Last updated on Jan 14th, 2021 at 04:20 pm
In the 1970s a group of Danish researchers discovered that the Inuit in Greenland got fewer heart attacks than the rest of the population. This was quite a puzzle, because the Inuit eat an enormous amount of fat as part of their diet – just what doctors were advising the rest of us to stay away from!
By now we all know the solution to this puzzle: the fish they were eating was packed with omega 3 fatty acids. Since the original discovery, literally thousands of scientific studies have been published on the benefits of essential fatty acids (EFAs).
Essential fatty acids:
Reduce the risk of cardiac arrhythmia
Reduce the risk of cardiac arrest
Decrease circulating triglycerides
Thin the blood and reduce blood clotting
Reduce the risk of thrombosis and vascular disease
Slow the progress of atherosclerosis
Lower blood pressure
Help to reduce arthritic pain
May help prevent schizophrenia and other psychoses
May help prevent ADHD
Improve the prognosis of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease
Improve brain function
Reduce autoimmune diseases
Support the immune system
Can help reduce the symptoms of psoriasis and eczema
Are necessary for the development of children’s brains and eyes
Together with all their other benefits, these ‘good fats’ protect the cardiovascular system, and a wide range of medical authorities agree that you should find some way to get enough essential fatty acids in your diet.
How much EFA do I need?
No RDA has yet been established, but an Italian study involving over eleven thousand patients found that taking 850 mg of omega 3 fatty acids per day caused a 45% decrease in sudden cardiac death. Up to 3 000 mg per day is certified by the FDA as “Generally Regarded as Safe” (GRAS).
If you prefer to take flaxseed oil as your EFA supplement of choice, the experts say that for maximum cardiac protection you should take around 2 to 3 grams of ALA every day, as it is only partially converted to EPA and DHA in the body.
Of course, if you have any existing medical conditions or if you follow an unusual diet for any reason, you should discuss any dietary supplements with your doctor or dietician.
So, what is the best way to get your daily dose of EFAs? One solution is to go the Eskimo route: eat lots of fish every day. This option has worked for millennia in the frozen north, but even there the modern world is affecting the old ways of living. Just a few years after the discovery of the benefits of a fish diet, researchers discovered that industrial pollution of the ocean had contaminated the fish and seal stocks to such an extent that native Alaskans were getting dangerous levels of mercury and pesticides in their diet.
So, although fish is definitely a large part of a healthy diet, it is wise to boost your omega 3 intake with a good-quality EFA supplement. In fact, in the Diet and Reinfarction Trial (DART), a large randomised study on the effects of oily fish on men who had had heart attacks, some of the participants did not want to eat fish, so they were given fish-oil capsules (providing 900 mg of EPA and DHA per day). These patients were actually less likely to have a second heart attack than those who had been advised to eat oily fish twice weekly.
But if fish can be contaminated with pollutants, what about fish oils? Are they safe?
Although some poor-quality fish oil supplements have been found to be contaminated with pollutants, Vital only uses raw materials that are guaranteed to be free from toxic pollutants, and regularly sends them for testing by accredited external laboratories. Furthermore, every batch of every raw material purchased by Vital Health Foods is accompanied by a certificate of analysis from the supplier, and is tested to confirm its identity and purity. Vital only deals with reputable suppliers who are committed to the safety and quality of their products.
Looking for an alternative to fish or fish oil? Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is a polyunsaturated omega 3 fatty acid that is found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, soybean oil, canola oil and especially in flaxseed oil, which contains more than fifty per cent ALA. Although only a portion (about ten to sixteen per cent) of the ALA in your diet is converted to DHA and EPA, a number of scientific studies have shown that it is also effective in reducing heart disease.
For this reason, flaxseed oil is a very important supplement for vegetarians who don’t eat fish or fish oil. Unfortunately, flaxseed oil is particularly prone to rancidity if it is not very carefully handled from the moment that it is pressed from the seed. Also, because it is an agricultural product, flaxseed can be contaminated with pesticides if it is not processed correctly. On top of this, farmland is nowadays also frequently contaminated with heavy-metal pollution from nearby cities – and lead can be taken up by plants.
Fortunately, you can rest assured if you take Vital flaxseed supplements. Our flaxseed is subjected to the same stringent external tests for heavy metals and pesticide residue that our fish oils undergo.
