What are fats and their functions?

Fat is an important nutrient. It is crucial for normal body function and development. The main function of fats in the body is to provide energy. On oxidation fats provide almost twice the amount of energy as that given by carbohydrates. Fats can also be stored in body for subsequent use. When we consume food which has more energy than is required by the body for performing various functions, the excess food is deposited under our skin in the from of subcutaneous fat.

Functions of fats:

1. In addition to supplying energy, fats also help in forming structural material of cells and tissues such as the cell membrane.

3. Fats also carry the fats soluble vitamins A, D, E and K into the body and help in the absorption of these vitamins in the intestines.

4. Some fats supply essential fatty acids.

Examples of Fats

  • Animal fats
    • Butter, lard, cream, fat in (and on) meats.
  • Vegetablefats
    • Olive oil, peanut oil, flax seed oil, corn oil.

What are the types of fats?

Fats can be divided into healthy and unhealthy fats:

Healthy fats are:

  • Monounsaturated fat. This is a type of fat found in a variety of foods and oils such as canola, olive and peanut oils. Studies show that eating foods rich in monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) lowers bad cholesterol and improves good cholesterol, which can decrease your risk of heart disease.
  • Polyunsaturated fat. This is a type of fat found mostly in plant-based foods and oils such as safflower, sunflower, sesame and corn oils. It is also found in seafood. There are 2 types of PUFAs:
    • Omega-3 fatty acids- It refers to a group of three fats called ALA (α-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Common plant sources of Omega-3 fatty acids are soybean oil, canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseed. Common sources of animal omega-3 EPA and DHA fatty acids include fish oils, algal oil, egg oil, squid oils.
    • Omega-6 fatty acids are found mostly in liquid vegetable oils like soybean oil, corn oil, and safflower oil.

Unhealthy fats:

  • Saturated fats-This is a type of fat is solid at room temperature and is also known as "solid fat”. It comes mainly from animal sources of food such as milk, cheese and meat. Saturated fat is also present in tropical oils, such as coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter. Saturated fat raises total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat may also increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Trans fat. Trans fats are made during food processing through partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fats. This process creates fats that are easier to cook with and have better shelf life. These are used in processed foods, chips, crackers, cookies, margarine, cakes etc. Research studies show that trans fat can increase unhealthy LDL cholesterol and lower healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. This can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

What is Omega-3 DHA?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of unsaturated fatty acids, which our body needs, but cannot produce itself. Hence, they are known as essential fatty acids and are of two types:6

  • Short-chained omega-3 fatty acids: Widely found in plant oils
  • Long-chained fatty acids: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

DHA and EPA have been suggested to be the most important omega-3-fatty acids in human nutrition and should be consumed as part of a normal diet since they cannot be synthesized in the human body. A non-fish (algal) source of DHA serves various advantages over the common fish source.6

What are the sources of DHA?

Phytoplankton and animals, but not plants, synthesize DHA and EPA. The phytoplanktons and algae are rich and excellent vegetarian sources of DHA and EPA. They also serve as food for fish and marine animals. Seafoods and fish are the richest sources of dietary sources. Poultry and eggs also provide with lower but important sources of EPA and DHA. DHA and EPA are absent from all vegetable fats and oils including nuts, grains and seeds. They are found in very low amount in ruminant fats, milk and dairy products.7,8

DHA is available in fish. How safe is fish oil or fish consumption for DHA?

Fish had been an excellent source of DHA. However, the industrial advancements have led to contamination of fish sources. Some fish may contain potentially harmful contaminants, such as heavy metals (including mercury), dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Various authoritative bodies and agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U. S. Food and Drug Administration recommend that pregnant or nursing women and young children avoid eating fish which might contain higher levels of mercury.9 Thus, the safety of consuming fish for DHA is of great concern the contamination with mercury is associated with several harmful effects on human body.

What is BioDHA?

BioDHA is the docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) derived from natural sustainable source, algae. BioDHA provides a completely purest form of vegetarian DHA.

