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Fish oil: friend or foe? Part 1

The love-hate relationship with omega-3 fatty acids

That fish-borne omega-3 fatty acids are important has been well-known. However, this has not always been the case. For her book The Queen of Fats science writer Susan Allport dived in the history of the love-hate relationship we developed with omega-3 fatty acids.

Not all fats are bad

It is especially the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids as they occur in fish, krill and squid, that have grown in popularity over the last decades They are commonly considered essential to the functioning of our body—something that could not be claimed with any certainty half a century ago. The general view at that time was that all fats were unhealthy. No distinction was made between good and bad fats. This simplistic approach had major implications for our health.

The turning point

If the two Danish researchers Dr. Hans Olaf Bang and Dr. Jørn Dyerberg not had accidentally discovered that not all fats were bad, we might have been avoiding all fats even up to today. The big turning point came when they found out that the Greenland Inuit did not suffer any negative health impact from their diet consisting of large amounts of animal fat. This discovery became the basis for the change of course in omega-3 fatty acid research.

Omega-3 fatty acids important for our bodies

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is the most abundant fatty acid in our brains, and has been essential for evolution in the animal kingdom for more than six hundred million years. It is an important nutrient for both infants and adults, and it converts light to energy. Another omega-3 fatty acid, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), is important because it is a precursor of locally acting tissue hormones.

Virtually no omega-3 fatty acids from the average diet

Although we know that omega-3 fatty acids are important to us, it is still not abundant in our food. The food industry is always looking for ways to make products cheaper and to prolong their shelf-time. This often leads to the drainage of the most important nutrients from our diet. Developing plants with low concentrations of alpha linolenic acid, hydrogenation of vegetable oils, the additional formation of trans fats, and decreased consumption of fish and bio-farmed meats, are all responsible for the fact that omega-3 fatty acids are all but removed from our daily diet.

A diet change with major consequences

Moreover, cows’ diets over the years have for the most part shifted from grass to grains. Omega-3 fatty acids in plants, however, are concentrated in the leafs rather than the seeds; in the latter we encounter more omega-6 fatty acids, rather. The result is that beef today contains virtually no omega-3 fatty acids. A seemingly small diet change can therefore have a significant impact down the food chain, disrupting the natural balance of fats. Logically, any profound effect will eventually affect human health.

Details make the difference...

Fortunately, researchers have stepped up and significantly improved the general knowledge of omega-3 fatty acids. However, there are quite a few details that even health-enthusiasts may not know. Consider the importance of the position of DHA in the glycerol structure and the natural package in which omega-3 fatty acids co-occur.

No common fish oil in our product range

It is in part given these aspects that we formed our opinion about fish oil over the years, and reflecting our current knowledge, we do not offer "regular" omega-3 fish oil products. In short, our considerations privilege both performance and quality.

To be continued

Our next blogpost will provide some explanations regarding the position of DHA and why in the scientific literature as well as on the market one encounters contradictory messages. There was much ado, for instance, over a 2015 scientific publication in which fish oil supplements received a bad rap. Read on here.

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