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Omega – 3: Could this important nutrient be falling under the radar?

  • Nearly 2 in 3 people (63%) have not heard of omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) – an essential fatty acid which cannot be made in our body and a vital nutrient which we must make sure we get enough of through diet to maintain health

  • 8 in 10 people are not aware of the heart health benefits of omega-3 ALA, including supporting normal blood cholesterol levels and helping to prevent heart disease 

  • Over half of those surveyed do not know what foods contain omega-3 ALA

  • 1 in 20 incorrectly think omega-3 ALA is bad for overall health

Unlike protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, in the UK there is no recommended daily amount for omega-3 ALA – an important nutrient our bodies need, but cannot produce.

As a result, this nutrient is falling under many people’s radar and there is a lack of awareness about what omega-3 ALA is, why it is important and how to get enough of it.

New research* conducted by California Walnuts reveals that nearly 2 in 3 people (63%) have not heard of omega-3 ALA at all.

The research shows there is a lack of knowledge around the many health benefits omega-3 ALA can offer. Omega-3 ALA can contribute to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels [1], but more than 8 in 10 (83%) of those surveyed were not aware of this. Research has also shown ALA to have a beneficial role in the prevention and reduction of heart disease [2], but a similar number (81%) did not know this was the case.  

The risk of heart disease increases with age [3], but surprisingly only 1 in 25 (4%) of those aged 55-64 worry about how much omega-3 ALA they get from their diet, with this dropping to 1 in 50 (2%) for the over 65s. This is in contrast to the younger age groups – where 24% of those aged 18-24 are concerned about their intake of omage-3 ALA versus just 4% of the 55–64-year-olds.

In addition to this, 1 in 20 people (5%) incorrectly think omega-3 ALA is bad for overall health and 2.7% think it can cause weight gain. 

Despite the fact that omega-3 ALA is an essential fatty acid - meaning it cannot be made in our body and we must make sure we get enough of it through our diet – over half of people (53%) do not know what foods contain omega-3 ALA.

3 in 10 people incorrectly think oily fish is the only food source of omega-3 ALA, and nearly 1 in 5 (17%) think that all nuts are a good source of omega-3 ALA. Walnuts are in fact the only tree nut to contain a rich source of omega 3 ALA, 2.7g/ 30g**, but just 15% of those surveyed were aware of this. Nearly 1 in 10 people (9%) wrongly think chocolate is a good source of omega-3 ALA.

On the new research and how people can ensure they are getting enough omega-3 ALA, Sian Porter, Consultant Dietitian to California Walnuts, said; “Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an Omega-3 essential fatty acid, which means our body needs this important nutrient, but is unable to produce it. This new research shows it is falling under people’s radar and many in the UK could be falling short in their intake of foods containing it. The body can convert ALA into other omega-3 long chain fatty acids, EPA and DHA in small and varying amounts over time.

Nutrition advice is to eat foods containing ALA, such as walnuts, and foods containing EPA and DHA such as oily fish. However, the latest NDNS data published in December 2020 [4] showed average consumption of oily fish was well below the recommended one portion (140g) per week in all age groups and, with many people choosing to increase plant-based eating, it’s even more important to include vegetarian and vegan ALA rich food such as walnuts, as well as oily fish.

Walnuts offer a food first approach to providing omega-3 versus supplements, although some population groups and those that do not eat oily fish may need supplements too. Supplements should be as well as food sources however, not instead of”.

*The research was carried out by Mortar London via an online survey among 2,105 respondents across the UK, between 19th and 22nd February 2021. The sample of adults was randomly selected from the survey panel and weighted to be representative of the UK population for age, gender and region.

**Approx. a handful

[1] EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA); Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to walnuts and maintenance of normal blood LDL‐cholesterol concentrations (ID 1156, 1158) and improvement of endothelium‐dependent vasodilation (ID 1155, 1157) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/2006. EFSA Journal 2011; 9( 4):2074. [19 pp.]. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2011.2074.
[3] file:///C:/Users/emma.wheat/Downloads/bhf-statistics-compendium-2019-final.pdf