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Southampton research shows plants could replace fish as vegetarian source of Omega-3

Published: 25 April 2019
Image of camelina sativa
As part of the study, the University worked in collaboration with Rothamsted Research.

University of Southampton scientists have tested genetically modified plant oil as a sustainable vegetarian source of Omega-3.

The Omega-3 fats that are mainly found in fish oil and oily fish, namely eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are important for health and development. 

However, the UK population consumes less than half the recommended amounts of EPA and DHA. This can be due to dietary choices that exclude fish or following a vegetarian diet.

Moreover, the amount of EPA and DHA that can be produced by marine sources could only meet less than 15 per cent of the global demand for these fatty acids. Therefore, there is a need for a source of EPA and DHA that is broadly acceptable to consumers, which can be scaled up to meet demands and is sustainable.

The research group, led by Professor Johnathan Napier at the agricultural research institute Rothamsted Research, has developed a seed oil plant (Camelina sativa) using genetic modification to produce an enhanced vegetable oil that contains EPA and DHA in similar amounts to fish oil.

Researchers at the University, led by Professor Graham Burdge in collaboration with Rothamsted Research, have for the first time tested in people whether the oil from the genetically modified plant, which contains EPA and DHA, is as good as fish oil in providing these fatty acids.

Their findings, which are published in the British Journal of Nutrition, show that when young and middle aged men and women consumed the same amount of EPA plus DHA in a single standard meal, either as fish oil or as the oil from the genetically modified plant, there was no difference in the uptake of these fatty acids from the meal or the body processing these fats.

Moreover, there was no difference between men and women, but the older participants appeared to take up EPA and DHA more efficiently than the younger ones. Significantly, there were no adverse effects on those who had consuming the modified oil.

Professor Graham Burdge said: “These findings show that the oil from this transgenic plant is an effective means of providing EPA and DHA in the diet which overcomes the negative effect on EPA and DHA intakes of consuming a diet that excludes animal products. 

“Furthermore, subject to further testing and regulatory approval, this would represent a unique opportunity for British farmers that could have a positive impact on the nutrition of the global population.”

Professor Johnathan Napier added: “It is genuinely exciting to see our research progress to the point where we are carrying out human studies, and even more pleasing to see such positive outcomes.”

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