The story of BioDHA

Microalgae, dinoflagellates (dinophyceae) are considered to be very good source of DHA production as they consist of high content of DHA ranging from 12-51%. Various strains of microalgae act as source of DHA- Crypthecodinium cohnii (non-photosynthetic), Amphidinium carteri, Gymnodinium simplex and Gyrodinium cohnii.10 Crypthecodinium cohnii is a marine alga and is used for the commercial production of DHA.11 With a fermentation time of 60-90 hours, the algal biomass of Crypthecodinium cohnii from the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC) has been found to yield 15-30% of oil content of which 20-35% has been found to be DHA.10

Thraustochtrids, originally believed to be primitive fungi, have been assigned to the subclass Thraustochytridae. Examples of Thraustochytridae include Thraustochytrium and Schizochytrium species which have been shown to produce DHA (>0.5 g/L) in relatively short fermentation times. The DHA content derived from these two species ranges from 25-60% of total fatty acids. The polyunsaturated fatty acids produced by these species are mainly in the form of triglycerides or oils. Data suggests that in Schizochytrium spp. lipid content was 77.5% of biomass and DHA content was 35.6% of total fatty acids.10

What are the benefits of BioDHA?

BioDHA is beneficial for all the stages of life. Several clinical researches have revealed that the DHA plays a vital role in the prevention and treatment of numerous diseases. In particular the DHA has shown to have beneficial effects in the development of fetal brain, optimal development of motor skills and visual acuity in infants and lipid metabolism in children and adults. Furthermore, it has also found that the DHA offers beneficial effects on cardiovascular complications and supports cognitive function in elderly people.

Why BioDHA supplementation is essential?

While the vegetarian diet provides sub-optimal levels of DHA, the non-vegetarian diet from fish possesses the risk of contamination with heavy metals and mercury. DHA is essential at all stages of life as it plays an important role in brain development (especially during fetal development and infancy), eye and heart health.

Today's hectic lifestyle patterns, improper food habits, incorporation of junk and high levels of stress added to decline in dietary consumption of essential fatty acids has led to DHA deficiencies among individuals. Furthermore, increased awareness and reduction of saturated fats, 'bad fats', in diet has also led to reduction in 'good fats' such as DHA from normal diet. Studies suggest the importance of supplementing 1,000-1,500 mg DHA in children and 2,000-6,000 mg for adults in individuals who demonstrate signs of DHA deficiency.8

Individuals with limited intake of meat and egg and individuals with vegetarian diet may show signs of DHA deficiency. The major categories of individuals in whom DHA supplementation has been suggested include the following

  • Insufficient brain and vision development
  • Vision impairment/blurring
  • Abnormal electroretinogram (ERG)
  • Impaired learning/Memory
  • Numbness In fingers, hands, toes and feet
  • Reduced DHA in breast milk
  • Inflammatory skin disorders
    • Eczema
    • Dermatitis
    • Psoriasis etc.
  • Behavior disorders:
    • ADD/ADHD
    • Addictions
    • Alcoholism
    • Violence and aggression
  • Neurological disorders
    • Depression
    • Alzheimer's disease,
    • Memory loss and dementia
    • Schizophrenia
    • Dyslexia

Suggested reading

  1. Pond CM. The fats of life. Cambridge University Press. 1998.
  2. Mishra SR. Biomolecules. Discovery Publishing House. 2003.
  3. Shahidi F. Nutraceutical and Specialty Lipids and their Co-Products. CRC Press. 2006.
  4. Uauy R, Hoffman DR. Essential fat requirements of preterm infants. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;71(1 Suppl):245S-250S.
  5. Huffman SL, Harika RK, Eilander A et al. Essential fats: how do they affect growth and development of infants and young children in developing countries? A literature review. Matern Child Nutr. 2011;7(Suppl 3):44-65.
  6. The healthiest omega-3s EPA & DHA are found mainly in fish oil and fishmeal. International Fishmeal and Fish oil Organisation. Available at http://www.iffo.net/downloads/77.pdf. Accessed July 06, 2013.
  7. Innis SM. Dietary (n-3) fatty acids and brain development. J Nutr. 2007;137(4):855-859.
  8. Ley-Jacobs B. Dha: The Magnificent Marine Oil Health Learning Handbook Series. Bl Publications. 1998.
  9. Omega-3 fatty acids. Available at http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/omega-3-000316.htm. Accessed July 06, 2013.
  10. Chen F, Jiang Y. Algae and their biotechnological potential. Springer. 2001.
  11. Ratledge C, Kanagachandran K, Anderson AJ et al. Production of docosahexaenoic acid by Crypthecodinium cohnii grown in a pH-auxostat culture with acetic acid as principal carbon source. Lipids. 2001;36(11):1241-1246.