As far as brand equity goes, there isn’t a whole lot out there with a name as appealing to consumers as omega-3s. Maybe because it’s the last letter in the Greek alphabet. Remember that 1971 movie, “Omega Man,” starring Charlton Heston? Maybe because God hisself, in the Book of Revelations, declares, “I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.”
Greek mythology, Charlton, God. Hard to touch that. Hitch superior nutrition to that list and you’ve got serious brand equity.
Back on September 8, 2004, the FDA approved a petition submitted a year earlier by Martek Biosciences, maker of algae-sourced Life’sDHA, that DHA reduces the risk of coronary heart disease. The qualifying language was thus:
“Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. One serving of [Name of the food] provides [ ] gram of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. [See nutrition information for total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol content.]”
Maximum intake is 3 grams per day. But this is only for EPA and DHA. Explicitly left off that list from the FDA is the shorter-molecular-chain alpha-linolenic acid, typically sourced from flax. ALA has 18 carbon molecules on its chain, whereas EPA and DHA have 20 carbons. Those extra molecules make all the difference.
The omega-3 swindle arises when we start talking about specific fatty acids that are not EPA and DHA. That’s because the benefit from ALA comes when it is converted to EPA and DHA, so those two longer-chain omega-3s are the real heroes here. In some studies, ALA does not convert at all to DHA, even when other nutrients such as conjugated linoleic acid are used as conversion aids.
Other studies show ALA is converted to EPA at between 5 and 8 percent in men and into the teens in women.
Is SDA the new omega-3 savior?
Can it be that there is a new source of omega-3s to compete with DHA and EPA? After all, fish stocks from which these longer-chain omega-3s derive are not as deep as the ocean, and new sources are constantly being scoured.
In a study published this month in Journal of Nutrition, researchers from Chile (home to much of the world’s ocean source of fish oil) found that while ALA is “very inefficient” in converting to EPA, a relatively untapped omega-3—stearidonic acid, or SDA—may offer a “biologically effective and cost effective approach to providing a sustainable plant source” for omega-3 fatty acids.
Now, the source for SDA —which, like ALA, has 18 carbons on its chain—is from soybean oil. This is the source generally used in cooking oil in the vast swaths of America where nutrition is not the order of the day. The problem with soybean oil is it’s a rich source of omega-6s, which is the pro-inflammatory, bad, omega. Back in the caveman days, humans consumed omega-6s and omega-3s in roughly equal parts. But thanks to modern food processing and the domination of soybean oil in our diets, that ratio is now skewed as high as 20:1 in favor of omega-6s.
Did I mention that the SDA from soybeans is supplied by Monsanto and is genetically engineered? Plus, it takes about four to five times more SDA to get the same EPA values—a conversion rate of 20 to 25 percent. It’s higher than traditional flax, which has a conversion rate of between 3 and 17 percent (the higher end is for women and vegans), but still on the low side, and a GMO source.
A 2007 study in Australia found SDA and fish oil fed to fish were superior to canola oil (read: flax). This led to further study. So those same researchers in 2008 fed Atlantic salmon echium oil, which is rich in SDA, and after 12 weeks the fish had no higher levels of EPA than before, suggesting the conversion rate of SDA to EPA is negligible.
Of course, this will not stop Monsanto from planting SDA-enriched GMO soybeans, then touting the high levels of omega-3s in it.
And even with ALA, where no qualified health claim is allowed, manufacturers continue the bait-and-switch by using flax and then touting the consumer-ready “omega-3s” on the label.