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Omega-3 EFAs: The Right Stuff


On May 16, 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sotto voce allowed a petition to permit food manufacturers to make nutrient content claims for omega-3s in food products to become law. This put FDA’s imprimatur on a macronutrients report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM, a subdivision of the National Academy of Sciences) that determined omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) were not only essential nutritionally but also seriously deficient in the average American diet. Actually, “deficient” is misleading. It isn’t the nominal content of omega-3s consumed that is deficient as much as the ratio of omega-3s to omega- 6 EFAs consumed. Simply put, Americans need more omega-3s and less omega-6s in their diet.

The ruling establishes Daily Value (DV) requirements for both shortchain and long-chain omega-3 oils and provides criteria by which foods can be deemed to be “good” or “high, rich or excellent” sources of omega-3s. This development may be especially opportune for food product categories hammered by recent low net carb trends if manufacturers use it to reclaim the nutritional high ground. However, food and nutritional products manufacturers must now find effective ways of introducing omega-3 EFAs into products without compromising shelf life, taste and texture.

Omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs play at least two key roles in human physiology. One role is structural; essential lipids serve as critical structural components in cell membranes and tissues. These roles are recognized but as of yet poorly delineated. The second role is as precursors for prostaglandins, whereby omega-3-generated prostaglandins exhibit an agonist/protagonist relationship with omega-6-generated prostaglandins to control important physiological functions (e.g., blood clotting). It is for this reason that the ratio of dietary omega-3 to dietary omega-6 is critical—chronic over-consumption of omega-6s in relation to omega-3s leads to prostaglandin imbalances that translate into chronic physiological disorders common in our society. The general consensus is that there exists about a 2-to-1 imbalance of omega-6s to omega-3s in the average American diet. The challenge is therefore to increase omega-3 consumption without concomitantly increasing omega-6s. This limits naturally available solutions to those offering an excess of omega-3s to omega-6s, essentially: certain algae, fish, fish oil, flaxseed oil and wholemilled flaxseed.

As the IOM report affirms, both short-chain (alpha-linolenic acid or ALA) and long-chain omega-3s (eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA) are nutritionally essential. Humans can convert a limited amount of ALA (between 5 percent and 10 percent) into EPA or DHA. Consequently, FDA guidelines recognize a higher level of ALA consumption is required to meet dietary omega-3 requirements.

Conversely, FDA has not recommended caps for ALA consumption as it has for EPA or DHA in replies to manufacturer inquiries.

Because of their highly unsaturated nature, omega-3s are very susceptible to oxidation. When oxidized, fish oil smells “fishy” and flaxseed oil smells “painty”. The challenge is to protect the oil from oxidizing in the product over the product’s expected shelf-life and preparation conditions.
Fish oils and flaxseed oil can be pre-emulsified, admixed with antioxidant blends or mixed into liposome suspensions to both protect the oils and to ensure their easy incorporation and dispersion into fluids. For supplement or low-moisture applications, they can be encapsulated. However, all these steps are cost-enhancing and applications-limited. From this perspective, whole-milled flaxseed flour (20 percent ALA omega-3) offers distinct advantages in that it provides a relatively economical, whole-food source material naturally encapsulated within its own natural, antioxidantrich grain matrix. Pleasant tasting, it incorporates directly into supplements, nutritional products and foods. Properly milled and handled to protect its natural antioxidant barrier, it stores indefinitely under ambient conditions. Using FDA’s omega-3 Nutrient Content claim guidelines, only 1.5 g of whole-milled flaxseed per serving is required to qualify a product as a “high, rich or excellent” source of omega-3 oils. This includes liquids: fine-milled to a 30-mesh or 40-mesh granulation, whole-milled flaxseed forms soft-textured suspensions in juices, soy milk or other beverages that undergo homogenization and pasteurization at levels that will qualify such beverages as rich sources of omega-3s.

In sum, new FDA Nutrient Content claims have opened new vistas of nutritional product opportunities to foods and nutritional products manufacturers. Between fish oils, flaxseed oil and whole-milled flaxseed powders, manufacturers enjoy many options to take full advantage of this opportunity to the benefit of public health and well-being.

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