All the information that is out there about contaminants and toxins in the environment is enough to put many people off taking EFA supplements, and that’s a shame. The reason that they are called “essential” fatty acids is that we desperately need them in our diet, and most of us aren’t getting nearly enough. The current best estimate is that while about fifty per cent of the polyunsaturated fat in our diet should be made up of omega 3 fatty acids, in the typical Western diet that number is closer to ten per cent. So don’t be afraid of your EFA supplement – just make sure that you pick one with the right pedigree.
Keep a cool head over brain food
Can you test the quality of your fish-oil supplement by freezing it? If you believe the stories that circulate through the e-mail grapevine, it’s all so easy: to find out which EFA supplements make the cut, stick them in the freezer; the ones that freeze aren’t pure.
If only it were that simple! Like many good stories, this one has a grain of truth. Laboratory-pure DHA has a freezing point close to -50 °C, much lower than your freezer can achieve, so it will remain liquid. A crude fish oil mixture with a lot of saturated fatty acids will have a much higher freezing point, so to that extent the rumour is true, but why would you go to all that trouble when you can just read the label to see how much DHA you’re getting for your rand?
Look a bit deeper, and you realise that something is a bit fishy. Responsible manufacturers avoid rancidity by adding antioxidants, such as vitamin E, to their products, which raises the freezing point. And what if you want a bit more than just your basic omega 3 supplement? Pure oleic acid, the main omega-6 fatty acid in olive oil, will even freeze outside the fridge on a cold day in Cape Town!
On the other hand, it doesn’t take much pesticide residue or methyl mercury to make a fish oil completely unfit for human consumption – this is something that a freezer test would never pick up. This is why Vital Health Foods only buys top-quality EFA raw materials, and has them tested for heavy metals and pesticide residues by accredited external laboratories. You can rest assured, when you buy your Vital EFA supplement you are getting the good stuff, all the good stuff and nothing but the good stuff!
Know your enemy!
Lead is the most well-known heavy-metal pollutant. Lead compounds were used all over the world in petrol additives, and lead was often used as a pigment in paint. Lead pollution is widespread and can be found in animal and plant tissue. Lead is toxic to the brain and nervous system, and is particularly dangerous to babies and young children.
In the 1950s the residents of Minamata Bay, Japan, started developing strange neurological symptoms from eating fish which had been contaminated by industrial mercury pollution. The problem of mercury contamination continues to this day; mercury is released by coal-fired power plants and incinerators, and is converted by micro-organisms in lakes and streams to the more toxic chemical, methyl mercury, which persists in the environment and ends up in the fat of fish and marine mammals such as whales and seals. Mercury is poisonous to the nervous system and also damages the lungs and kidneys.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are persistent organic pollutants. They are industrial chemicals that take a very long time to break down in the environment, and are known to have a number of negative effects on health, the most serious of which are long-term effects on the brain and nervous system.
Before first world countries banned them in the 1970s and 1980s, they were widely used in industry, and they were often accidentally released into the environment.
While PCBs are only ever released into the environment by accident, organic pesticides are intentionally sprayed onto crops. There is an enormous variety of different pesticides, with 750 to 1 000 different kinds currently in production, and some of them can persist in the environment for a very long time. They are toxic in high doses, and although it is uncertain whether they have any effect on human health in the amounts found in foods, evidence is growing that they can disrupt the endocrine system and cause cancer.
When polyunsaturated fatty acids are exposed to oxygen and light, they are oxidised, or in other words, they go rancid. The scientific measure of the rancidity of an oil is the “peroxide value”. Only a tiny amount of oxygen is needed to cause this reaction. Once an oil starts to go rancid, it quickly becomes unfit for consumption because, once started, the rancidification becomes a chain reaction.
Although rancid oil has an unpleasant taste and smell, few people are aware that oxidised oil is neurotoxic. This was first noticed in Japan in 1964, when fried instant noodles containing rancid oils caused a rash of food poisoning. Oxidation is also a problem with fast-food restaurants that keep their oil at frying temperature for a long time, and use it over and over again. Peroxides also have long-term effects – they can increase cholesterol levels and promote atherosclerosis, and there is some evidence that they may cause cancer.
Fortunately, there is a way around rancidification. Apart from being a necessary nutrient in its own right, vitamin E is an excellent antioxidant. For this reason Vital EFA supplements all contain some vitamin E to stop the oxidation process in its tracks.
Fish and plant oils that are used in Vital essential fatty acid products are tested for the presence of heavy metals such as lead and mercury, as well as pesticides, to ensure safe supplementation. All Vital essential fatty acid products are free from heavy metals and lead, as indicated by the ‘Purity Certified’ logo on pack.
By: David Richfield – Vital Magazine
While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.