An engaging encounter with the scientist who gave essential fatty acids their "omega" names and discovered the critical omega-3/omega-6 metabolic conflict
by Susan Allport
The first telephone call I made, after deciding to write a book on the history of the omega-3 fatty acid research, was to Ralph Holman in Austin, Minnesota, the inventor of the omega terminology and a scientist with the University of Minnesota's Hormel Institute.
I got his number from directory assistance, as I recall, and knew little about this illustrious scientist, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, other than that his name appeared on the earliest papers mentioning omega-3s. I didn’t even know that he had retired in 1988, but I had a hunch that his participation would be critical to the book.
|About Susan Allport
As well as being an occasional contributor to Vital Choices, Susan Allport is an award-winning writer who contributes to The New York Times and other
publications and authored the acclaimed book about omega-3s, titled The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed From The Western Diet and What We Can Do To Replace Them (University of California Press, 2006).
Susan is the author of two other highly praised books – The Primal Feast: Food, Sex, Foraging, and Love, and A Natural History of Parenting – and has appeared on Oprah & Friends Radio and NPR’s "Science Friday" and "The Splendid Table".
I dialed the number with some trepidation, not being a chemist and fearful that I could say something that would put Holman off my project. To my surprise, he answered the phone on the first ring. But his response was anything but enthusiastic. In fact, he was gruff and seemed very put out by my call – and then I learned the reason. His wife’s funeral was taking place later that day. When he picked up the phone so promptly, he was probably expecting the sympathetic voice of a friend.
Knowing now how much Holman’s wife Karla meant to him – she was the only woman he had ever dated – I wonder that he didn’t hang up on me as I spluttered apologies for my incredible bad timing. But he didn’t. Instead, he asked me to tell him once again why I was calling. I did, briefly, and he replied with a sentence that gave me goose bumps, a sentence that let me know that there was, indeed, a good story in the history of this research, one that hadn’t yet been told in the many popular books on omega-3s.
“I’ve been wondering when I was going to get this call,” Holman said in his lilting Minnesotan accent.
Months later, after I summoned the courage to call Holman again, we made plans for me to visit him at his home in Austin. These plans were greatly facilitated by Doug Bibus, a former student who has taken on many of the responsibilities of this scientist, now in his eighties, and whose attention enables Holman to continue living at home, as he wishes to do. It was Doug who picked me up at the airport in St. Paul and drove me out to Austin and Doug who sat in on the interviews until he was certain that Holman was comfortable with being with me on his own.
Home for Holman is a modest house, on a street of modest houses, a dwelling that belies the small fortune he has made with his early investments in a Minnesota startup named 3-M but is in fitting with his humble background as the son of a street car driver. Holman greeted us at the door wearing khakis and a short-sleeved blue shirt with a Western-style tie clip in the shape of the state of Minnesota. It was the same outfit he wore on each of the days I saw him.
After I learned that he also ate the same lunch every day (one sardine and one herring fillet on a piece of rye bread spread with canola oil, followed by an apple) and pretty much the same dinner, I began to wonder if this ability to simplify the daily aspects of his life had anything to do with his ability to make sense of some of the messiest chemical interactions ever deciphered by a scientist: the metabolic rivalry between the two families of polyunsaturated fats, the families he named the omega-3s and omega-6s. I don’t know the answer to that question but I sometimes still ponder it, especially when my life seems overwhelmed by the day-to-day and mundane.
We sat down in the living room to talk and I placed a tape recorder between us. That’s a tool I decide to use when I’m likely to get out of my depth in the course of an interview, i.e., when the questions I ask will elicit answers that it may take days, months, or even years for me to fully understand. It was a particularly wise decision in Holman’s case since I’m still learning things from the transcripts of those interviews – Holman’s views on trans fatty acids and oleic acid, for instance, and his observation that controlling oxidation is a fulltime job for our bodies.
Another thing that strikes me when I reread those transcripts is how our conversations moved back and forth – seamlessly and humorously – between his life with Karla and his work in the lab. It wasn’t that Holman jumped from subject to subject – not at all. Rather, that his life with Karla was just as important to him as the discoveries he had made, and his memories of both – the blue gabardine suit that Karla wore at their wedding; his initial confusion at how increasing alpha linolenic acid in a rat’s diet would decrease the amount of arachidonic acid in its tissues – were equally vivid.
Holman had warned me, before I came to Austin, that his memory was failing and not to expect very much from our interviews. True, he sometimes had to search for the word he was looking for, but if he had any problem with memory, it was with remembering too much, not too little. Later, when I continued our interviews by phone, I was easily able to easily get around his short-term memory loss by giving him a day to think about the questions I wanted to ask. When I called back, the next day, he would have all his names and facts in order.
These conversations, in Austin and on the telephone, were some of the most rewarding and pleasurable I’ve had as a science writer. Holman had time on his hands, and I had an endless number of questions, ranging from the chemically naive (How did you know you were dealing with the tails of the fatty acids?) to the probing (What did it make you think when you couldn’t purify DHA, the longest and most desaturated omega-3 fatty acid? His answer: I don’t think I was smart enough to have learned from that. I was more frustrated than impressed.).
Holman knew more about how these fatty acids behave in the body than probably any other person on earth, and I needed to know more, much more, to tell the story of the research. He'd sensed, very early on, that essential fatty acids were much more important than cholesterol in shaping health and disease, a hunch that is now being borne out by study after study, including the Physician’s Health Study. And I had sensed that the explanation for why we got sidetracked by the cholesterol story lay in the long, twisting tale of the essential fatty acid research.
Neither of us knew, at that point, that part of the reason that the competition between omega-3s and omega-6s is so important is that it allows animals to prepare for the future, for periods of hunkering down and survival when the fats of seeds (omega-6s) are abundant, and periods of activity and reproduction when the fats of leaves (omega-3s) are widespread. But Holman’s elegant metabolic studies – from data that would have confused many a lesser scientist – paved the way for this, and other, important biological understandings. His omega nomenclature, a shorthand that reveals the relationships and differences between unsaturated fats, made it easier to think and talk about these fats.
Holman’s enthusiasm about his achievements was infectious. The first time he saw his nomenclature being used outside the lab, he was so excited that he ran home to get his camera. Then he returned to the fish counter at his local grocery store to photograph the sign: “Omega-3s are here.”
Omega-3a are certainly here, though just how important they are – and just how many disease processes are affected by the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in our diets and tissues – is still not widely appreciated, by either the medical community or the general public.
Nor are the full implications of Holman’s metabolic studies, which showed clearly that the best way to increase the omega-3s in one’s tissues is to not only increase consumption of omega-3 containing greens, oils, and fish, but to also decrease consumption of the competing omega-6s.
This is unfortunate since Holman’s studies could help us out of some of the dietary quandaries we’re in with regard to eating fish (we’re told to eat more fish but we’re worried about the contamination and sustainability of our fish resources) and could help us to see that eating fish is not the only way to increase omega-3s. They can also explain the conflicting studies on the efficacy of fish in preventing heart and other diseases since individuals consuming large amounts of high omega-6 vegetable oils, even those that eat fish regularly – will still be at risk.
Omega-3s are here, but we’re still far from understanding, as Holman was the first to suggest and as he has spent his life telling the scientific community, that the polyunsaturated fatty acids are not one big happy family. They are two competing families, a competition that is fundamental to sound eating and sound thinking about fats.