DPA. The Forgotten Omega 3 Fatty Acid

(DougCookRD.com)

By now, everyone and their uncle has heard of omega-3 fatty acids and almost everyone I encounter, counsel or talk to seems to have a good sense that they do a body good. From conception and throughout life, well into old age, omega-3 fats are crucial for optimal health whether we’re talking about cardiovascular, joint, cognitive & mental health or reducing the risk for certain cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure and more.

Savvy consumers might even be able to list the more commonly known omega-3 fatty acids:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid or ALA found in walnuts, hemp, soy, chia & flax seeds, and other plant foods
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA found in fish & seafood, fish and seafood supplements, omega-3 fortified eggs and algae oil
  • Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, also found in fish & seafood, fish & seafood supplements, omega-3 fortified eggs and algae oil

but almost everyone has never heard of docosapentaenoic acid or DPA

What is DPA and why is it important?

DPA is another type of long chain omega-3 fatty acid and like EPA & DHA, is found in fish, seafood, certain omega-3 supplements and to a lesser extent in meats and poultry.

DPA’s biological properties have not been studied to the same extend as EPA & DHA which have stolen the spotlight when it comes to health promotion. Despite this, DPA is starting to be seen as an unsung hero in the world of omega-3 fats and is starting to enjoy the attention it deserves.

In the presence of DPA, EPA & DHA levels in the body are increased to a greater extend than just getting EPA or DHA alone or in combination.

In a study comparing fish oil supplements that only had DHA & EPA to a supplement that included all 3 fatty acids: DHA, EPA & DPA, the amount of omega-3 levels in the subjects’ tissues increased by 63% in just 14 day compared to just 41% in those getting only EPA & DHA [1].

This is due to the fat that DPA increases the amount of DPA, as well as, EPA & DHA in the molecules [triglycerides] that transport fats throughout the body to the targeted tissues like muscle, brain, eye, nerves, red blood cells and more [2].

DPA is like those famed Japanese transit constables who increase the number of people [EPA & DHA] who can get packed into the Tokyo subway [triglycerides].

DPA benefits us by….

  • Enhancing DHA’s ability to…
    • Promote cognitive development from conception through the critical first 2 years of life (DHA is the structural omega-3 fat of the brain) [3]
    • Slow cognitive decline as we age
    • Reduce the risk for mental health & mood disorders
    • Support optimal eye health
  • DPA enhances EPA’s ability to repair damaged blood vessels; when more DPA is present in the diet, and therefore body/tissues, 1/10th the amount of EPA is needed for blood vessel repair [good for the brain, heart, & vessels throughout the body]
  • DPA inhibits thrombosis, in other words prevents clots by reducing blood cells  called platelets from sticking together [4]
  • DPA improves wound healing by helping new cells to grow and move towards the site of injury so the new cells can repair any damage [5]
  • DPA turns on fat burning genes and turns off genes that promote excessive inflammation

Whole foods versus supplements

Understanding DPA’s role in the metabolism of all the different forms of omega-3 fats reinforces the idea of nutrient synergy; individual nutrients working together in concert have a greater benefit than each of those nutrients working in isolation. Of course it’s impossible for a nutrient to act alone but when nutrients are consumed together, as they are when whole foods are eaten, we usually see greater health benefits.

This would partly explain why we see inconsistencies in omega-3 studies that only use supplements with EPA, DHA or a combination of both compared to studies that examined the health benefits of foods rich in the omega-3 fats  EPA, DHA and DPA such as fish & seafood, including traditional Indigenous diets that historically included seal and whale meat and blubber.

Supplements are just that, supplements – they are an addition to, not a replacement for – whole foods. Don’t get me wrong, omega-3 supplements and omega-3 fortified foods that include EPA and DHA are an important tool to fill the omega-3 gap that exists in Canada AND there is a robust body of research that show a benefit from getting more of these fats from supplements and fortified foods but whenever possible, whole foods first.

Health authorities such as the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids and other similar organizations recommend getting an average minimum 250 – 500 mg of EPA & DHA per day;  only 10% of Canadians get more than 250 mg per day.

Whole foods rich in omega-3 fats such as fish and seafood will not only provide EPA & DHA but much needed DPA as well. Whole foods are also a great source of other nutrients such as protein, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B12, selenium, potassium, iron, vitamin D and more. I’ve written about this before here.

What amount of DPA is considered beneficial?

Omega-3 recommendations are only for alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), EPA & DHA but right now there aren’t any for DPA. More research is needed before we can recommend a specific amount but the good news is that DPA is also found in foods rich in EPA & DHA as the table below highlights. Eating more of these foods is best but don’t toss out your supplements or stop buying foods like omega-3 fortified eggs since these help to bridge the gap between what you need and what you’re getting [or not getting]. Just remember there’s more to the omega-3 story.

Omega-3 fatty acid content of some common (and maybe not so common) foods & supplements

Food

EPA mg DHA mg DPA mg

Salmon, Atlantic

1 fillet (100 g or 3.5 oz)

862

1100

393

Salmon, sockeye

1 can (200 g or 7 oz)

1060 1400

268

Mackerel

1 fillet (112 g or 4 oz)

763 1200

180

Salmon, pink

1 can (200 g or 7oz)

645 1400

172

Trout

1 fillet (159 g or 5.5 oz)

266 668

169

Seal, bearded (Oogruk)

100 g or 3.5 oz

150

Seal oil, supplement (varies by manufacturer)

(6 capsules)

180 240

114

Clams, smoked

1 can (85 g or 3 oz)

124 117

88

Lamb

100 g or 3.5 oz

40 20

83

Beef

100 g or 3.5 oz

45 13

71

Sardines

1 can (85 g or 3 oz)

603 733

47

Mussels, smoked

1 can (65 g or 2.2 oz)

210 385

33

Pork

100 g or 3.5 oz

14 16

28

Chicken

100 g or 3.5 oz

14 15

18

Oysters, smoked

1 can (65 g or 2.2 oz)

550 314

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