Saturday, January 2, 2010


Omega-3 fatty acids, vital for many body and brain functions are present in abundance in marine creatures like fish, crustaceans and algae. Plant sources are relatively poor sources of these essential fatty acids, though Linoleic and Linolenic acids are present in liquid oils of plant origin. The conversion of short chain unsaturated fatty acids into the biologically active long chain version like Docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) is very inefficient in human body necessitating their supply through fish in people predominantly non-vegetarian by habit. Of course by adopting a diet with diverse food materials can still preclude any major deficiency manifestation but modern life styles invariably depend on diets which are based on sugar, carbohydrates, fats, proteins based on refined/processed raw materials which have practically no nutrients left behind due to processing.

With the advent of modern technology for extraction and purification of DHA and EPA from sources like fish and algae, a new era has arrived when enrichment of foods during processing is technically and commercially viable. The resistance from the vegans against accepting fish derived ingredients, mostly due to the unacceptable "fishy" smell can be overcome by using bland DHA and EPA ingredients now being offered by reputed suppliers. There was a time when cod liver oil consumption was encouraged for boosting health and the encapsulation technology made it possible to make it tolerable to non-fish eaters. How ever emanation of fish odor some time after swallowing the fish oil from the body and through exhalation was still a problem. The new technology has been able to overcome these disadvantages. Milk, juices and other products in some countries are to day fortified with DHA and EPA and consumer can know about it only from the label declaration without being able to detect organoleptically.

Omega-3 business is predicted to cross $1.6 billion by the year 2014 world wide but it is unlikely that there will be any major diversion of edible fish species for their production. If so what could be the sustaining source for production of DHA and EPA? While algae can be a good source, production cost is unlikely to be favorable compared to minor fish species having no commercial value being used now. Krill, a crustacean living 100 meters below the ice caps of Antarctica seems to be a logical choice because of its abundance. There are 85 species of Krill known to man and many of them are suitable for processing into food. The estimated potential can be as high as 6 billion tons and since they live for 5-10 years the supply is unlikely to be exhausted in the foreseeable future. According to one report the weight of Krill that exists to day is more than the combined weight of humans in this planet. Krill also plays an important role in removing CO2 from the atmosphere through the Phytoplankton which happen to be their staple food. It is the favorite food for fish, birds, marine animals like Whales and a fully grown Whale consumes as much as 3.5 to 4 tons of Krill each day.

With hardly 5 cm in length, Krill contains on a dry weight basis, 70% high quality protein, 10.7% fat which is made up of 40% highly unsaturated fats (HUFA), 18.4% EPA and 11.1% DHA and 12,6% ash reflecting the high mineral content. It also contains antioxidants like Astaxanthine carotenoids. The residue after extraction of Omega-3 acids will still be rich in proteins and minerals, suitable as a raw material for food and feed industry. Realizing the potential of Krill many countries are trying to establish sustainable operational base in the Antarctica and an amicable international agreement can only prevent future conflicts in the name Krill.

If Omega-3 preparations with no odor obtained from Krill are used in India what will be the legal stance vis-à-vis labeling. Any packed food containing ingredients derived from animal source is required to print a red dot prominently on the label. As Omega-3 acids, whether from fish or algae, are hardly distinguishable because of the high end technology used, how the monitoring agency can decide about the nature of the food containing these added nutrients, whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian, is some thing to be seen if and when these ingredients enter the food chain in the country.

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