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Brain-, eye-, and heart-healthy canola oil in the works

It is good for the eyes, the brain and the heart. But for healthy levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) omega-3 fatty acid, a person needs to eat a lot more fish to reap the benefits of this healthy fat.

November 6, 2008  By Bruce Barker

Dow AgroSciences hopes a DHA omega-3 canola oil will deliver health benefits to North Americans.

An omega-3 canola oil high in DHA content is in the works from Dow AgroSciences.
Photo courtesy of Canola Council of Canada.

It is good for the eyes, the brain and the heart. But for healthy levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) omega-3 fatty acid, a person needs to eat a lot more fish to reap the benefits of this healthy fat. Or, a new initiative by Dow AgroSciences and Martek Biosciences Corporation could help put DHA omega-3 within reach of the average consumer.

“Not all omega-3 is the same. The omega-3 currently found in canola and flax is healthy, but very different from that found in fish oil. DHA is a very long chain fatty acid, and as a result, it has some significant benefits over and above the benefits of plant sourced omega-3’s oil,” explains David Dzisiak, Dow AgroSciences’ Commercial Leader, Oils, in Indianapolis. 


Omega-3 fatty acids are a family of polyunsaturated fatty acids. The main component of the omega-3 family is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is essential in the human diet and is found in the fats and oils of canola, flax, wheat germ and soybeans as well as nuts such as walnuts, pecans and pine nuts, and red and black currant seeds. ALA makes up about 11 percent of the fatty acids in canola oil. Since our bodies cannot manufacture ALA, canola oil is a major source of ALA because it is widely used in salad and cooking oils, margarines and processed foods.

Humans convert some of the consumed ALA into two other important omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and DHA. The best food sources of EPA and DHA are fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, herring, trout, sardines and blue fin tuna. With the exception of these fatty fish, most species of fish are poor sources of EPA and DHA. Most fish, beef, pork and poultry contain small amounts of ALA.

DHA omega-3 is a long-chain fatty acid that serves as the primary structural fatty acid found in the brain and the eyes, and supports brain, eye and cardiovascular health throughout life. Dzisiak says there is a large and growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating that people of all ages, from infants to aging adults, benefit from an adequate supply of DHA omega-3 in the diet.

The best source of DHA is fish, although research in canola is trying to change that.
Photo courtesy of Dow AgroScience.

Scientific reviews highlight the importance of DHA omega-3 in proper brain and eye development and function, and clinical studies are underway to evaluate the role of DHA in decreasing the prevalence of certain neurological disorders. Yet despite its importance, Americans have among the lowest dietary intakes of DHA omega-3 in the world. “To get enough DHA in our diets, the consumption of fish would have to go up dramatically, and that wouldn’t be very sustainable for the fisheries industries, which are already under pressure from over fishing,” says Dzisiak. “In the US, consumption of fish would have to increase an estimated four times in order for the average person to consume enough DHA.”

While humans can convert omega-3 fatty acids to the DHA type, we do it relatively inefficiently, resulting in a deficiency in DHA in humans who rely on plant-based diets for DHA. Dow AgroSciences is working to make canola oil even more beneficial by carrying high levels of DHA omega-3. 

Dzisiak says that Dow AgroSciences partnered with Martek because of that company’s experience in producing DHA from algal fermentation. Martek’s expertise in DHA science and technology is being paired with Dow AgroSciences’ knowledge of specialty canola plant breeding to produce a DHA canola-breeding program. “Our intent is to take Martek’s DHA technology and transfer it into canola,” explains Dzisiak. “If we can do that, we’ll have a cost-effective way to make DHA oils on a large scale.” The DHA technology will be paired with Dow AgroSciences’ omega-9 canola platform, to produce an omega-9 type canola with high DHA content. While Dzisiak will not say how long before a DHA canola is commercialized and available to canola growers, he does say that they have been working on the technology for some time.  Ultimately he believes it will be a win-win situation for farmers and consumers.

“When you look at our aging population and the associated neurological, vision and heart problems, having more DHA available could produce dramatic lifestyle benefits, and savings in health costs,” says Dzisiak. “For canola growers, a DHA canola will mean even more demand for their production, and will help them stay ahead of competitive commodities
like soybeans.”


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