The West’s Missing Nutrient (Third Article of 4 on EFAs) – Alpha-Linolenic Acid – The Omega-3 EFA
Of all the essential nutrients that our bodies need to function properly, Alpha-linolenic Acid is the hardest to get in Western society today. It’s probably the worst deficiency caused by our ‘gimmie-led’, eat it NOW culture.
This was not always the case: a hundred years ago, ALA deficiency went hand-in-hand with starvation rather than with gluttony and most people got enough. This article, the third of my four on the Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), looks at why we now go short of such a vital nutrient, and what you can do about it to help yourself.
The Great Western ALA Shortage
ALA (also called LNA to confuse us) is trickier to get enough of than other essential foods. It’s the key Omega-3 fatty acid, because all the otherOmega-3 fatty acids can be made from it in our bodies. One US study suggests that 85% of us are deficient in ALA, because food manufacturers remove it from their oils to improve shelf life in the warehouse and supermarket. ALA goes rancid very fast because it’s so reactive — and that’s why it’s so valuable as a nutrient!
It’s important to remember that if you want to make use of your ALA for body cell building and repair, it has to be eaten in the right ratio with other fatty acids. If there’s too much LA in your diet (and in the West, there usually is), you can’t extract enough ALA and most of it just goes for fuel — very bad for you if you’re as deficient in ALA as most people are. The same is true if you eat more than a little trans-fat — it blocks the intake of ALA — or if you major on saturated fats, which most people get from animal fats and cheese.
So, dietary balance is essential if you want your ALA to be available and not wasted. Most people in the West will need to cut down on omega-6 rich oils and eat omega-7 and -9 rich oils instead (the mono-unsaturates) like rapeseed oil and olive oil. The ideal ratio between our intake of the two fatty acids is between 1:1 and 3:1.
Where to get ALA
The chief easy-to-get source of ALA is unrefined flax oil, which is becoming easy to find in health stores and needs to be stored in airtight dark bottles and either chilled and or frozen to avoid getting bitter to taste as it oxidizes. That’s why it used to be used in wood treatment, as varnish and paint — it hardens to a wax, then a varnish, very easily. For this purpose, it’s known as linseed oil, and is always rancid when you get it — totally unpalatable. A note here — if your local store keeps their edible flax oil on an open shelf and worse, in a warm shop, expect it to taste bitter.
Flax oil is about 50-60% ALA, and you need less than a tablespoonful to get the necessary 5-9 grams of ALA each day. Or you can eat flax seeds (linseed) — but crush them first or they’ll pass right through! The pack will tell you the proportion of ALA per ounce or gram.
Don’t ever fry with this oil — ALA is easily destroyed and turned into toxic products at high temperatures: another reason it’s removed by the refiners. It’s best added to raw food (as a salad oil, for example), and to cooked food after cooking. I put it in soups, curries, chillis and stews as I would cream — after the cooking is finished. You can bake with it if the baked goods aren’t burned deep brown, but remember that it has quite a strong flavour.
Other ALA Sources
While flax seed is the paramount source, you can find ALA in a variety of other natural, unprocessed foods in small quantities. Unfortunately, there are few sources with anything like the concentration found in flax oil. Hard to find and expensive chia oil and candlenut oil have about 30% and their seeds were a prized natural source of ALA in areas with little of either, but with flax oil available quite cheaply, why would you go for such pricy but less rich alternatives?
Hemp oil has 20% ALA and it’s much cheaper. So, it’s a better and more balanced source with a near ideal ratio of LA and ALA. Like flax seed, hemp seed was once a staple part of winter diet for both people and animals across the northern hemisphere. So why don’t we all eat these seeds? Cattle are still fed ALA-rich feedstuffs for their health, but in the West, you have to consider if you eat hemp seed or oil whether you might fail a drugs test for cannabis — another popular product of some hemp varieties! In food hemp there’s very little or no cannabinol, but some tests are searching for the presence of hemp rather than the drug, so you can fail just the same.
There are some blended oils that have a similar makeup to hemp oil but no hemp. The market leader and original is Udo’s Choice Oil Blend, compounded by Canadian Udo Erasmus, who first publicised the value of flax oil in the mid-80s; it’s produced by Flora Canada. But there are plenty of alternatives, not all with the ‘ideal’ 1:3 ratio. Find all these oils in the chiller or freezer, or don’t buy them.
If you choose to use hemp oil or a similar blend, be aware that they already give you the optimum Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio. It’s fine to eat Omega-3 oils in addition to this, but if you eat Omega-6 oils like sunflower or corn, you’re upsetting the balance and jeopardizing your uptake of Omega-3. Replacing your polyunsaturated-rich oils with mono-unsaturates will help, but you ought to keep your total oil and fat intake low, anyway.
Other useful oils
A few common oils have about 5% ALA: rape (including Canola), soybean, walnut and wheatgerm. That lovely dark green pumpkin seed oil could have 15%, or it might have none, depending on the variety. All of these are capable of supplying a small part of your ALA, but if you eat enough of them for a complete supply, you’re overdosing on LA and saturated fats. Be warned! And if the oil is refined — it’ll tell you if it isn’t — the ALA content is likely to be much lower, or even hydrogenated into worse-than-useless trans-fats.
The common cooking oils from coconut, corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, olive, palm, peanut and sunflower, and all animal fats, have no useful ALA; nor do most nut oils.
Alright. You now know enough to select what to eat to avoid the ALA deficiency disease suffered mildly by most Westerners. Will you?