Natural Foods Merchandiser

EFAs 101: The essentials on fatty acids

Essential fatty acids are most definitely essential to any store's bottom line. According to Natural Foods Merchandiser's June Market Overview issue, EFA sales increased 35 percent in 2005, using numbers provided by market research firm Information Resources Inc. That's big growth even before considering that this category had a robust base at $109 million in '05 and experienced 25 percent growth the year before and 50 percent growth in 2003.

But what exactly is omega-3 or omega-6? What about DHA or EPA? What is the best ratio of fats? And what is this omega-9 stuff anyway?

Helping your customers get results—and helping to fatten your sales—depends on getting the details right about EFAs.

What's in a fat (and fatty acid)?
"So," someone asks, "what is it anyway?" You think for a moment. "Well, it comes from fish …" you say. While you may be partially right, here are the basics:
A fat is a type of lipid. Technically, it's a triglyceride lipid, which means it contains three fatty acids. A fatty acid is a (usually) long chain of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached and an acid end. Most importantly, according to Udo Erasmus, author of Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill (Alive Books, 1993) and a consultant with Canadian company Flora Inc., fatty acids insulate and absorb shock, and essential fatty acids are used to construct membranes, create electrical potentials and move electrical currents. They can also be burned for energy. Additionally, says Barbara Levenstein, director of education and new product development at Arkopharma/Health from the Sun, EFAs help regulate enzymes, hormone production and gene expression, among other functions.

Essential fatty acids are called essential because we must get them from our diets. Our bodies cannot synthesize them, says nutritionist Yvonne Bishop-Weston, a consultant with Swiss company Water4Life, which produces vegan omega-3 supplements made from algae.

The alpha and omega of omegas
There are two types of EFAs, according to Levenstein: omega-3 and omega-6. (Another type, omega-9, is not an EFA.) Omega-3, consisting of alpha-linolenic acid, is found mostly in vegetable oils, such as flax. Omega-6, linoleic acid, is found mostly in seeds, nuts, grains and vegetable oils. Gamma linolenic acid is another form of omega-6 found in borage, black currant, evening primrose and hemp oils. The body is also able to convert LA into GLA.

DHA and EPA
Docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid are popular buzzwords these days in the EFA arena, but "DHA and EPA are, technically speaking, not EFAs, but are derived from EFAs," Erasmus says. According to Herb Joiner-Bey, N.D., a consultant with Ferndale, Wash.-based Barlean's Organic Oils, DHA and EPA are "produced in the bodies of herbivorous animals and humans from [ALA] found in [their diet of] phytoplankton in the ocean and the green leaves and oily seeds of plants on land." Cold-water fish, such as sardines, mackerel and anchovies, produce high levels of DHA and EPA. The human body is able to convert ALA into both when there is sufficient ALA present, according to Erasmus.

Joiner-Bey says the body uses EPA to make noninflammatory hormones that regulate local tissue functions. DHA provides structural support for cell membranes, especially in the nerve cells of the brain and retina of the eye.

How much is enough?
As for how much EFAs one should take and in what ratio, the answer is elusive. Bishop-Weston says a 3- or 4-1 omega-6 to -3 ratio is desired. Joiner-Bey recommends a 1-1 ratio of omega-3 to -6. He recommends fish oil intake sufficient to provide 1,000 mg combined DHA/EPA daily. As for flaxseed oil, he recommends one tablespoon per 100 pounds of body weight. Erasmus's eponymous oil blend has a recommended dose of one tablespoon per 50 pounds of body weight and contains a 2-1 ratio of omega-3 to -6. He says the larger ratio of omega-3s is to optimize omega-3 intake because, "we're getting 10 to 20 times omega-6 to omega-3" in our daily diets. Joiner-Bey concurs. "Because the modern Western diet is over-abundant in omega-6 sources and deficient in omega-3 sources, supplementation with omega-3s, while decreasing omega-6 intake, is critical to establishing optimal fatty-acid balance."

Benefits of fatty acid supplementation
Bishop-Weston outlines many benefits from boosting EFA intake. "Research suggests lower risk of heart disease, brain dysfunction, some cancers, some skin conditions and a host of other preventable diseases," she says. Erasmus takes that a bit further. "EFAs are required for the healthy functioning for every cell, every tissue, every gland and every organ in the body," he says. "There is research that says omega-3s improve every major degenerative condition of our time."

Storage needs
Joiner-Bey says that EFAs should be stored in opaque bottles that do not permit damaging, free-radical-producing light rays to penetrate. "In addition, nitrogen flushing of bottles and refrigeration is desirable to retard oxidation and rancidity," he says. Bishop-Weston says that DHA and EPA are more stable than flaxseed-based oils, but that they too should be kept dark and cold. As for uses other than swallowing back tablespoons of the stuff, Erasmus says they can be used in hot soups or on hot vegetables, but only after they've finished cooking. "Omega-rich oils should never be heated or used in cooking that requires heat," he says.

The science of fatty acids
According to Erasmus, there are 600,000 studies on fats and health or fats and disease. He says there are 30,000 on EFAs, 5,000 on omega-3s, 1,500 on ALA and "the rest are on fish."

In June 2005, the journal Circulation published a study reviewing the association between dietary ALA and the buildup of coronary artery plaque. The researchers wrote, "Consumption of dietary linolenic acid is associated with a lower prevalence of [atherosclerotic plaque]."

The journal Lipids published an article in January last year that reviewed eight studies on the effect of ALA and LA on the growth and development of formula-fed infants. The reviewers concluded that infants fed ALA-supplemented formula had significantly higher DHA levels than control infants and that in full-term (as opposed to premature) infants, ALA supplementation was associated with increased weight and length at 12 months, which was at least 4 months after the end of dietary intervention. "The findings suggest that ALA-supplemented diets improve the DHA status of infants," they wrote.

With 30,000 scientific articles on EFAs alone—not to mention the intricacies of omega ratios—a retailer could spend a lifetime studying their benefits. Helping customers understand the basics and showing them where to look for more information might be the best thing. From there, the proof will be in the pudding.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 7/p. 32, 34

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