At the conference in Orlando, Florida, Stanford School of Medicine professor William Harris unveiled the results of research into the potential of soybean oil as an alternative source of omega-3 to fish oil.
With concern over depleting fish stocks rising, and demand for healthy omega-3 rising too, researchers are on the look out for an alternative, more sustainable source of the heart friendly fatty acid.
Monsanto and Solae are leading research into genetically modified soybeans containing stearidonic acid (SDA) as a source of omega-3. Soybean oil is not normally a good source of omega-3 because it contains alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which the body coverts inefficiently to SDA.
Soybean oil with SDA
To create a good potential source of omega-3 from soybean oil researchers therefore cut out this stage and developed soybean oil with SDA that the body coverts to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). This is one of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish that has been associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Funded by Monsanto and Solae, Harris and his colleagues tested the efficiency of the conversion process from SDA to EPA in a double-blind study, with 157 healthy volunteers from Cincinnati, Sioux Falls and Chicago.
“Our goal was to see if the oil from the genetically engineered soybean would raise red blood cell levels of EPA,” he said.
The researchers randomized participants to three groups. Each group received two packets of oil (7.5 grams each) to put on food and two gel caps (500 milligrams each) to swallow daily.
One group received 15 grams of the SDA enriched soybean oil (SDA) in packets and gel caps totaling one gram of regular (i.e., commodity) soybean oil per day. A second group consumed one gram of EPA in gel caps and 15 grams of commodity soybean oil. The control group got only commodity soybean oil — 15 grams from packets and one gram from the gel caps.
At the end of the 12-week study, EPA levels rose 17.7 percent in the SDA group and 19.7 percent in the EPA group, both statistically significant changes. “That means the SDA in the oil was converted to EPA in the body,” Harris said. Compared to ALA, which did not raise cellular EPA levels at all, SDA raised blood cell EPA levels with about 18 percent of the efficiency of pure EPA.
Assessing the significance of the results the chief of cardiovascular health research at Stanford said: “This oil could make a major contribution to our national omega-3 intake. The supply could be virtually endless, and it would provide omega-3s without putting additional pressure on fish stocks.”
Before this happens more research needs to be done to assess the effectiveness of the GM soybean oil as a health ingredient in food products. “Our next step is to formulate this SDA soybean oil into food products such as breakfast bars, yogurts and salad dressings, and then do a study to see if it is absorbed by the body and converted to EPA,” Harris said. “It should be, but you don’t know until you test it.”
There is also a regulatory trail to be completed. Only last month Monsanto and Solae received GRAS notification from the FDA for their soybean omega-3. But there is still a lot of testing, regulatory, and marketing work to be done. The companies say the product is unlikely to hit food shelves until the early part of the next decade.