of omega-3 oils is, in a way, going straight to the source.

The consumer-facing brand Örlo Nutrition, owned by Icelandic supplier Vaxa, uses photobioreactors and an artificial intelligence-powered platform to grow microalgae indoors. Its photosynthesis-based process is similar to growing algae in open ponds where they harness the light of the sun.

One advantage of producing microalgae indoors, however, rather than in the sea or open ponds, is the absence of environmental pollutants like mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), or pesticides, it says. Vaxa feeds the microalgae nutrients such as phosphorous, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide as inputs, which also contributes to lowering the carbon footprint of its manufacturing process.

“As our oceans change, as they become just a little bit warmer and more acidic, the algae species that are actually flourishing in our oceans shift, which has impacted even the levels of EPA and DHA that are found in fish oil,” said Corrina Bellizzi, head of sales and marketing at Örlo Nutrition in a recent podcast.

“This reveals [...] why it’s so important that we find better and more consistent sources that don’t necessarily have to impact our ocean eco-systems. That’s where, I think, we are headed in this space of omega-3s: new nutrition solutions that go directly to the source, to algae.”

Introducing VFI Webinar Series 2023

The VFI Webinar Series 2023 covers key nutraceuticals market topics, offering attendees the opportunity to get up to speed on marketing strategies.

Webinar Calendar 2023

10 live webinar days covering 5 key themes will feature live discussions and Q&A with topic experts. The sessions will cover market updates, consumer insights, regulatory updates, sourcing

Why attend?

Find out here
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