GM soy researched for omega-3 potential

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Eicosapentaenoic acid, Omega-3 fatty acid

A new source of omega-3 produced from soybean oil derived from genetically-modified plants could safeguard supplies and protect dangerously depleted world fish stocks.

The oil increased levels of omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in red blood cells, according to research presented at last month’s American Heart Association’s Scientific (AHA) Sessions 2009, held in Orlando, Florida.

“Finding alternative sources of omega-3 would be really useful​,” Dr Ussif Rashid Sumaila, director of the Fisheries Economics Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, told “Genetically modified soybeans could be[a] good [way of dealing with the problem of falling fish stocks].

Cardiovascular health

Omega-3 fatty acids, usually but not exclusively sourced from fish, are important both for cardiovascular health and brain development. The acids are found in fish such as mackerel, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. But, with world fish stocks at critical levels, fears are focusing on the sustainability of this source of omega-3.

William Harris, lead author of the study and chief of cardiovascular health research at Sanford Research/University of South Dakota and professor of medicine at Sanford School of Medicine, USD, confirmed: "This soybean oil​ could be an effective alternative to fish oil as a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids​.

"We know that giving pure EPA to people reduces their risk for heart disease. Presumably, if you gave this special soybean oil to people, you'd do the same thing — reduce heart attacks​."

Plus, the supply could be virtually endless, protect fish stocks and avoid risking contamination from mercury, PCBs or dioxins associated with fish, he added.

AHA recommends eating two servings per week of fatty fish which is high in EPA and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). But many Americans don’t like eating fish because of the taste, preparation and concern that it may be contaminated by pollutants, according to the study’s authors.

Inefficient process

A few plants, particularly soybeans, produce oils that contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is another type of omega-3 fatty acid​,” they wrote. “The human body converts ALA to stearidonic acid (SDA), but this is a very inefficient process. The body converts SDA to EPA far more effectively, resulting in more EPA per gram consumed.”

The research aimed to bypass the ALA-to-SDA conversion step in the body by replicating in the soybean plant. A new soybean variety was developed by inserting one gene from another plant and one from a fungus to allow the soybean plant to produce SDA.

The result is a soybean oil enriched in SDA, which when consumed allows the body to produce more EPA than if it started with ALA​,” they wrote.

The next step is to formulate SDA soybean oil into food products, such as breakfast bars, yogurts and salad dressings, to study if it is absorbed by the body and converted to EPA.

Monsanto, which developed the soybeans, has asked the Food and Drug Administration to grant the oil GRAS (generally recognize as safe) status; acknowledging that it is safe to add to foods.

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