Published on 04/22/04

Food scientist develops a better fish oil

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

University of Georgia scientists have developed a form of omega- 3 fish oil that's easier for people to absorb and leaves no fishy aftertaste.

Research has linked omega-3 consumption with a reduced risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and vision impairment. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids at least twice a week to prevent coronary heart disease.

That's fine for those who like fish. The rest can take omega-3 fish oil in bottles or capsules. One problem with this, as anyone who's ever taken cod liver oil will attest, is the taste. Even after taking omega-3 fish oil in capsules, many complain of "fish burps."

UGA food scientist Casimir Akoh set out to make a form of omega- 3 fish oil that's easier for people to metabolize and doesn't have the fishy smell and taste. These new oils, called structured lipids, are made with enzymes called lipases.

Most people would probably appreciate the new form's odorless qualities. But the fact that this form is more easily absorbed, Akoh said, is the most significant advantage.

By rearranging the order of the three fatty acid molecules in omega-3 fish oil, he said, "we kept the Omega-3 molecule at the 2-position that allows it to go further along in the process of digestion, so it's better incorporated into our membranes," said Akoh.

Taking fat on purpose? The message for years now has been "Stay away from fat to avoid getting fat."

Akoh points out that not all fats are the same. Saturated fats and trans-fatty acids contribute to the artery-clogging problems we should try to avoid.

"When we eat saturated fat, it makes cell membranes less permeable," Akoh said. "Trans-fatty acids are even worse. They don't melt as easily as saturated fats. Higher temperatures are needed."

However, some fats are good. Unsaturated and monounsaturated fats are important for human health. And omega-3 fatty acids actually help make cell membranes more permeable.

Two omega-3 fatty acids, commonly known as EPA and DHA, provide critical defenses against some of the most serious and widespread health problems facing the United States.

A third kind of omega-3 fatty acid is found in soybeans, canola, walnuts and flax seeds, but it's less potent. The highest concentrations of DHA and EPA are found in fish, especially mackerel, lake trout, sardines and salmon.

(Cat Holmes is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.