Market research firm Frost & Sullivan says that sales of omega-3 fatty acids in Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, China and south-east Asian markets were worth US$279.6 million in 2005 and a compound annual growth rate of 11.4 per cent will grow the market to US$596.6 million by 2012.
In an online briefing, analyst Vignesh Raja admitted that Australia, New Zealand and Japan are by far the most developed markets in the region, with clearer regulatory environments making it easier for food and beverage firms to introduce omega-3 products.
In Australia demand is likely to benefit from a new industry organization, the Omega-3 Centre, set up to promote consumer awareness and media coverage of the health benefits of the ingredient.
Omega-3 has been shown to protect heart health as well as bones, and some evidence even suggests that it could be beneficial for mental conditions like depression and Alzheimer's. The positive results of studies on the fatty acid, found in greatest quantities in oily fish, have been widely reported in the three wealthier Asian markets but consumer awareness is much lower in countries like Thailand, the Philippines and India.
"However consumer awareness is increasing in China and other south-east Asian countries," said Raja.
While supplements are one of the biggest delivery vehicles for omega-3 fats, functional foods and infant formula are expected to see the biggest increases in demand, he added. This is coming from a low base as currently there are few foods or beverages with added omega-3. Some examples include Nestle Malaysia's Omega Plus Acticol milk and LTK's Omega Plus eggs in the same market.
Cost is however a significant barrier and has led to Asian manufacturers looking to export markets rather than focusing on creating innovative products for their own countries and increasing domestic demand.
"Asian consumers are typically price-sensitive and as these products are premium products there has been some level of resistance to the price," said Raja.
Omega-3 fortified biscuits and noodles in the Philippines have not been well-received, perhaps because of this factor in combination with low awareness, and local manufacturers will need to work harder on producing omega-3 foods at a lower price-point, said Raga.
Companies also need to research local tastes and consumer preferences. In India, products fortified with omega-3 are seen as non-vegetarian significantly restricting their uptake. In general, there is a lack of consumer understanding of the nature and action of 'good fats' in this region.
However some recently launched products have had good success, including an omega-3 milk launched in Hong Kong last year by Lark Dairies. The firm has reported that it is shifting double the amount of its omega-3 fortified Trappist brand milk than regular milk.
One probable factor behind the product's success has been the branding of the omega ingredient itself (Meg-3) and the co-branding and joint promotion that was undertaken by the ingredient supplier as well as food product manufacturer, says Raja. This raised awareness among consumers regarding the presence of a beneficial ingredient in the product and helped create a more well-informed consumer opinion of the product.
Frost & Sullivan says it does not have detailed figures on individual markets but a new report by the firm offers further information on market drivers and restraints as well as other product launches.