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Larry Newman is the Chief Operating Officer, Technical and Regulatory Affairs of Kirkman Group, Inc. (Kirkman). Contact Kirkman at 1-800-245-8282; 6400 Rosewood St., Lake Oswego, OR.

Monday, January 10, 2011

What You Should Know About Essential Fatty Acids

By Larry Newman

When we talk about essential fatty acids (EFAs), the word “essential” describes the group of fatty acids that the body cannot produce; therefore, they must be obtained from our diet.

EFAs are either omega-3 compounds or omega-6 compounds. Sources of omega-3 compounds are cod liver oil, fish oils, flax oil, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, soy beans or leafy green vegetables. Some nuts also contain omega-3s (walnuts and butternuts).

Omega-6 sources are corn oil, wheat germ oil, soy oil, borage oil, evening primrose oil, black currant oil plus many of the other grocery store bought cooking oils such as safflower oil or sunflower oil.

Canola, peanut and olive oils contain minimal omega-3 and omega-6 compounds but are instead monounsaturated oils, which are also healthy fats, even though their omega-3/6 contribution is low. Almost all processed foods are very high in omega-6s due to the fats and oils used in the processing.

EFAs play critical roles in body structure and function; in fact, life cannot be sustained without them. Some are transformed into regulating compounds called prostaglandins in the body, and these prostaglandins, along with essential fatty acids, are responsible for supporting the critical body functions listed below:

  • nerve transmission 
  • pressure regulation in the eyes, joints and blood vessels 
  • division of cells (growth and healing processes) 
  • response to pain, swelling and inflammation 
  • muscle reflexes 
  • transporting of oxygen from cells to tissues 
  • maintaining health of cell membranes 
  • supporting immune response 
  • providing energy to the heart muscle 
  • inhibiting platelet aggregation 
Prostaglandins also have a significant anti-inflammatory role in the body.

EFAs are often called by their chemical names. Omega-3 compounds are:

  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) 
  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) 
  • alpha-linolenic acid 
  • alpha-linoleic acid 
EPA and DHA are the omega-3s present in fish oils, while the alpha-linolenic and alpha-linoleic acids are found in non-fish oil fatty acid supplements such as flaxseed, pumpkin or soy. DHA primarily supports brain and eye development and is now included in infant formulas for that reason. EPA is more immune modulating, anti-inflammatory and cardio-protective in its actions, though there is considerable crossover in functions of the two fatty acids, which is why they are almost always present in combination with varying ratios of DHA and EPA.

Omega-6 compounds are:
  • linoleic acid 
  • gamma-linoleic acid 
  • gamma-linolenic acid 
  • arachidonic acid 
They are found in cooking oils, wheat germ oil, borage oil, evening primrose oil, flax oil, and black currant oil.

Many essential fatty acid products are formulated with various combinations of omega-3s and omega-6s and are used in a variety of different medical situations depending on an individual’s normally consumed diet.

Some available essential fatty acid products may also contain some omega-9 oil, though this fatty acid is not considered essential because the body can produce it from other consumed fatty acids. The principal omega-9 fatty acid is oleic acid, which is monounsaturated and is considered a healthy fat.

Balancing omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids  

The latest scientific research has supported the view that essential fatty acids need to be in equilibrium in our diet. Omega-3 and omega-6 consumption should be balanced. It is generally recommended that omega-6 consumption should be about 4 times greater than omega-3 consumption, though some physicians actually recommend equal amounts depending on the general health and normal diet of the individual.

Medically, both of these ratios are known to support good health and to be very cardio-protective. In addition, medical experts agree that both saturated fat and trans-fat consumption should be limited because they contribute to high cholesterol levels and an unhealthy ratio of LDL (bad cholesterol) to HDL (good cholesterol). Saturated fats are found in butter, margarine and lard. All omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated and are therefore considered “healthy” fats.

