Derisking the commercial opportunities associated with novel omega-3 foodstuffs

Lead Research Organisation: Rothamsted Research
Department Name: Plant Sciences and the Bioeconomy


Omega-3 fats called EPA and DHA are important for human development and health. EPA and DHA are obtained from the diet by eating fatty fish or taking fish oil supplements. The UK government recommends that people consume EPA and DHA daily in order to maintain health. However, most people consume much less than the recommended amount. The main barriers that limit the effectiveness of the recommendations are dietary choices that exclude animal products, concerns about contamination with environmental pollutants and the high cost of oily fish or fish oil supplements. Also, there are not enough fish in the sea to provide all the EPA and DHA that people need globally. Moreover, marine fish stocks are declining. Therefore, there is a need to find a sustainable source that can provide enough EPA and DHA to meet the needs for these healthy fats.
The BBSRC has sponsored the development a genetically modified variety of the seed oil plant Camelina sativa that can make EPA and DHA (plants cannot usually do this). The seed oil produced by this genetically modified plant contains similar amounts of EPA and DHA to fish oils. Therefore, it is possible that this seed oil could be used to replace fatty fish and fish oil supplements as a sustainable and inexpensive source of EPA and DHA for humans. A recent study by the applicants tested whether the seed oil from this genetically modified plant was as effective as fish oil as a source of EPA and DHA in the human diet. The study showed that the absorption of EPA and DHA from a meal and how much got into blood was indistinguishable whether when participants consumed fish oil or the plant seed oil. Similarly, the increase in EPA and DHA levels in blood when consumed as the plant seed oil for 2 months was essentially the same as when consumed as fish oil. Moreover, the plant seed oil improved risk factors and biomarkers of heart disease by a similar extent to fish oil. There were no adverse health effects from consuming the plant seed oil. Together these findings show that the plant seed oil is as effective as fish oil as a source of EPA and DHA in the human diet and a potentially safe, sustainable and scalable alternative to consuming oil from fish that addresses the current barriers to achieving recommended EPA and DHA intakes.
The proposed pre-commercialisation project (a collaboration between researchers at Rothamsted Research, and the Universities of Reading and Southampton) will build on these findings to develop a modified Camelina seed oil fortified food that is consumed widely by the general population. Such a fortified food is more likely to be incorporated into the diet of consumers compared to giving the plant seed oil as a dietary supplement in capsules. Moreover, this approach is consistent with the UK government recommendations to consume EPA and DHA in food. The first phase of the work will involve growing the genetically modified plant, harvesting the seed, and extracting and purifying the seed oil. The second phase of the project will test a range of widely consumed foods, such as margarines, for their suitability for fortification with the plant seed oil. Candidate foods will be tested for consumer acceptability, primarily taste and texture, and stability compared to current commercial products. Foods that are considered to be acceptable for human consumption will then be tested in a dietary supplementation study to test their effectiveness in increasing EPA and DHA levels in blood and to assess whether incorporation into a food modifies the absorption of these fatty acids compared to the free oil.
We expect that the findings of this project will provide strong proof-of-concept evidence that foods which are fortified with modified Camelina seed oil are potentially commercialisable products that can support national and global health. Furthermore, the results will also represent an opportunity for UK agriculture to produce a globally unique crop.


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