The Crucial Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Human Health and the Challenge of Meeting Global Demand


Omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs), particularly eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are essential components of the human diet, recognized globally for their significant health benefits.

These fatty acids are critical for various physiological functions, with a particular emphasis on cardiovascular health. The importance of incorporating omega-3 LC-PUFAs into our daily diet has gained widespread recognition, leading to established dietary recommendations for their consumption.

Understanding Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that are considered essential because the human body cannot produce them on its own. They must be obtained through the diet or supplementation. The three primary types of omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fatty acids are found in various food sources, with fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines being particularly rich sources of EPA and DHA.

Omega-3 fatty acids have long been recognized for their role in maintaining overall health. They have been linked to numerous health benefits, including:

  • Heart Health: Omega-3s are known to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering triglyceride levels, reducing blood pressure, and improving overall cardiovascular function.
  • Brain Health: DHA, in particular, is essential for brain development and cognitive function. It has been associated with improved memory and a reduced risk of cognitive decline.
  • Inflammation: Omega-3s possess anti-inflammatory properties, which can help in managing chronic inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.
  • Mood and Mental Health: Some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may have a positive impact on mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
  • Eye Health: DHA is a major component of the retina, and adequate intake of omega-3s may reduce the risk of age-related macular degeneration.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids and the Immune System

One of the areas where omega-3 fatty acids have shown promise is in their ability to modulate the immune system. A well-functioning immune system is crucial for defending the body against pathogens, including viruses like COVID-19. Omega-3s have been found to influence various aspects of the immune response, including:

  • Reducing Inflammation: Chronic inflammation can weaken the immune system. Omega-3s help by reducing the production of pro-inflammatory molecules, potentially mitigating the “cytokine storm” observed in severe COVID-19 cases.
  • Enhancing Antiviral Defense: Some studies suggest that omega-3s can enhance the body’s antiviral response by increasing the production and activity of immune cells.
  • Balancing Immune Function: Omega-3s appear to promote a balanced immune response, preventing both excessive inflammation and immune suppression.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids and COVID-19

Given the potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids on the immune system, researchers have begun to investigate their role in the context of COVID-19. While it’s important to note that omega-3s are not a cure or preventive measure for COVID-19, several observations and studies suggest they could have a positive impact:

  • Reduced Severity: Some studies have reported that individuals with higher omega-3 levels may experience less severe symptoms if infected with COVID-19. This could be attributed to the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s, which may help dampen the excessive immune response seen in severe cases.
  • Improved Lung Function: COVID-19 primarily affects the respiratory system. Omega-3s have been associated with improved lung function, potentially aiding in recovery for individuals with COVID-19.
  • Supporting Mental Health: The pandemic has taken a toll on mental health, and omega-3s may play a role in supporting psychological well-being, which is especially important during these challenging times.
  • Combined Benefits: Omega-3s are often part of a balanced diet that includes other essential nutrients. Their overall impact on health may be amplified when combined with a variety of other beneficial compounds.

Incorporating Omega-3s into Your Diet

To harness the potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, it’s essential to incorporate them into your diet. Here are some practical tips:

  • Fatty Fish: Include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines in your diet regularly. Aim for at least two servings per week.
  • Plant Sources: For vegetarians and vegans, ALA-rich sources like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts can be beneficial. However, it’s important to note that these sources provide ALA, which the body must convert to EPA and DHA, and this conversion is not always efficient.
  • Supplements: Omega-3 supplements, such as fish oil capsules or algae-derived supplements, can be an option for those who have difficulty getting enough through diet alone. Consult with a healthcare provider before starting any supplementation regimen.
  • Balanced Diet: Remember that a balanced diet that includes a variety of nutrients is essential for overall health. Omega-3s are just one piece of the puzzle.

The Growing Demand for Omega-3 LC-PUFAs

The recommended daily intake of EPA and DHA for maintaining cardiac health in the general population is set at 250 milligrams per person per day.

Considering the global population of approximately 7.8 billion, the minimum annual demand for omega-3 LC-PUFAs can be calculated at over 0.7 million tons (mt).

However, for optimal health benefits, an intake of 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA per person per day is recommended, which would result in a demand exceeding 1.4 mt annually. Currently, the global supply of EPA and DHA for human consumption stands at around 420 kilotons (kt) per year, meeting only 30% of the minimum recommended demand.

Challenges in Meeting the Demand

Several challenges contribute to the significant gap between the demand and supply of omega-3 LC-PUFAs. Notably, substantial losses occur due to food waste and unutilized fisheries by-products, amounting to 219 kt and 53 kt of EPA and DHA annually, respectively.

