Kelley Fitzpatrick, a principal in the consulting firm NutriScience Solutions, has worked with Canadian crops and the science behind them. She said improved messaging around plant-based omega-3s, including ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) from flax, could bolster the position of these ingredients in the marketplace.
“I go to a lot of the fish oil meetings talking about plant sources. I never say ‘either/or,’ I always say ‘and.’ I feel very strongly that the whole family of omega-3s is critical for good nutrition,” Fitzpatrick told NutraIngredients-USA.
EPA, DHA lead research race
The majority of the thousands of studies done on omega-3 fatty acids have been done on EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The story for EPA and DHA began decades ago with the first epidemiological evidence gathered by Danish researchers on ethnic Greenlanders and their fish consumption. Strong evidence exists for the effect of omega-3s on brain development in children, on ameliorating cardiovascular disease risk factors, in inflammation and in other health indications. Few within the dietary ingredient or academic communities dispute the breadth or power of this evidence (whatever some nay-saying meta analyzers might say). And of course these two molecules have their own trade organization, GOED, to look after their interests, an organization that has been held up as model for how to build consensus around an ingredient and promote the science backing its health benefits.
So where does that leave ALA? ALA is part of the metabolic pathway in the body that gives rise to EPA and to a much lesser extent DHA. (Steriodonic acid, or SDA, is a big first step in that chain.) Estimates of the efficiency of this process vary from 3% to 6% with perhaps a slightly higher rate in vegetarians. Advocates of getting high doses of EPA and DHA have pointed to this, saying that ALA consumption is insufficient in meeting omega-3 supplementation needs and only a quirk of US labeling law that does not require the specific molecule to be denoted allows these plant-based sources to compete on an equal footing. For Fitzpatrick, this argument misses the point.
“There is strong evidence that ALA consumption can significantly reduce the onset of and death from cardiovascular disease with or without fish oil consumption. There are a number of other health areas where authors are attributing benefits to ALA. There has been a ton of research done on EPA and DHA but more and more research is being done on ALA itself. The fact is that ALA is contributing to overall human health with or without conversion,” she said.
“The message is complex and can be confusing. People want black and white. Omega 6 is bad. Omega 3 is good. And within omega-3s, these are the best,” Fitzpatrick said.
SDA muddying water?
A number of new plant-based sources are coming on to the market. One that has been in development for years is a GMO soybean variety from a Monsanto/DuPont collaboration that was modified to express more SDA. Another notable one that is now on the market is Ahiflower, a branded form of Buglossoides arvensis seed oil, which its developers say is also high in SDA. SDA is converted to EPA at a ratio of 20% to 25%. The message on the Ahiflower website is “Better than flax, not from fish.”
“As a nutritionist I think it’s too bad that we are pitting one source against another,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s muddying the water and it’s getting back to this whole outdated message that ALA is only good if it is converted, that physiologically conversion is the only source of health benefits. I think the whole plant-based industry needs to get better acquainted with all of the science. I think there is room in the market for all of the sources, and I think marketers need to be transparent about their source. I wouldn't support a marketer adding flax and then claiming to have more omega-3s than fish, for example.”
Fitzpatrick has gathered a number of ALA studies at flaxresearch.com.