Unfortunately, our normal diets do not achieve the recommended 4:1 balance. Most North American and Western diets are very low in omega-3 and extremely high in omega-6. Too many saturated fats are consumed in the normal diet, and the ratio of ingested EFAs -- omega-6s to omega-3’s -- averages approximately 20:1 instead of the recommended 4:1. This is due to the fact that poor quality cooking oils and most processed foods contain omega-6 oils. In addition, the overall consumption of omega-3 rich foods is often very low. Omega-3 containing foods are fish, fish oils, flax, flax-fed chicken eggs, wheat germ, soybeans, green leafy vegetables and certain nuts (walnuts and butternuts). In many individuals, omega-3 consumption is very low or totally lacking because the aforementioned foods are not part of their diet.

Omega-3 fatty acids are believed to be cardio-protective and it is well known in medical circles that in areas of the world where fish and omega-3s are consumed in abundance, such as Alaska or the Scandinavian countries, heart disease is at a much lower level than other parts of the world where omega-3 consumption is low. Individuals who do not consume adequate levels of essential fatty acids in their diet should supplement accordingly.

Kirkman® offers many different choices for essential fatty acid supplementation, from stabilized flaxseed (EFA) to a variety of fish oil products manufactured by Nordic Naturals®. Cod liver oil is also an excellent source of omega 3s, but because it contains substantial quantities of vitamins A and D, its daily intake must be monitored so as to avoid excess accumulation in the liver of those fat-soluble vitamins. Other fish oil products generally do not contain substantial amounts of vitamins A and D.

Dosing essential fatty acids
There is little agreement in the medical community about the dosing of EFAs, and a “recommended percent daily value” has not been established. The minimum required intake of omega-3 and omega-6 compounds is generally considered to be about 1.5 grams of each for adults. Children’s requirements are normally considered to be about 1/3 of the adult requirement. Many doctors, however, use much greater dosages up to several grams per day in varying ratios.

In the case of omega-3 dosing, young children are usually given products that include higher potencies of DHA than EPA because of DHA’s support of brain and eye development. Older children and adults, on the other hand, are generally prescribed products higher in EPA than DHA.

Depending on the diet and existing medical conditions, many health professionals recommend using essential fatty acid products that also contain some omega-6 fatty acids such as borage oil or evening primrose oil. It is important that you discuss the type of essential fatty acid product best for your personal situation with your physician due to the fact that there are so many available combinations in the marketplace.

Consuming essential fatty acids from fish oils and other oils in soft gelatin capsules is the most efficient and common way of supplementing these compounds. This can be difficult for children, however, due to the fishy, unpleasant taste of the oils and due to the potential side effect of “burping" fish tastes and odors. Taking these products with food or taking flavored products will help minimize the side effects, but in many individuals the problem persists. Many adults are also affected in this way.

Kirkman’s EFA™ Powder

When these side effects become problematic enough to cause non-compliance with supplementation, a good alternative is using a stabilized, ground flaxseed product like Kirkman’s EFA™ Powder.

This product is a high quality, uniquely processed milled flaxseed product, which is not only rich in essential fatty acids but also rich in fiber and amino acids (protein). Special processing of flaxseed by our supplier of the milled seeds has made it possible for Kirkman® to offer this essential fatty acid product of premium quality. Special processing includes:

  • selecting only dry, matured, uniform colored seeds that are free of extraneous material, microbiological pathogens and mold;
  • a special cleaning process that removes small and undesirable, immature seeds that contain chlorophyll (chlorophyll is a pro-oxidant that can cause instability or degradation of flaxseed);
  • a special milling process free of excessive heat ensures no deterioration as often occurs with improperly milled flaxseed.
These steps guarantee a stable, exceptionally pure product with nutritional integrity. This product contains 41% fatty acids, 28% dietary fiber and 20% protein with a complete amino acid profile. Of the fatty acids present, 57% are polyunsaturated omega-3s and 16% are polyunsaturated omega-6s. In addition, Kirkman’s EFA™ Powder contains significant levels of potassium -- seven times the amount found in bananas (pound for pound). It is a pleasant tasting milled powder that can be easily incorporated into the diet. The product can be mixed in liquids, semi-solid foods, baked goods, cereal, soups, yogurt or any number of other commonly consumed foods.

Kirkman’s EFA™ Powder contains 3.5 times the amount of polyunsaturated omega-3s as omega-6s. This supplement helps counteract the imbalance of essential fatty acids the normal diet provides by contributing an abundance of the omega-3s that may be lacking.