Understanding Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Consumers are embracing omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 for longer, healthier lives.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Omega Fatty Acids Chart

Source: Womentowomen.com; www.mind1st.co.uk

As obesity has become epidemic in the U.S., fats have been stigmatized and wars waged against them by health experts, doctors and the press. But the truth is that consuming adequate and balanced amounts of the right fats – omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids – is critical to good health.

Fatty acids can seem like alphabet soup to consumers: ALA, EPA, DHA, LA, GLA, ARA, MUFAs, PUFAs, EFAs, and the list goes on. Adding to the confusion is the negative impacts of trans-fatty acids and saturated fatty acids. All families have good and bad members; fats are no different.

Fats are a group of chemical compounds that contain fatty acids. Energy is stored in the body mostly in the form of fat, which is needed in the diet to supply essential fatty acids, substances essential for growth but not produced by the body itself.

Understanding the role of omega-3 fatty acids in health begins with understanding their chemical make-up. Omega-3s are long-chain   polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) consisting of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docasahexaenoic acid (DHA).

All three omega-3 acids need to be obtained from our diet and are called essential fatty acids. ALA cannot be made by our body, so it has to be obtained from food. While humans can synthesize some EPA and DHA from ALA, less than 10 percent is converted at a time. So we must fulfill our DHA and EPA needs from diet or supplemental fish oils, plant oils and algae. It is believed that ancient people were better able to make these conversions, and scientists speculate modern day stress and consumption of trans fat are the culprits.

Omega-3s are best known for their heart-health benefits. ALA is added to grain-based foods through flaxseed or flaxseed oil, which can replace some or all of the oil or shortening in the formulation of foods and beverages. Flaxseed oil also can be added to poultry feed resulting in omega-3-enriched chicken or turkey meat. Other sources of ALA are chia, hempseeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, mustard seed, avocados, dark leafy vegetables, soybean oil, wheat germ oil and fatty fish. Other options include cranberry seed oil and juice made from acai berries and goji berries.

Products Claiming Omega

Source: Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics
 Jan. 1, 2006-June 30, 2009

Also essential but plentiful in the American diet are omega-6 fatty acids, comprised of linolenic acid (LA), gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). They support skin health, lower cholesterol and help blood clot. Americans get most of their omegas from eggs, meat, poultry and vegetable oils.

A balance of PUFAs, both omega-3 and omega-6, is essential for good health, and can reduce blood cholesterol levels and the risk for heart disease. As recently as the early 1900s, humans consumed about equal amount of omega-3 and omega-6 (1:1 or 1:2) in their diet.

Today, the ratio for Americans is 1:10 or 1:20 omega-3s to omega-6s, an imbalance associated with many diseases. Omega-3 is an anti-inflammatory and omega-6 is pro-inflammatory. Excessive pro-inflammatory compounds are linked to heart disease, arthritis, eczema and Alzheimer’s, so omega-3, particularly EPA, is needed to prevent or inhibit in ammation.

A matter of life and death Omega-3 deficiency was ranked as the sixth cause of preventable death in the U.S., accounting for 72,000-96,000 preventable deaths yearly, according to a recent study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers.

It even beat out high trans-fat intake, which is fresponsible for an estimated 63,000-97,000 deaths annually. “The numbers are shocking, especially given that these deaths are preventable with omega-3 EPA/DHA supplementation,” says Lori Covert, vice president of marketing and communications for Ocean Nutrition Canada, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Why are Americans defcient? Omega-3 fatty acids are not one single nutrient but a collection of several, including EPA and DHA, both found in greatest abundance in coldwater  fish (salmon, tuna, herring, lake trout, sardines, mackerel and anchovies, plus   sh oils and algal oils). Since most Americans (or Europeans for that matter) don’t eat enough  fish (twice a week in the U.S.), many of us are deficient in omega-3.
 
The FDA allows a number of  fish and algal oils to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for food fortification. Fish oil contains significant amounts of EPA and DHA. “Fish do not efficiently synthesize DHA. They obtain DHA by eating zooplankton that eat micro-algae that contains DHA,” explains Ruben Abril, director of ingredient formulations and technical support at Martek Biosciences, Columbia, Md. Martek derives its DHA omega-3 oil from DHA-producing micro-algae harvested from algal-fermentation tanks.

“The DHA omega-3 oil that the algae naturally produces is extracted and processed in the same manner as any commercially available vegetable oil,” he explains.

“We also can microencapsulate our DHA-rich oil so that it becomes a more stable, free-flowing product for applications where a powder works better.” Research suggests that these fatty acids may provide benefits beyond reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. These include: lowering the risk of developing certain cancers and neurological disorders; complications from metabolic syndrome and diabetes; improved bone health among older adults; healthy pregnancy outcomes; good visual acuity and cognitive development among infants; fight depression, build brain cells (the brain is made up of 60 percent fat), can boost the immune system, help protect us from an array of illnesses including Alzheimer’s, and possibly reduce obesity.

Although omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids all serve different functions within the body, the evidence is clear that incorporating balanced proportions of both essential and non-essential fatty acids is necessary for maintaining heart health and general wellness.

Swedish researchers have found a link between fish consumption and higher cognitive scores among teenage males, according to a study published in Acta Paediatrica, a peer-reviewed pediatric research journal. 

Gerber DHA products
Gerber, a Nestle brand, last year added DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that helps support brain and eye development in infants, to a line of baby foods.

Comparing the responses of 3,972 15-year-old boys with their cognitive scores three years later when they entered compulsory military service, the study found a definite link between frequent fish consumption and cognitive function. When the young men ate fish more than once a week (58 percent), their combined intelligence scores were, on average, almost 11 percent higher than those who ate fish less than once a week (20 percent), and their visuospatial scores were 11 percent higher.

“There are a number of studies linking omega-3 EPA/DHA found in oily fish to thinking, reasoning and remembering abilities – our cognitive functions – in infants and the elderly,” said Jon Getzinger, Ocean Nutrition’s chief sales and marketing officer. “But [other] studies demonstrate omega-3 is important for our bodies and minds throughout our lives.”

Food scientist Julian McClements and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Center for Health and Wellness are now investigating more economical ways to incorporate omega-3 fatty acids into foods. Microgel capsules are being developed to trap the omega-3 fatty acids, chemically stabilize them to prevent spoilage and allow them to be easily incorporated in beverages, yogurts, dressings, desserts and ice cream. They work by surrounding the delicate fish oils in a protective biopolymer microgel of water, antioxidant protein and dietary fiber.

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