Firefighters…fishermen…or farmers? What do you think these three groups of professionals might have in common? All of them save lives, of course. Or they could be doing, as a result of new data presented yesterday in a satellite symposium held as part of the Nutrition Society’s 2008 Summer Meeting.

Experts meeting to discuss the latest research findings from the Lipgene1 project, explored the need to improve people’s intakes of long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, also often known as omega-3 fatty acids2 in order to prevent all the suffering, death and public expense caused by coronary heart disease each year. Importantly, they also shared data on how those intakes could be improved, almost without us being aware of it.

Fish oils

Oily fish are indeed the best available source of the n-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)1. However, what percentage of the UK’s adult population is eating oily fish at all? About 27%, according to Reading University’s Rachael Cribbs. Her Ph.D. research hopefully provide some answers to the question, How do we increase intakes of n-3 PUFA? Having researched the actual UKdietary intakes of EPA and DHA, finding is to be embarrassingly inadequate (around 244 mg per day, compared to the SACN recommendation of 450 mg/day), she explored the potential intake that could be achieved by doing just one thing. Poultry meat is very responsive to EPA and DHA enrichment. Including just 4% of a chicken’s diet as fish oil, you can, according to the group at Reading, increase the n-3 fatty acid content of the meat to around 300mg in a 200g serving. As a result of fortifying just chicken and eggs, an average person’s average daily intake could be increased significantly, even though it still doesn’t quite reach the target, especially for young adults, who are lagging way behind, for some reason Rachael didn’t dwell on.

Her colleague, Dr. Caroline Rymer, is very enthusiastic about the prospect for fortifying foods like this. She has been working on fortifying chicken for quite some time and has already published some of her findings. This year, she concentrated on the potential improvements in the European population’s health that could be gained by fortifying chicken. It is her models that give us the estimate of 39,000 lives saved every year; 6000 of these in the UK alone.

Further benefits

Another thing you can do is to improve the fatty acid profile of foods. Milk (from cows, not soybeans, rice or hemp, as we discussed last year), is an excellent example of this. Although milk contains a relatively high number of the heart straining saturated fatty acids, including that fatty monster C12, health recommendations have always fallen short of banning milk, butter and cheese outright and, in fact we are always being advised to drink more milk. Milk, after all, contains and awful lot of other, very beneficial substances, like calcium and vitamin D. It’s lovely stuff and, you’ll also no doubt be pleased to hear, Dr. Ian Givens, who also works at Reading, is finding new and ingenious ways to make it lovelier still, by addressing the fatty acid problem. Back to that fish oil again; it can be added to cows’ diets too; where, rather than being ushered directly to the milk, it interferes with the fatty acid saturation process; and the result is; increased content of mono-unsaturated fatty acids and the expense of the saturated ones; which is a step in the right direction. Whether the complex health benefits that the old-fashioned sat-fat milk has are preserved, we don’t yet know.

Fortifying with fatty acids

Ultimately, F is for Fortifying Food with (polyunsaturated) Fatty Acids. Current estimates put the number of lives that could be saved in the EU might be 39,000 a year, through the efforts of poultry and dairy farmers, supported by a huge body of scientific and medical data.

Reading University is especially active in the practical application of fortification to animal products, but, also speaking in Nottingham yesterday, Professor Mike Gibney, of University College, Dublin highlighted some work being done on rapeseed, to boost its omega-3 content; but more of that another day.

When I worked in the animal nutrition end of this science, the idea of improving the nutritional value of meat, eggs and milk was, I had always assumed, primarily a way of ‘adding value’ to the end product and thus commanding a higher return to the farmer. The selenium and omega-3 eggs we see in the world’s supermarkets are, indeed, more expensive that the standard variety, but given the health benefits it shouldn’t be too long before the fortified versions come as standard.

1Search ‘Lipgene’on CABDirect’s Nutrition and Food Sciences database

2CAB Abstracts will search quite nicely for ‘omega 3 fatty acids’ or ‘n-3 fatty acids’ in a ‘free text’ search, but if you’re doing a more detailed search the CAB Thesaurus recommends using ‘polyenoic fatty acids’, though ‘polyunsaturated fats’ will also suffice. To be more specific still, you may be please to know that the most interesting the omega-3 fatty acids in terms of human health, docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid, are both descriptors in their own right.

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