Omega-3 fatty acids

Before contact with Western civilization brought lifestyle changes and Greenpeace to the Inuit people of the Arctic, they survived on a diet solely consisting of fish and meat. That included seals, polar bears and any bird with a bit of substance on its bones. Apart from being a culinary curiosity, the Inuit diet is also interesting for another reason: it’s incredibly rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This, combined with their alleged low incidence of heart disease, has ensured an almost legendary status for the Inuit. Could omega-3s have something to do with the Inuit’s healthy hearts? Let’s get to know omega-3s and the answers they hold.

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Best known for:Providing energy for your body; keeping your heart, lungs, immune and endocrine systems healthy.

Good sources: For ALA: flaxseed, canola and other plant oils. For EPA, DHA and DPA: fatty fish and meat from grass-fed animals.

Adequate intake (AI): For ALA: 0.5% of total energy intake. For EPA and DHA – 250 mg/day. No recommended intake for DPA. There is also no tolerable upper intake level (UL) established for omega-3s.

Good to know: Latest evidence shows that increased intakes of omega-3 fatty acids have little or no effect on mortality risk and heart health.

Omega-3s in Jake:
Jake Light: 1.1g/meal
Jake Original: 1.6g/meal
Jake Sports: 1.3-1.6g/meal
Omega-6: omega-3 ratio in Jake is 5:1

What are omega-3 fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids, or simply ‘omega-3s’ are a type of dietary fatSource: Jake. More specifically, they’re one of the two major polyunsaturated fatty acidsA fatty acid is a chain of carbon and hydrogen atoms linked together. A polyunsaturated fatty acid is a fatty acid that contains more than one double bond in its carbon chain. , the other being omega-6 fatty acids. The most prevalent omega-3s in human diets are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), aicosapentaeonic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and docosapentaenoic acid (DPA). Of these, DPA is currently least researched on its own, but that’s bound to change, as interest in clinical trials with isolated DPA are gaining momentum in recent years.

Omega-3s have an absorption rate of about 95%. Contrary to beliefs from last decade, there is little to no difference between the absorption rate of omega-3s from food and omega-3s from food supplements.

Functions of omega-3 fatty acids

Similar to other dietary fats, omega-3s are a source of energy for your body. And just like other dietary fats, that’s not their only function. Omega-3s are also involved in:

  • Serving as a major component of cell membranes. Your brain and retina in particular have especially high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Supporting your heart, lung, immune and endocrine functions. Omega-3s, together with omega-6s help form eicosanoids. Eicosanoids are signaling molecules involved in blood clotting and blood pressure regulation, as well as inflammation, reproduction and some respiratory processes.
  • Growth and development of the embryo during pregnancy.
  • Providing energy for the body. Some studies show that DPA is less actively used as energy, compared to EPA or DHA. It’s suggested that one of DPA’s roles in the body is to be a safety reserve for EPA and DHA, since it can be converted into both when needed.Source: Lipid Technology

Omega-3 supplementation has long been considered beneficial in reducing the risk of heart failure and fatal coronary disease. However, in 2018, Cochrane published the most extensive systematic assessment to date, focused on the effects of omega-3s on heart health. Based on this assessment, increased intakes of omega-3s have little or no effect on mortality risk or heart healthSource: Cochrane. In light of this, it seems that our Inuit friends don’t owe their healthy hearts to their high omega-3 intake. It may have been the regular intake of sufficient omega-3s, or other diet or lifestyle factors that played a more important role.

How much omega-3 do you need?

Of the omega-3 fatty acids, only alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) is considered essential. A healthy adult would need to ensure that at least 0.5% of their daily energy consumption comes from ALA.This is the Adequate Intake (AI) according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). What does this mean in practical terms? Let’s say that your daily energy intake is 2000 calories. 0.5% of that equals 100 calories. That’s how much energy you should obtain from ALA. Since 1 gram of fat yields 9 calories, you’ll need to consume 100/9 = 11.1g of ALA to meet your daily needs.

Given a sufficient intake of ALA, your body can synthesize EPA, DHA and DPA. That’s part of the reason why none of the three is considered essential at this point. However, the process of synthesizing EPA, DHA and DPA from ALA is quite inefficient. Only between 8-20% of consumed ALA is converted into EPA and the conversion rate for DHA and DPA is even lower – 0-9% and 6-8%, respectivelySource: Lipid Technology. That’s why getting EPA, DHA and DPA from your diet can be more practical than relying on ALA conversion. The official recommendation of the EFSA is to consume 250mg daily of EPA and DHA combined. There is no specific intake recommendation for DPA at this moment.

