Developing Sustainable Omega-3s for Human Health and Aquaculture
Floyd “Ski” Chilton, PhD, is fighting to enhance human health through sustainable nutrition. Professor of physiology and pharmacology at Wake Forest School of Medicine and director of its Center for Botanical Lipids and Inflammatory Disease Prevention, Chilton leads a research team that seeks a new, sustainable source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3s) and a diagnostic to determine who most needs these omega-3s.
As a primary component of the brain, omega-3s play a major role in cognitive and behavioral development and function. They reduce inflammation and help lower the risks for numerous health problems, including heart disease, cancer and arthritis.
Our bodies cannot produce omega-3s so we have to ingest them. The best sources for these essential fatty acids are botanical oils, such as flax seed oil, and fatty varieties of fish, including mackerel, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. Supplements containing omega-3s are also a popular option – in fact, they’ve surpassed multivitamins as the No. 1 dietary supplement in this country, according to ConsumerLab.com.
But there is a serious problem caused by this popularity, says Chilton. Because of the burgeoning growth of fish farming, or aquaculture, the levels of omega-3s available to feed farmed fish are rapidly decreasing. If this trend isn’t reversed, he says, these crucial fatty acids will be extremely scarce – if not totally depleted – in about 50 years.
You Are What You Eat
“You are essentially what you eat, and that’s true of fish as well,” Chilton says. “Plant-eating fish get omega-3s from eating algae in their natural environment, carnivorous fish get omega-3s from eating those fish and we get omega-3s from eating all these fish. But aquaculture breaks that cycle, both inside and outside the fish farms.”
Aquaculture will soon surpass wild fisheries as the primary source of fish consumed by humans, which presents two major omega-3-related issues.
The first problem is that aquaculture uses omega-3s from wild fish sources to feed farmed fish. This creates an unsustainable cycle as we remove wild fish from their natural habitat to supply their omega-3s to farmed fish.
The second problem is that many farmed fish are fed lower-cost plant-based oils. These often contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which are also important to human health but can, if consumed at elevated levels, have negative inflammatory effects.
“Fish are very efficient producers of polyunsaturated fatty acids,” Chilton says. “If you feed them plant omega-3s, they’re going to convert them to fish omega-3s and these are anti-inflammatory and enhance brain function. If you feed them plant omega-6s, they will make fish omega-6s, including one – arachidonic acid – that often causes inflammation in humans.”
“The current situation is simply not sustainable,” Chilton says. “We need fish farming to feed the seven billion people on the planet. We have to have aquaculture. We just have to do it right so that we can produce fish that have the right nutrients that will be beneficial to all human populations.”
Chilton aims to do exactly that.
Omega 3 Production
Chilton’s laboratory is seeking to develop a solution: a new, renewable source of omega-3s, which has the potential to break the unsustainable cycle of using wild-caught fish to enrich farm-raised fish, thus depleting the planet’s supply of omega-3 fatty acids.
“We are developing one core technology that focuses on a patented microalgae. This microalgae replicates so much faster, which may allow it to quickly produce omega-3s,” Chilton says. “We want to be able to produce omega-3s not only for direct human consumption but also for use in aquaculture.”
A sustainable supply of omega-3s would provide human and animal populations with the fatty acids that their health requires.
Developing Omega-3 Diagnostics
Chilton’s laboratory also develops the technology needed to diagnose whether an individual person is genetically capable of processing ingested, plant-based omega-3s to make the necessary brain and anti-inflammatory omega-3s.
“For the past 8 years, my lab has focused on the genetic capacity of individuals and populations to make beneficial omega-3s,” Chilton says. “We have discovered that about 11 percent of people of European ancestry have a much more limited capacity to make them.”
One at-risk population is children of mothers who are not able to provide these fatty acids. In the third trimester, this inability causes a greater risk for neurological and behavioral disorders.
“Being able to test for the ability to make omega-3s in mothers, children and other at-risk populations and then supplementing their diets based on these results could have an extremely positive health benefit,” says Chilton.
“We are now entering a new world of gene-based precision medicine. This research sets the stage for precision nutrition or even precision supplementation for at-risk populations.”
Making Omega-3s Perform
Chilton’s laboratory pursues the creation of foods and beverages that capitalize on the positive powers of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Possibilities include a special supplement for people who cannot process omega-3s naturally and a performance drink for runners and other athletes who are susceptible to exercise-induced asthma.
“If we want a sustainable society,” Chilton says, “we must feed our bodies and minds in a manner that’s going to give rise to the optimal function of both.”
And that, Chilton says, is a cause worth fighting for.
To learn more about Chilton’s work and how you can partner with his research group, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call +1.336.713.1111.