Fish oil - the main natural source of EPA and DHA,the healthiest omega-3s

The International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation has published a new datasheet on the healthiest omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA

June 26, 2008

Fish oil – the main natural source of EPA and DHA,the healthiest omega-3s


The International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation has published a new datasheet on the healthiest omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA.


Fish oil is a natural, and the major, source of EPA and DHA which are essential in the human diet. Humans can enjoy the multiple health benefits of EPA and DHA from fish oil by eating more wild caught oily fish; by taking fish oil capsules; or by eating farmed fish and meat, milk and eggs from animals fed on fish oil and oil-rich fishmeal.


The benefits to human and animal health

In the past decade one of the most important dietary recommendations made to improve human health and prevent chronic disease, notably alleviating heart attacks and strokes, has been to increase intake of these two long chain, or LC, omega-3 fatty acids.

Multiple scientific papers provide the evidence that increased consumption confers many important, and even vital, health benefits. This evidence is increasing every day. Sales of omega-3 nutritional supplements and functional foods enriched with added omega-3 have expanded rapidly.

“We need more EPA and DHA in our diets now because our intake has fallen as we moved in the Western world from a shore (seafood) and green leaf diet to one including more seeds and processed products – both usually much lower in EPA and DHA,” explained Dr Andrew Jackson, IFFO Technical Director.

“The change in diet has also resulted in increased intake of omega-6s, which in excess can have some negative effects on health and compete in our bodies with EPA and DHA for important enzymes. The current ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in our diets is about 10 or 20:1, while the recommended ratio is 4 or 5:1. So we need both to consume more LC omega-3s, and to moderate our intake of omega-6s.”

The American Heart Association is among the many health authorities which recommend increased EPA and DHA in the diet, suggesting they are obtained “preferably from oily fish”.

“The datasheet also explains the important difference between the healthiest marine-derived long chain omega-3s EPA and DHA and the shorter-chained omega-3 ALA or alpha linolenic acid which is commonly plant-derived and does not confer the same health benefits,” said Dr Jackson. The human body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but too slowly to provide sufficient quantities.

”Consumers should be aware that some supplements and foods branded as “high in omega-3s” contain ALA from, for example, linseed, as opposed to healthier  EPA and DHA, which are primarily marine derived,” he said.

The datasheet presents tables showing that the EPA/DHA content of fish particularly oily fish is outstandingly greater than that in virtually any other common foodstuffs. For example fresh sardines have about 1700mg/100g, against beef with 20mg/100g and cereals, pasta, fruit and vegetables with virtually none.

The health and welfare benefits to farmed animals and pets of small quantities (less than 10%) of EPA and DHA in diets are also explained in this new IFFO datasheet. These include decreased mortality in hill lambs and ewes; reduced pecking among poultry; and improved fertility in the dairy cow. Deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids in pet diets may lead to a range of health problems including arthritis. Most veterinarians recommend a diet including EPA and DHA.


Replacing fish oil reduces omega-3s

For several years there has been a move to replace fish oil and fishmeal in farmed carnivorous fish diets with vegetable alternatives for financial reasons. However, there are definite downsides from not passing on the health benefits of these healthiest omega-3s, EPA and DHA, to humans.

“Recent work by Dr Seierstad in Norway has shown that the fatty acid composition of  salmon fillets affects the fatty acid profile of the patients’ blood and that the advantageous marine omega-3 fatty acids (EPA & DHA) increased  in those patients that ate salmon fed on feed containing pure fish oils,” according to the datasheet. “It was also shown that, the consumption of fish raised on marine oils, with high levels of LC omega-3 fatty acids, produced favourable biochemical changes in patients with cardiovascular heart disease as compared to patients fed salmon fed on diets containing some vegetable oil .”

The datasheet, The importance of dietary EPA & DHA omega-3 fatty acids in the health of both animals and humans, is aimed at the fishmeal and fish oil value chain and others with a scientific or technical interest in the important health benefits of EPA and DHA. It is available as a PDF from IFFO – and on the IFFO web site.

Later this year IFFO will follow-up the datasheet with a published hard copy brochure designed to explain EPA and DHA from fish oil to a wider audience.