Omega 3 fatty acids – what’s all the fuss about ? (part 1) - The science bit, Alpha linolenic acid

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The science bit

Omega 3s are a type of fatty acid, the main component of fat. They are polyunsaturated and so are known as PUFAs (polyunsaturated fatty acids). There are two different categories, short-chain PUFAs and long-chain PUFAs (LCPUFAs). It is the long-chain ones that have been found to have particular benefits to babies’ health.

The most important omega 3 fatty acids are:

  • alpha linolenic acid (ALA): a short-chain omega 3 found in seeds and oils;
  • docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): a long-chain omega 3 (LCPUFA) found mainly in oily fish, but also in small amounts in eggs and some algae;
  • eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): a long-chain omega 3 found in oily fish.

Food and supplement manufacturers often lump all omega 3s together, as if they had the same effects on health. Incidentally, short-chain omega 3s from vegetable oils are much cheaper to produce than long-chain omega 3s from fish or algae, so any confusion doesn’t do profits any harm.

Alpha linolenic acid (ALA)

ALA is called an ‘essential fatty acid’. This is because our bodies need it and it must be included in the diet. By contrast, our health wouldn’t suffer if we didn’t consume most of the other fatty acids found in food. There isn’t an official recommendation for ALA intake but you need at least about 1g or 1,000mg per day.

Sources of short-chain omega 3 fatty acids are shown in the table for ALA.

  ALA (g) per 100g ALA per portion
Flaxseeds (linseeds) 23 3.5g per tablespoon
Walnuts 9 2.5g per handful
Tofu 0.2 0.2g per 100g
Flaxseed oil 53 8g per tablespoon
Walnut oil 10 1.5g per tablespoon
Rapeseed oil 9 1.4g per tablespoon
Soya oil 7 1.1g per tablespoon


Flaxseeds

Flaxseeds are a good source of ALA, but while you’re pregnant you should avoid high intakes of whole or crushed flaxseeds because their husks contain lignins, which have a hormone-like effect. This makes them good for treating hot flushes during the menopause, but they may have undesirable effects during pregnancy. In animal studies, high intakes have been found to result in reduced litter size and birth weight.

You can avoid lignins by having flaxseed oil instead, since lignins are only found in the husk of flaxseeds. (But don’t get ‘high lignin flaxseed oil’, which has lignins added to it.)

 
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