Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Lately we have been hearing a lot about Omega-3 fatty acid. Much of this study started in the 1970s in Greenland when it was discovered that the indigenous Inuit population had a low incidence of cardiac disease although they consumed much fat in their diet. As their source of food was mainly fish and marine animals, it was easy to trace the substances in their food. Omega-3 fatty acids were noted, and since then, much research has been conducted to show that there is much value in these compounds; they have been known to increase skin condition, ease joint inflammation, reduce heart attack and improve concentration.
However, there is some confusion about what exactly Omega-3 fatty acid is. To start with, it is not a single substance: Omega-3 is more of an adjective than a noun; it describes certain fatty acids which have the first double carbon-carbon bond on the third carbon atom of the chain. A description which hadly makes it easy and familiar to most people. To add to the maze of polysyllables, there are basically three Omega-3 fatty acids that are being discussed when the term is used; two of them are called 'marine' Omega-3 fatty acids, as they are found in marine creatures. Their names are eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid.
Both of these are synthesised in the human body from a third, alpha-linolenic acid, which is found in plants, mainly hemp and flax. Hemp oil contains 17-24% of this, in tandem with around 50% linoleic acid (an Omega-6 fatty acid; as you've probably already guessed, it is called this because the first double carbon-carbon bond occurs on the sixth carbon atom of the chain...)
The ratio between them is much discussed, as some say the optimum ratio is 3:1, based on the fact that it occurs in this ratio in humam cells. However, there is much debate as to whether this 3:1 is really optimum, or perhaps a 2:1, or even a 5:1, is really the best.
Whatever the argument about the ratio, there is a wide range of qualified opinion (including Dr. Robert Winston, Dr. Andrew Stall, Prof. John Stein and health columnist Jane Clark of The Times), stating that Omega-3 is pretty good stuff; in fact, it is often called 'brain food'. Little wonder, this appellation, when half of the fatty acid from which our brains are made is an Omega-3, the aforementioned docohexaenoic acid. An article in The Independent on Sunday on 11 June, 2006, gave a number of examples in which children fed 500 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids improved dramatically in their ability to concentrate and do classwork.
While this is rather conclusive, there are scetpics, and also those who say that the supplements given might not be as effective as the foods from which they are extracted, which makes sense. The article was rather well-researched and well-written, but had one major drawback; it made no mention of vegetable sources for Omega-3 fatty acids. Vegans, and anyone objecting the the fishy taste of their supplements, are just two groups sidelined in this. To be fair, this article is not the first to have this fault, it seems from reading on this over the years that journalists are fed lots of information from the fish industry; this impression is given strength as it turns out that Prof. John Stein, who is quoted in the above-mentioned IoS article, is brother to Rick Stein, a fish restaurateur who serves lavish fish dinners to politicians in Washington, D.C. while John gives a lecture on the benefits of fish.
Perhaps the fish industry is promoting health, personally I love fish. A less personable note on fish food comes from the US Food & Drug Administraion, which warns people to restrict their intake of Omega-3 from fish. With all the mercury, lead, nickel, arsenic, cadmium, PCBs, furans and dioxins, one thinks they may have good reason to warn us. Along with their data-based observations is the thought that in some cases the seas are overfished and we need to let stocks replenish.
We would hope that there will be more research into this issue, and that it also becomes lot more clear; just now, to many people it is as cloudy as a pot of rancid oil, and we would like to be able to see the light coming through when we hold it up to scrutiny. Since it does appear that Omega-3 fatty acids are of great benefit, it stands to reason that we ought to have a source of them on hand that we can trust to be heavy metal-, PCB-, furan- and dioxin-free. Hemp oil seems to be the best bet for a number or reasons, as hemp can be grown in almost any country, and grows quickly, giving the population a steady supply of an Omega-3 fatty acid (along with a number of other substances, including essential amino acids and tocopherols) in a single season. That it can do so without pesticides is also very important.
(additional information can be found in the 9 June, 2006 posting on varieties of hemp oil)

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