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The alpha and omega of omega-3 fatty acids

Everybody is talking about them and countless foods are nowadays proudly claiming their content, which is thought to have numerous beneficial effects on health. So, what are those famous omega-3?

Omega-3 fatty acids, also called n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (n-3 PUFAs) refer to a type of fats that are essential and known as “good fats”. This denomination comes from the chemical structure, which shows a carbon-carbon double bond at the third carbon atom from the end of the carbon chain (thus omega).

There are 3 omega-3 acids: ALA (α-linoleic acid), found in plant oils such as chia, perilla, flaxseed (linseed oil), rapeseed (canola), hemp and soybeans, DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (Ecosapentaenoic acid), both commonly found in seaweed and fish oils.

There are called essentials because the human body cannot synthesize them. In reality only ALA is strictly speaking essential because EPA and DHA can be produced by the body but only in the presence of ALA. Therefore a dietary intake of all three is highly recommended.

Omega-3 cumulates various effects such as lowered cholesterol levels and blood thinning, to provide cardiovascular protection. They are also constituents of cell membranes and play a role in the formation of neurons. Therefore, omega-3 PUFAS are thought to be important for mental and emotional health.

Omega-3 are thus healthy ingredients but, on the other hands, are very liable. They oxidize in contact with water and some minerals such as copper and iron. Also they shouldn’t be heated up to their burning point. Diets that provide the richest intake of omega-3 are the Mediterranean diet, the Prehistoric diet, and the Okinawa Diet.

Rather than the absolute level of omega-3, it is the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 PUFAs that seems to be crucial for health. In the modern occidental diet, this ratio is around 1:10 to 1:30, whereas it should ideally be in a range from 1:1 to 1:4. Indeed, omega-6 PUFAs compete with omega-3 PUFAs for many biochemical processes in the body. That means that an excess intake of omega 6 impairs the optimal utilization of omega 3 by the body. This unbalance is thought to create a physiological state prone to inflammatory, allergic and cardiovascular disorders.

To read more about beneficial health effects and nutrigenomic research about omega-3 PUFAs, consult our article on the subject.

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