Correcting errors in media stories about omega-3s could easily be a full-time job.
But in the case of Monsanto's new GM soybeans, the errors in a story that spread widely last week are too extreme – and the stakes too high – to ignore.
The report in Science News hinged on Monsanto's effort to gain FDA approval to plant a new genetically modified (GM) soybean.
Already, more than two out of three U.S. soybeans come from genetically modified soy crops.
Monsanto's new GM soybeans would be marketed – very misleadingly – as an alternative source of the fish-derived omega-3s essential to human life and health.
FDA expected to okay new “omega-3” GM soy crop
In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Monsanto's petition to grant its SDA-enriched soybeans “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) status, based on the presence of SDA in many plant foods.
The petition declared Monsanto's intent “… to market SDA soybean oil as a food ingredient in the United States in a variety of food products ...” and went on to list dozens of food product categories.
While the FDA has not yet permitted Monsanto to grow its new GM soybeans in open fields, that approval is expected in 2012.
We can only hope that bogus claims for these GM soybeans get exposed ... but given massive layoffs of expert science reporters over the past decade, we won't hold our breath.
Claims for GM soybeans … very fishy, indeed
To create its new GM “omega-3” soybean, Monsanto inserted two enzyme-controlling genes – one from a flower and one from a bread mold – into soy DNA.
This genetic intervention causes soybeans to produce an omega-3 fatty acid called stearidonic acid or SDA, small amounts of which occur naturally in fish, livestock, and many plants.
Sadly, all of the press reports we've seen grossly distort the nature of Monsanto's invention … and vastly overstate its value.
For example, Science News penned this howler: “The two enzymes Monsanto has just added to soy effectively turn the legume's oil into a proto fish oil.” (Raloff J 2011)
That's not even half-right ... as we'll explain.
Monsanto's GM soy scam ignores a key omega-3 distinction
To grasp the disingenuous, deception-by-omission message that will sell Monsanto's GM “omega-3” soybeans and the soy oil made from it, we need to review some basic facts about omega-3s.
Unlike the SDA fat in Monsanto's GM soybeans, fish and fish oils riase blood levels of omega-3 DHA as well as omega-3 EPA … a decisive distinction that matters for two reasons:
DHA is the most important omega-3 to get from your diet.
While people can convert SDA into EPA, we cannot convert SDA into DHA.
Why is dietary DHA more critical than dietary EPA or an EPA precursor like SDA?
People cannot easily convert dietary or bodily EPA into DHA … a fact that's pivotal to any discussion of Monsanto's so-called GM “omega-3” soybean.
And, despite some functional overlap between the two long-chain omega-3s from fish, DHA and EPA play very different roles in human health:
DHA is essential to key brain health, eye health, and inflammation-control functions.
EPA is essential for other key inflammation and immune-system functions.
Further, it takes four to five times more dietary SDA to reach the EPA blood levels people can achieve by consuming the same amount of EPA from fish or fish oil (Harris WS et al. 2008)..
Together with these critical distinctions, human's documented inability to efficiently convert SDA into bodily EPA make a mockery of any claims that Monsanto's GM soybeans can substitute for fish or fish oil.
Why the major plant-form omega-3 isn't ideal, either
Omega-3 fatty acids come in two different forms – short-chain and long-chain – which differ greatly in their ability to support and enhance human health:
Short-chain “green” omega-3s (Alpha Linoleic Acid or ALA) are found in walnuts, flaxseed, canola oil, and leafy green veggies such as spinach. Some packaged foods are fortified with ALA.
Long-Chain “marine” omega-3s (EPA and DHA) come from ocean and fresh-water foods such as fish, shellfish, and algae. Some eggs are given labels such as “rich in omega-3s” because they come from hens fed DHA.
Only the long-chain “marine” omega-3s found in fish and fish oil are essential to human health.
If fish are unavailable, the human body uses omega-3 ALA from plants to make long-chain omega-3 DHA and EPA.
But people can convert only from one to 10 percent of dietary ALA into the omega-3 DHA and EPA.
Humans' very low short-to-long-chain omega-3 conversion rates means that while dietary ALA can ensure survival and their minimum health needs, food-borne ALA can't easily raise body levels of DHA and EPA enough to ensure optimal health.
(Non-fish eaters and pregnant women have the highest omega-3 conversion rates … probably to compensate for low DHA-EPA intake and babies' high DHA requirements, respectively.)
This is why U.S. and world health authorities concerned with heart and overall health recommend getting 250-500mg or more of long-chain omega-3 EPA and DHA daily (roughly equal amounts of each fatty acid) – from fish and/or fish oil.
Harris WS, Lemke SL, Hansen SN, Goldstein DA, DiRienzo MA, Su H, Nemeth MA, Taylor ML, Ahmed G, George C. Stearidonic acid-enriched soybean oil increased the omega-3 index, an emerging cardiovascular risk marker. Lipids. 2008 Sep;43(9):805-11. Epub 2008 Aug 6.
Lemke SL, Vicini JL, Su H, Goldstein DA, Nemeth MA, Krul ES, Harris WS. Dietary intake of stearidonic acid-enriched soybean oil increases the omega-3 index: randomized, double-blind clinical study of efficacy and safety. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Oct;92(4):766-75. Epub 2010 Aug 25.
Raloff J. Fishy fat from soy is headed for U.S. dinner tables. April 9, 2011. Accessed at http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/72501/title/Science_%2B_the_Public__Fishy_fat_from_soy_is_headed_for_U.S._dinner_tables
Whelan J. Dietary stearidonic acid is a long chain (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acid with potential health benefits. J Nutr. 2009 Jan;139(1):5-10. Epub 2008 Dec 3. Review.