Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Symposium on ‘Plant foods and public health’

Long-chain n−3 PUFA: plant v. marine sources

Christine M. Williamsa1 c1 and Graham Burdgea2

a1 Hugh Sinclair Unit Human Nutrition, School of Food Biosciences, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6AP, UK

a2 Institute of Human Nutrition, Developmental Origins of Health and Disease Division, University of Southampton SO16 7PX, UK


Increasing recognition of the importance of the long-chain n−3 PUFA, EPA and DHA, to cardiovascular health, and in the case of DHA to normal neurological development in the fetus and the newborn, has focused greater attention on the dietary supply of these fatty acids. The reason for low intakes of EPA and DHA in most developed countries (0·1–0·5 g/d) is the low consumption of oily fish, the richest dietary source of these fatty acids. An important question is whether dietary intake of the precursor n−3 fatty acid, α-linolenic acid (αLNA), can provide sufficient amounts of tissue EPA and DHA by conversion through the n−3 PUFA elongation–desaturation pathway. αLNA is present in marked amounts in plant sources, including green leafy vegetables and commonly-consumed oils such as rape-seed and soyabean oils, so that increased intake of this fatty acid would be easier to achieve than via increased fish consumption. However, αLNA-feeding studies and stable-isotope studies using αLNA, which have addressed the question of bioconversion of αLNA to EPA and DHA, have concluded that in adult men conversion to EPA is limited (approximately 8%) and conversion to DHA is extremely low (<0·1%). In women fractional conversion to DHA appears to be greater (9%), which may partly be a result of a lower rate of utilisation of αLNA for β-oxidation in women. However, up-regulation of the conversion of EPA to DHA has also been suggested, as a result of the actions of oestrogen on Δ6-desaturase, and may be of particular importance in maintaining adequate provision of DHA in pregnancy. The effect of oestrogen on DHA concentration in pregnant and lactating women awaits confirmation.


c1 *Corresponding author: Professor C. M. Williams, fax +44 1189 318703, email