Achieving a sustainable optimization of the global aquatic omega-3 supply chain is essential to narrow this demand-supply gap. It is estimated that up to 630 kt of EPA and DHA could be extracted from the human food chain through improved practices.

Factors Impacting Future Supply

The future supply of omega-3 LC-PUFAs faces several potential challenges, including the growth of the human population, the effects of climate change, and decreasing fish populations in marine waters. These factors are expected to reduce the supply of these essential fatty acids in the future. By 2050, it is projected that the current supply of EPA and DHA (over 400 kt per year) must double to meet the growing demand.

Exploring Alternative Sources

To address the pressing need for omega-3 LC-PUFAs, researchers are exploring various alternative sources.

Marine microalgae, thraustochytrids, scyphozoan pelagic jellyfish, amphipods, and whelk are being investigated as potential untapped sources of EPA and DHA in the ocean.

However, questions remain regarding the feasibility and environmental impact of harvesting these sources at lower mesh sizes and scaling up production.

Diversity in Omega-3 Sources

Currently, the primary pathway for obtaining EPA and DHA is through aquatic food sources. However, the EPA and DHA content in these sources can vary significantly depending on factors such as the trophic level and fattiness of the fish. Some farmed fish species are net consumers of omega-3 LC-PUFAs, while others are net producers. This variation has a direct impact on the environmental footprint of achieving EPA and DHA security in a country.

Challenges in Central Europe

Central Europe (CE) faces unique challenges in achieving adequate EPA and DHA intake. Despite low fish consumption (6–8 kg per capita per year), there is a high intake of terrestrial meat (64–83 kg per capita per year) in the region.

The omega-3 index in CE is classified as “very low,” and the population likely consumes excessive saturated fatty acids. To address this issue, two potential solutions are proposed: reducing red meat consumption and increasing the consumption of omega-3 LC-PUFAs.

The Role of Aquaculture

Globally, aquaculture is the fastest-growing food production sector, with approximately half of the aquatic food in the human diet being sourced from aquaculture. However, in CE, inland aquaculture has not substantially grown to meet local dietary needs.

The majority of consumed fish in the region are imported marine species, both wild and farmed. To increase aquaculture’s contribution to EPA and DHA security, strategies must be developed to prevent dilution of fatty acid levels in fish and explore alternative sources.

Czechia as a Case Study

Czechia serves as a representative case study for CE, with its predominant blue food production pattern, including carp farming. To address the EPA and DHA security in the region, several factors must be considered:

  • Nutrient Footprints: Assessing the nutrient footprints, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and CO2-equivalent emissions, associated with different blue food production systems.
  • Slaughterhouse Efficiency: Understanding the efficiency of carp farming in terms of edible yield.
  • Resource Use Efficiency: Comparing the resource use efficiency between carp and salmon production models for EPA and DHA production.
  • Bioavailability and Accumulation: Investigating the bioavailability and accumulation of EPA and DHA in carp from pond diets.

Cardiovascular Health in CE

Cardiovascular health is a significant concern in CE, and dietary recommendations suggest an increased intake of aquatic food to improve omega-3 index levels.

Clinical trials have shown that individuals in CE consume significantly less fish than the EU average, leading to lower omega-3 index levels in the population.

Strategies for Increasing EPA and DHA Intake

To address the challenges of cardiovascular health and EPA and DHA security in CE, strategies must be devised to increase fish consumption while minimizing the environmental impact. It is essential to strike a balance between marine and inland fish consumption to ensure sustainable and eco-friendly solutions.

  • Increased Fish Consumption: Encouraging greater fish consumption in CE, including marine and inland fish species, to meet the recommended daily intake of EPA and DHA.
  • Sustainable Pond Farming: Modernizing traditional pond farming in CE to produce multiple fish species with high EPA and DHA content while reducing environmental footprints.
  • Circular Feeding Strategies: Implementing circular finishing feeding strategies in pond carp farming to optimize EPA and DHA levels in fish fillets.
  • Bioconversion Pathways: Investigating potential bioconversion pathways within carp that lead to the synthesis of EPA and DHA, reducing the reliance on external sources.


Omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, play a crucial role in human health, especially in cardiovascular health. Meeting the global demand for these essential fatty acids presents significant challenges, particularly in regions like Central Europe.

To address these challenges, strategies must be developed to increase fish consumption, optimize aquaculture practices, and explore alternative sources of EPA and DHA. Modernizing traditional pond farming in CE and focusing on circular feeding strategies can contribute to meeting the region’s EPA and DHA needs sustainably. Future research on bioconversion pathways within fish species like carp can further enhance the region’s self-sufficiency in omega-3 fatty acids, promoting both human health and environmental sustainability.

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