Researchers can fortify meat with omega-3 fatty acids through livestock feed.
People of all ages can benefit from an adequate supply of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet.
An animal’s diet can impact the fatty acid profile of its meat. Traditionally, regardless of feeding practice, the fatty acid profile has largely been monounsaturated (a single double bond) and saturated fatty acids (no double bonds).

There’s been growing media attention on the omega-3 fatty acid content of meat and poultry. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, meaning they have more than one double bond. They are also not prevalent in meat and poultry unless administered through the animal’s diet. This is a growing trend, as it’s a way to add value to the product and provide a point of differentiation in the market.

There are three omega-3 fatty acids in the human diet. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) serve as primary building blocks for the brain and the eyes. They also support brain, eye and cardiovascular health throughout life. They are either derived from fish or algae and are the only omega-3 fatty acids that the US Food and Drug Administration allows for a qualified health claim. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the third important omega-3 fatty acid. It is found in plant sources such as nuts, seeds and the grass where cows like to graze. ALA is converted by the body in varying rates to DHA and EPA. The human body needs all three fatty acids to function and thrive.

There is a large and growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating that people of all ages, from infants to aging adults, benefit from an adequate supply of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. Scientific reviews highlight the benefits of omega-3s, yet despite its importance, Americans have among the lowest dietary intakes of omega-3s in the world. It’s no wonder when faced with the option to select an omega-3-enhanced food or beverage, more and more consumers are choosing the omega-3 product.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2017 Annual Food and Health Survey showed that more than 70 percent of shoppers view omega-3 fatty acids as healthful. Their presence in a food may influence purchase decision.

Until recently, most of the conversation regarding increased omega-3 fatty content in meat has focused on grass-fed cattle. These are cows raised exclusively on grass or hay after weaning and not grain-finished in a feedlot. The beef produced is leaner than conventional beef, while its fat tends to have a higher proportion of omega-3 fatty acids, namely ALA.

The amount of omega-3s in beef depends on the animal’s diet and breed. A 3.5-oz. serving of grass-fed meat averages about 80 milligrams of ALA, which is twice as much as conventionally fed beef. The same size serving of salmon has 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, and mostly in the form of DHA and EPA, the forms associated with health and wellness benefits.

ALA may have some health benefits of its own. Plus, the human body converts small amounts of it into DHA and EPA. Scientists are exploring new ways to increase the DHA and EPA content of meat and poultry.

Earlier this month, results from a world-first clinical trial delivered by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, on behalf of farming and food company Devenish, showed that regular consumption of naturally enriched omega-3 chicken and eggs is likely to reduce risk of heart attack, stroke, dementia and depression. The results of the novel six-month clinical trial were presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions Conference in Anaheim, California, Nov. 14.

The 161 subjects involved in the study consumed at least three portions of chicken and eggs per week that were naturally enriched with omega-3 fatty acids. The results from the clinical study saw an increase in omega-3 levels in blood and a positive shift in what is described as the omega-3 Index, a test that measures the amount of the omega-3 fatty acids in red blood cell membranes, which reflects the levels in the heart and other tissues.

A low omega-3 Index (<4 percent) indicates a heightened risk of heart and brain disease. The study showed that consuming omega-3 enriched chicken and eggs resulted in a halving of the number of subjects with such a high-risk omega-3 Index.

The chicken meat and eggs used in the study came from birds offered OmegaPro, a sustainable and algae-based source of DHA and EPA developed by Devenish. The company believes that the farmer has a key role to play in delivering sustainable and nutritious food with health benefits. By enriching the birds’ diet, the meat and eggs become naturally enriched with DHA and EPA.

Professor Alice Stanton, The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland
Prof. Alice Stanton,
The Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland
“Greater consumption of oily fish has long been linked to a reduced incidence of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and cancer and improved brain health, vision, muscle and joint health,” said Alice Stanton, professor at The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and lead researcher. “International guidelines recommend eating oily fish at least once per week; however, many people do not eat fish at all and less than 20 percent of the world’s population have optimal omega-3 levels.

“Therefore, in this project we studied the recently developed alternatives to oily fish or supplementation, namely chicken meat and eggs, naturally enriched with sustainable algae-based omega-3s,” she said. “Omega-3 enriched chicken and eggs offer consumers an attractive alternative to eating oily fish or to the lifelong taking of supplements, with the potential for substantial health benefits.”

Heather Hayes, director of food innovation with Devenish, said, “Offering birds a natural and sustainable source of omega-3s is good for the bird and good for the consumer. Taste panel studies have shown that the omega-3-enriched chicken meat tastes as good, if not better than conventional chicken.

“This science has demonstrated the importance of food nutrients to promote good health and prevent ill health,” she said. “We are also focusing our research efforts on producing sustainable and nutrient rich pork, beef and milk, with scientifically proven health claims. Omega-3 is just one nutrient that we are interested in. We are working on others, too.”