Omega-6: Omega-3 ratio

Over the last 150 years, the Western diet has seen an increase in omega-6 intakes accompanied by a decrease in omega-3 intakes. This has resulted in an increasingly steeper omega-6: omega-3 intake ratio. As studies from the last decades show, such a dietary composition can have important health consequences.

Omega-6s and omega-3s are processed in your body by the same enzymeThe enzyme that helps digest omega-3s and omega-6s is called delta 6 desaturase.. This means that when you consume both, they compete for the attention of this enzyme. If one of the two omegas is much more abundant in your diet than the other, digesting it will be at the expense of the less represented omega. Studies in the last decades show that the greater the omega-6: omega-3 ratio in your diet, the higher the risk of chronic diseases and total mortality. This being said, there is no optimal ratio that has been identified as universally healthy. The recommended omega-6:omega-3 ratio in the DACH region and France is 5:1, in the Nordics – between 3:1 and 9:1. Neither the World Health Organisation, nor the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations have made official recommendations on the topic. It’s also good to keep in mind that what’s optimal may vary for specific conditions and diseases.

Based on our current knowledge, it seems that a more balanced omega-6:omega-3 ratio is better achieved by increasing your omega-3 intake than by decreasing your omega-6 intake.Source: Eufic

The amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in Jake are set at 2% of total caloric intake, based on a diet containing 2000 calories/day. As there is no omega-6: omega-3 ratio that is universally considered best, we’ve made the decision to stick with the 5:1 ratio, as it is the most commonly recommended ratio.

Omega-3 in food

The essential ALA is most abundant in plant oils, such as flaxseed, soybean and canola oil. Other good sources of ALA are chia seeds and walnuts. You could also get some ALA in your diet from meat, provided that the animals were grass-fed.

EPA and DHA are exclusively found in fish. Usually, the fattier the fish, the higher its omega-3 content. However, how much EPA and DHA fish contains can vary based on the farming method. Fish don’t synthesize omega-3s themselves. They obtain them from plankton or algae which they eat in their natural habitats. Therefore, unless it’s fed with algae, farmed fish will contain significantly less EPA and DHA than the same fish in the wild.

Similar to EPA and DHA, DPA is mostly present in seafood, but you can also come across it in poultry, meat and dairy products.

Some of the best sources of omega-3s are:

FoodGrammes of ALA (per serving)Grammes of EPA (per serving)Grammes of DHA (per serving)Grammes of DPA (per serving)
Flaxseed oil (14g)7.26
Chia seeds (28g)5.06
Salmon, wild, cooked (85g)0.351.220.31
Herring, cooked (85g)0.770.940.06
Oysters, wild, cooked (115g)0.140.30.23

The richest sources of DPA are beef and lamb livers from New Zealand and Australia, which contain about 140mg DPA per 100g meat. This generous DPA content is mostly due to the predominantly grass-grazing production systems in New Zealand and Australia.

What if you’re not getting enough omega-3s?

The average European intake of ALA is 0.5% of total energy intake. That’s exactly the AI prescribed by EFSA. Although that’s good news on average, it also means that there are some countries where ALA intake is still below the recommended daily amounts. An example is Denmark, where average ALA intakes equal 300 mg/day, or about 0.1% of the total energy intake in a 2000-calorie diet. When it comes to EPA and DHA, the European average intake is 351mg (140% of AI), with Ireland having the lowest (39% of AI) and Iceland – the highest (491% of AI).

If you’re not getting a sufficient amount of omega-3s in your diet, the symptoms can include rough, scaly skin and dermatitis. However, currently there’s no established level of omega-3 in your blood which is dangerously low and could impair your vision, neural or immune function.

How much omega-3 is too much?

Currently, there are insufficient data for the establishment of a tolerable upper intake level (UL) for omega-3 fatty acids. It seems that long-term EPA and DHA intakes of up to 5g/day (2000% the AI) aren’t associated with negative health outcomes. Since there’s no current intake recommendation for DPA, there aren’t any data available regarding potential health effects of high DPA intakes.

Take-aways

Here are the most important points to remember about omega-3 fatty acids:

  • The only essential omega-3 fatty acid is alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). Other omega-3s such as EPA, DHA and DPA aren’t considered essential, but your body can only make a limited amount of them, so it’s important to include them in your diet.
  • It’s important to balance your omega-6 and omega-3 intake. High omega-6: omega-3 ratios are associated with an increased risk of chronic and cardiovascular diseases.
  • Omega-3s are used for energy and are also important for the functioning of your heart, lungs, immune and hormonal systems.