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What is Omega-3

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential nutrients for health.

They are found naturally in cold-water sea fish and some plants. These polyunsaturated omega-3 fats are liquid at room temperature and remain liquid when refrigerated, unlike saturated fats found in butter and lard which are solid at room temperatures. Monounsaturated fats, found in olive oil, are also liquid at room temperature, but harden when refrigerated. When eaten in appropriate amounts, each type of fat can contribute to health.

The three major commonly known omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)A lesser known omega-3 fatty acid is docosapentaenoic acid (DPA). They vary in chain length (i.e., degree of polyunsaturated) and dietary sources. DHA and EPA are commonly referred to as long chain fatty acids or long chain omega-3.

A description of each is provided below.

DHA or docosahexaenoic acid

DHA is the longest chain polyunsaturated fatty acid of the three major omega-3s. Its structure comprises 22 carbon units and 6 unsaturated bonds and is found naturally in marine sources like cold-water fish such as tuna, salmon, halibut and herring. Certain algae also contain DHA. DHA is very important for heart health and brain development.

DPA or docosapentaenoic acid

DPA is along chain omega-3 found in fish and also in lean red meat. DPA has been less well studied compared to the other more commonly known omega-3s, yet the scientific evidence available suggests DPA has similar heart health benefits to EPA and DHA.

EPA or eicosapentaenoic acid

EPA is another long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid.It structure comprises of 20 carbon units and 5 unsaturated bonds. EPA is predominantly found in oily fish and is beneficial for reducing inflammation and helps to manage and reduce the risk of heart disease.

ALA or Alpha(α)-linolenic acid

ALA is the shortest chain of the three major Omega-3s, comprising 18 carbon units and 3 unsaturated bonds.

The main dietary sources of ALA are typically plant based such as flaxseeds, linseeds, rapeseed oil, hemp seeds, soybeans and some dark green leafy vegetables such as brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, and salad greens. Walnuts are also rich in ALA.

ALA is a precursor of the two important longer chain omega 3 fatty acids, eicosapantaenoic acid (EPA) and docosanexaenoic acids (DHA), i.e the body converts ALA into EPA and then DHA. But the conversion of ALA to EPA in the body is low and estimated to be between 5 and 10%. For optimum health it is ideal if the diet contains a sufficient balance of all omega 3 fatty acids.