Food and Behaviour Research

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24 March 2016 - Nutraingredients - The omega-3 pioneer

Stephen Daniells

It all started with a trip to Greenland in 1970. Three Danes, a couple of dogsleds, and several years of study later and the omega-3 was born. Since then, awareness and understanding of marine omega-3 has sky-rocketed.

In an exclusive interview, omega-3 pioneer Dr. Jörn Dyerberg shared his thoughts on the rise of the omega-3 phenomenon and gave his inimitable insight into its future directions.   

Dr. Dyerberg holds a unique place in nutritional research. As a young doctor, curious about the Inuit's high fat diet and low incidence of heart disease - and attracted by the opportunity to dog sled over the ice and snow - he set off with fellow countrymen Hans Olaf Bang and Aase Brondum Nielsen for the north-west coast of Greenland.   

The young Danes sought to understand how the Greenland Eskimos, or Inuit as they prefer to be called, could eat a high fat diet and still have one of the lowest death rates from cardiovascular disease on the planet.   

"We set off with the plan to first look at their blood, and then look at their diet," he said.   

Back in the early 70s the Inuit were still a hunter and fisherman society, living mostly on seal meat and fish. And yet heart disease accounted for 5.3 per cent of deaths amongst Greenland males, aged 45 to 64, compared to their US counterparts eating a vastly different diet where 40 per cent of deaths were due to coronary heart disease (CHD). These early studies yielded a landmark paper in The Lancet, published in 1971.   

The researchers reported favorable blood lipid levels among the Inuit, but this, in itself, could not explain the far lower heart disease incidence, he said.   

"After presenting the lipid data in The Lancet, we had a very old gas chromatogram that enabled us to do sample analysis on 130 blood samples. After two years of analysis (today it would take about a fortnight) we reported that we'd found two fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid," said Dr. Dyerberg.  

"From that moment omega-3 was born."   

The science explosion

"I have done some computing," said Dr. Dyerberg with a smile, "and since we published the first paper in 1971 there are now some 14,000 published papers [on omega-3], including close to 8,000 human studies."   

"It was easy to calculate for 1971 - there was only us!" he said.   

Dr. Dyerberg points out that no mention of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA was made in The Lancet paper. That followed in 1975 in another landmark paper, this time in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.   

The young doctors wrote about the "remarkable differences" in levels of long chain fatty acids between the Inuit and the Danes. Most notable were the high levels of timnodonic acid - that's EPA to you and me. Dyerberg, then in his mid-thirties, wrote: "We feel strongly that the last word in the problem: dietary habits - especially related to the intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids - plasma lipid and lipoprotein concentrations, and coronary atherosclerosis has not yet been spoken."   

And despite the explosion of omega-3 in science and the marketplace, it looks like the last word is a long way from being spoken. Dr. Dyerberg quoted literature reporting improvements in blood lipid levels, a reduced tendency of thrombosis, blood pressure and heart rate improvements, and improved vascular function.