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Food Enriched with Healthy Acids
April 1, 2015   
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Polish researchers have found a way to enrich food with fatty acids of the omega-3 class that are known to help prevent cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and have anti-cancer properties. The researchers also want to develop new pharmaceuticals containing omega-3 acids.

Healthy omega-3 polyunsaturated acids are found in flax seed oil, fish and fish oil, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. In terms of human health, the best of the several types of omega-3 acids is pure alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which our bodies convert into two other types: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Studies on the impact of polyunsaturated fatty acids on human health have shown that the acids are necessary to keep the cardiovascular and nervous systems in good shape. They also reduce the risk of certain kinds of tumors.

The research on omega-3 acids is being conducted by a consortium led by FLC Pharma, a producer of dietary supplements. FLC Pharma has contributed zl.635,000 to the research project and has teamed up with the Faculty of Chemistry of the University of Wrocław and the Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences, forming a project consortium. The project has been co-financed to the tune of zl.712,000 by the National Center for Research and Development (NCBR) under its Innotech program.

According to Tomasz Wysoczański, CEO of FLC Pharma, alpha-linolenic acid is essential for all living organisms to function. The ethyl ester form of this acid is among the most stable and easily absorbed by humans. This form is used to produce medicines and so-called nutraceuticals, or healthy food additives. A sandwich with a nutraceutical can provide an amount of omega-3 acids equivalent to that coming from 600 grams of shrimp. The method to produce omega-3 ethyl esters has been developed by three chemists from the University of Wrocław in southwestern Poland: Prof. Hubert Kołodziej, Stanisław Strzelecki, M.Sc., and Andrzej Vogt, Ph.D. Vogt is managing a project aimed at developing a method to produce industrial quantities of pure alpha-linolenic (ALA) acid in its esterified form. This is a cheap and proven way to separate this particular kind of omega acid that is expected to allow for ALA to be added to food products and medicines.

Flax seed oil contains omega-3, omega-6 and omega-9 acids and other healthy substances. The human diet should contain two omega acids, ALA and linolenic acid (of the omega-6 family), in a proportion of 1:4. In the early phase of the project, the researchers checked whether omega acid esters obtained with the new method behaved identically to acids from natural sources. An experiment conducted at the Wrocław University of Environmental and Life Sciences on rats showed that was indeed the case. The esterified form of ALA acid transformed into the EPA and DHA derivatives, resulting in the full range of omega-3 acids.

According to Wysoczański, an excessive amount of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids in a person’s daily diet may lead to the development of arteriosclerotic vascular disease, whose consequences include blocked arteries, strokes, heart failures, cardiovascular diseases and problems with blood circulation in the legs. Too much of omega-6 has also been found responsible for cancer and degenerative diseases of the central nervous system, including Alzheimer’s, Wysoczański says.

All of these diseases can, of course, be triggered by a host of other factors such as stress, but omega-3 deficiency, coupled with excessive amounts of omega-6, nevertheless plays a major part. When a cell builds its membrane using saturated fatty acids instead of polyunsaturated ones, the membrane becomes too thick, which hinders the communication between the cell and its environment. Cells with such thick membranes cannot function properly, which opens the way for diseases including cancer.

In order to ensure the appropriate proportion of omega-3 and omega-6 acids, we need to provide our bodies with as much omega-3 as possible while limiting the intake of omega-6. Meanwhile, the food industry tends to overuse rapeseed and sunflower oils that are rich in omega-6. As a result, our bodies contain 30 to 50 times more omega-6 on average than we actually need. “The omega-3 to omega-6 ratio should be one to four, while in reality it’s 1:30 in the West and up to 1:50 in the United States,” says Wysoczański.

The average European eats between 20 and 30 times more omega-6 than omega-3, preventing the body from absorbing the healthier fatty acid. In contrast, the indigenous people of Greenland, who eat a lot of sea fish, have sufficient amounts of omega-3 and rarely suffer from arteriosclerosis, heart failures and clotted blood vessels. The same is true of the inhabitants of the Japanese island of Okinawa, who have a similar diet. This fact has caught the attention of researchers and food producers, prompting them to look for ways to increase the amount of omega-3 in food available in developed countries. Before turning to medicines and food additives, they first wanted to develop a method to isolate pure omega-3 and omega-6 from a mix of omega-3, -6 and -9 acids. The researchers were successful at that and the esterified form of the two fatty acids has been approved for sale in pharmaceuticals and food. As a food additive, pure ALA acid will increase omega-3 levels without increasing those of omega-6.

The technology patented by Vogt produces omega-3, -6 and -9 acids on an industrial scale, but a pilot production line has also enabled researchers to completely eliminate omega-6 from the mix. Joining forces with the researchers, FLC Pharma wants to start offering pure omega-3, or ALA, to the pharmaceutical and food industries. This could encourage one or more pharmaceutical companies to start research of their own and use the product as medication. For now, ALA is only available as a dietary supplement. In line with European Union recommendations, people should take around 2 grams of omega-3 daily.

If the pharmaceutical industry starts conducting tests using pure ALA, in the future researchers could come up with a drug capable of halting the progress of arteriosclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease as well as supporting cancer treatment. A large body of literature indicates that ALA promotes cell regeneration. It is also known to reduce low-intensity systemic inflammation.

The project ended in December last year, resulting in the researchers obtaining alpha-linolenic acid with 98-percent purity in a lab. The next step is to launch production and find businesses willing to use the technology in the pharmaceutical industry. “Finding partners in the food industry will be easier because the preparation we have obtained can be added to yogurt and mayonnaise, for example,” says Wysoczański. “It has no flavor or smell, and thus holds a major advantage over oil from flax seeds and fish. We will encourage food producers to enrich their products with ALA.”

Karolina Olszewska
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