Oil from biotech soybeans increases key omega-3 fatty acid in humans

November 16, 2009

Oil from soybeans modified through biotechnology increased levels of omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in red blood cells according to research presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2009.

"This soybean oil could be an effective alternative to fish oil as a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids," said William Harris, Ph.D., lead author of the study and chief of cardiovascular health research at Sanford Research/USD and professor of medicine at Sanford School of Medicine, University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls, S.D.

"We know that giving pure EPA to people reduces their risk for heart disease," he said. "Presumably, if you gave this special soybean oil to people, you'd do the same thing -- reduce heart attacks."

The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings per week of fatty fish which is high in EPA and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), like mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon. Eating fish containing these omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Fish oil contains two forms of heart-healthy, long-chain omega-3s, EPA and DHA. However, many Americans don't like eating fish because of the taste, preparation and/or concern that it may be contaminated by mercury and other pollutants.

A few plants, particularly soybeans, produce oils that contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is another type of omega-3 fatty acid. The human body converts ALA to stearidonic acid (SDA), but this is a very inefficient process. The body converts SDA to EPA far more effectively, resulting in more EPA per gram consumed.

The researchers sought to bypass the ALA-to-SDA conversion step in the body by doing so in the soybean plant. They developed the new soybean variety by inserting one gene from another plant and one from a fungus to allow the soybean plant to produce SDA. The result is a soybean oil enriched in SDA, which when consumed allows the body to produce more EPA than if it started with ALA.

Harris and his colleagues recruited healthy volunteers in Cincinnati, Sioux Falls and Chicago into the double-blind study. "Our goal was to see if the oil from the genetically engineered soybean would raise red blood cell levels of EPA," he said.

The researchers randomized participants to three groups. Each group received two packets of oil (7.5 grams each) to put on food and two gel caps (500 milligrams each) to swallow daily: Although most volunteers who completed the study were white (70 percent), the team expects its findings will apply to all races, based on what is known about EPA in the body, Harris said.

"This oil could make a major contribution to our national omega-3 intake. The supply could be virtually endless, and it would provide omega-3s without putting additional pressure on fish stocks. What's more, it will be free of contamination from mercury, PCBs or dioxins, the harmful things that can get into some types of fish," he said.

"Our next step is to formulate this SDA soybean oil into food products such as breakfast bars, yogurts and salad dressings, and then do a study to see if it is absorbed by the body and converted to EPA," Harris said. "It should be, but you don't know until you test it."

Other study limitations included the number of dropouts, which reduced its statistical power, and no long-term data on the soybean oil's preventive effects on heart disease.
-end-
Monsanto Co., the agricultural technology company that developed the genetically engineered soybeans that produce the oil, has asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to grant its new oil GRAS (generally recognize as safe) status, a classification that means the agency regards the chemical or substance safe when added to foods.

Co-authors are: Shawna L. Lemke, Ph.D.; Daniel G. Goldstein, M.D.; Hong Su, M.S.; Margaret A. Nemeth, Ph.D.; and Elaine S. Krul, Ph.D. Author disclosures are on the abstract.

Funding was provided by Monsanto Co. and Solae LLC.

Statements and conclusions of study authors that are presented at American Heart Association scientific meetings are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect association policy or position. The association makes no representation or warranty as to their accuracy or reliability. The association receives funding primarily from individuals; foundations and corporations (including pharmaceutical, device manufacturers and other companies) also make donations and fund specific association programs and events. The association has strict policies to prevent these relationships from influencing the science content. Revenues from pharmaceutical and device corporations are available at www.americanheart.org/corporatefunding.

NR09 - 1133 (SS09/Harris)

American Heart Association

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