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EPA/DHA vs. ALA in Omega-3 Battle

Fatty acids are needed in your everyday diet.  So much so, that many food companies enhance their products with the ever-important omega-3 fatty acids.  There are three types of these omega-3 acids: ALA, EPA and DHA.  Each has their own health benefits and come from different sources. But is one (or two) more effective than the other? Looks like it. Recent reports indicate that EPA/DHA is winning out over ALA in the Omega-3 battle.

The Omega-3s

ALA: Alpha-linolenic acids are found in the plant world and are naturally found in things like dark green veggies, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, walnuts and walnut oil, pumpkin seeds, soybeans and soybean oil.  It’s one of the essential fatty acids and cannot be formed in the human body without ingesting it in your diet. This unsaturated fat has been shown to help prevent coronary heart disease, and may be helpful in conditions such as arthritis, depression, and certain digestive disorders just to name a few.

EPA: Eicosapentaenoic acids are another essential unsaturated fatty acid.  It is found predominantly in fish oil, and naturally in cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, cod, tuna and fresh seaweed. EPA acids have been known to help with inflammatory problems as well as many mental health issues such as schizophrenia and depression. Like ALA, your body cannot form EPA naturally, so you need to get it via food or supplementation.

DHA: Docosahexaenoic acid is a 22-carbon bond chain with 6 double bond chains. It is found in the same sources as EPA and is the most abundant essential fatty acid in the brain. It aids in fighting the growth of certain cancer cells, as well as helping prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. And, again, like both ALA and EPA, you must ingest DHA as your body cannot form it naturally.

EPA and DHA are recently being recognized as the winners when it comes to the omega-3s. Your body can convert ALA into DHA and EPA, but some experts claim that conversion process doesn’t work the same for everyone, making EPA and DHA fortification (and possibly supplementation) a necessity.

From a Manufacturer’s Viewpoint

In 2006 a surge of products were introduced with these omega fatty acids, but it is said that the market is still far from being saturated. Manufactures didn’t start pushing the omega-3 contents of food until the later part of 2004 and even then these products didn’t really take off until 2006 when they started hitting the shelves of everyday U.S. supermarkets.

Many food and beverage companies, as well as supplement manufacturers are now using these various types of Omega-3 fatty acids to enhance their products. The overall market for omega-3 foods and drinks grew 34 percent between 2006 and 2007, from $3B to almost $5B.  Up until now, these manufacturers used mainly ALA acids due to the easiness of integrating ALA into the food products.  However, recent advances in technology using the longer bonded acid EPA and DHA show that they are far easier to integrate. Additionally, methods are being implemented that allow for the elimination of the fishy aftertaste that comes with their use.

Packaged Facts is making the prediction that by the year 2012, EPA and DHA enhanced foods will have a 9% growth rate and will make up roughly 78% of all the omega-3 enhanced products sold in the United States.  ALA enhanced foods, however, will experience a 17% decrease in sales, according to Packaged Facts. Overall sales of Omega-3 enhanced products, according to Packaged Facts, should reach roughly $8B in the United States in the year 2012.

Consumer Importance

So what does this mean for you, the consumer? Quite a lot, actually. Manufacturers are recognizing the importance of DHA/EPA and the surging market reflects it. As more studies are done on the health benefits of these nutrients, there is bound to be greater urgency on incorporating them into your diet. But you don’t have to wait for research . . . the benefits are already evident. Whether you get your EPA/DHA from natural sources or via supplementation (or both), the vital point is that you do in one way or the other.

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