Has the ubiquitous fatty acid become a victim of its own success? Geoff Igharo investigates

Omega-3 seems to be this year's wonder food. Advocates claim the essential fatty acid, primarily found in oily fish and seeds, has all sorts of health benefits from improving cardiovascular and brain health - to combating cancer.

Not surprisingly, manufacturers have been quick to capitalise on the trend. Soon, pork will join the array of foods from milk, yogurt and bread to chickens, eggs, juice, snack bars and salad dressings that have been enriched with Omega-3. One manufacturer is even launching a stuffing.

Yet controversy surrounds Omega-3. The Joint Health Claims Initiative (JHCI), a food industry advisory body, and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) acknowledges the impact of Omega-3 on heart function but do not recognise generic claims relating to cognitive function, potentially throwing into question the worth of products such as St Ivel Advance, promoted by Professor Lord Robert Winston as "clever milk". Even the claim that Omega-3 improves heart health has come under fire in a study published in the British Medical Journal. So will it have long term appeal or is it destined to follow fads like the Atkins diet?

The manufacturers behind the new products clearly think they are onto a winner. Paul Holden, business operations manager at Unilever UK, which is currently promoting Omega-3's benefits through its Flora brand, cites research suggesting that consumer awareness of the benefits has increased from 58% to 72% since 2003. "This is only likely to continue," he says, adding that Flora's priority is to communicate these benefits. Dr Paul Clayton, president of the forum of food and health at the Royal Society of Medicine and adviser to Sparky Brand, which produces enriched chicken, bread and juice, says: "We would always recommend that Omega-3 is taken as part of a healthy and balanced diet as opposed to a single 'cure all' intervention."

The British Heart Foundation and FSA agree that the research should not discourage people from consuming Omega-3 or oily fish within a healthy diet. Experts point out that the BMJ research contradicts a raft of evidence in favour of Omega-3.

There are a number of key trends that point to a bright future for Omega-3 and for functional foods in general. The population is ageing, but also becoming increasingly health-conscious.

Younger age groups, meanwhile, are becoming aware of the shortfalls of the modern diet but want to make up for those shortfalls in convenient formats - not just pills and oily fish.

The question is: are manufacturers going too far? Professor Jaya Henry, a research scientist at Oxford Brookes University, believes that some brand owners are straining the boundaries of credibility. "There is a real problem trying to associate things like cognitive function and performance with a single nutrient," he says.

Even so, Henry thinks that functional foods and Omega-3 in particular will grow. Warwick Cairns of brand agency Brandhouse WTS is less convinced. "Omega-3 is becoming overused - even supermarket own labels include it," he says. "The premium depends on consumer belief in the benefits. If people continue with countless varieties of Omega-3, the premium will go down."

Deans Foods, a company which has adopted Cairns' strategy, launched the Columbus Eggs brand in 1998, before the Omega-3 gold rush took off. Its marketing chief Robert Newell agrees that the category is in danger of exploitation by unscrupulous players jumping on the bandwagon.

However, he is hopeful that as the FSA and its pan-European counterpart, the EFSA, evolve, a more effective regulatory backbone will emerge to protect the interests of consumers and conscientious brand owners.

He adds that the price premium between normal foods and their Omega-3 enriched counterparts is often relatively small. This, he believes, has created the right environment for market growth. Ultimately he is not worried about the proliferation of Omega-3 products: "Even if all eggs eventually contain Omega 3, that wouldn't be great for my brand, but it would be great for the UK."