The essential oils in your diet

The "essential" omega oils
Where they are NOT
Where to find them
How much should you eat?
Co-factors
Recipes
Different names and formulae
More information

The "essential" omega oils

Our modern diet is low in some essential foods, foods we need to stay alive at all. Two important ones are the omega oils, also called "essential fatty acids". They are an essential ingredient in our cell membranes, so especially affect our skin quality, resistance to disease, nerves and brain. Dry skin, splitting or peeling cuticles, tiredness, muzziness, always going down with bugs, headaches, inflammations, aching joints - these are some things they can help (but always consult a good doctor too!).

The essential oils belong to the family of "polyunsaturates." But be careful, because many polyunsaturates are not essential, and some may even be harmful - see NOT: Margarines and pro-acitve spreads below.

Our bodies can usually make other important oils from the essential ones, including several polyunsaturates (such as EPA and DHA). It helps if you can eat some of these in your diet too, so that your body can save the essential ones for where they are needed most. But for a few people, their bodies cannot make EPA and/or DHA, and for such people these are also essential oils. So if in doubt, consult your doctor!

Where they are NOT

?NOT: Many margarines, drinks, etc. that make bold claims? Margarines, yogurt drinks, milk - ever more products claim to contain these essential oils. Some that contain polyunsaturated and "monounsaturated" fats aviod the short-life essential omega 3 oil - even those that say they contain essential oils may only have omega 6 and not omega 3. Even if they do have omega 3 they may have had all the goodness processed out of them. These processes help to keep the product stable during storage and once the tub is opened. Unfortunately, the processing also turns some of the remaining polyunsaturates into "trans" fatty acids, which may possibly cause cancer and may also block the health-giving action of the unprocessed, natural oils.

Many "pro-acitve" and similarly named products also abound, with added "plant sterol esters" (also suspect as possible carcinogens). These spreads also may avoid the essential, short-life omega 3 and tend to have some trans fats present: they may lower one type of blood cholesterol, but they do not provide the essential omega 3 and may just kill you with cancer instead.

Of course, there are reputable brands out there too, so do read the small print.

NOT: Cooking oils. Most cooking oils have suffered the same treatment as margarine (i.e. filtered, refined, heat-sterilised and deodorised). The Canola variety of rape has even had the essential oils deliberately bred out of it, so that it is cheaper to process and will keep longer in the bottle. Extra virgin olive oil is good stuff, but the omega oils it contains are not the essential ones - they are monounsaturates, which our bodies can make from other oils if necessary.

NOT: Hydrogenated vegetable oil. Hydrogenation is an industrial process that destroys polyunsaturates, turning them into monounsaturates and saturated fats. This helps the product to stay firm at room temperature and to keep well, but can also convert some cis polyunsaturates to useless, and possibly harmful, trans fats. This last is especially likely if it is "partially hydrogenated" to stop it being runny but still keep it soft.

?NOT: Planned healthy diet? Even if you eat a wide, balanced variety of organic wholefoods and meats, you may not be getting enough of the essential omega 3 oil. Different people's needs vary widely, and the same food varies in quality when grown in different places around the world.

?NOT: Fish oil? Polyunsaturates (especially DHA and EPA) are present under certain skin areas of cold-water "oily" fish, but not generally in the frozen, filleted, farmed or warm-water beasties we get to eat. If you like burping fishy smells you can take fish oil capsules, but I prefer to eat extra flax and let my body convert it - I only eat fish oils as an occasional top-up.

Remember too that fish oils do not necessrily provide the essential polyunsaturated oils, this depends very much on the original fish - what sort, at what point in their lifecycle, and where they were living. In particular, cod liver oil is of the wrong type, however expensively packaged.

Where to find them

You get a small amount from most fresh greens and freshly-ground whole wheat flour. Recent research suggests that ORGANIC milk has much higher levels than milk from intensive farms. But if you don't eat enough of these - and let's face it, most of us don't - read on.

The essential oil in shortest supply is ALA (18:3w3). It is found in the seeds, or the seed oils, of:

The other essential oil is LNA (18:2w6). It is found in quite a few places, especially the seeds, or the seed oils, of:

*Hemp seeds and seed oil can contain traces of the drug THC, in far too small a quantity to get high, but enough to be detected by a drug test. Some shops do stock them and they are a very well-balanced food, so do try to find them.

The essential oils go off very quickly, so should be kept away from light, heat and air - they'll keep up to a week or so in the fridge once opened. Dont be put off by this, they last longer than the milk you are used to keeping in the fridge! They are destroyed by commercial processing, so always buy FRESH COLD PRESSED.

Pesticides often concentrate in fats and oils, so it is best to buy ORGANIC whenever possible.

How much should you eat?

Different people require very different amounts, depending on your ethnic (ie genetic) makeup and on how much sun you get (ie where and how you live). Udo Erasmus, the world authority on essential oils, believes that the best guides to how much to eat are your stomach and taste buds: experts often have pet theories to push, and rigid diets usually best suit the inventor. I am only partly convinced by this, as many of us do not have trustworthy eating habits! I would suggest - trust yourself unless you get ill, then find a reputable clinician and trust them.

About two tablespoons of essential oils a day is a good starter dose, reduced to a about one tablespoon as time goes by.

If taking them as whole or ground seed, you'll need about 3 times the volume (2 times the weight) of the pure oil.

Do not expect instant results, it takes a few days/weeks before things start to happen, and a year or more for the stuff to get right through your system.

Co-factors

To make use of the omega oils, we need other things (co-factors) that are often in short supply:

These are removed or inactivated during industrial processing, another reason to always buy your oils FRESH COLD PRESSED. They can also be suppressed or diluted by intensive farming, another reason too to buy ORGANIC. Some are left behind in the seed residue even when fresh cold pressed, so you should eat at least some whole/ground seeds and not just the oils.

You may also need additional amounts of some co-fators as dietary supplements, as I do, but don't take my word for it - go and see a qualified practitioner, such as a qualified doctor who also runs a private "holistic" or nutrition clinic or similar.

Recipes

Oils - mix flax (linseed) with other oils to get a balanced and tasty oil, e.g:

Use wherever you'd use a normal food oil, except:
DO NOT USE FOR FRYING OR GRILLING - this degrades the essential oils, and makes them as toxic as margarine.

Seeds. Either eat whole and crunch up well (otherwise, they will pass through undigested), or grind fresh and keep for up to a week in the fridge, in an airtight container. Again, mix flax with other seeds as above to get a balanced flour.

Breakfast cereal. Sprinkle ground mix or whole seeds on top. Goes especially well with muesli, "crunchy" style oat cereals or Weetabix.

Ice cream. Sprinkle coarse ground mix or whole seeds on top. Yum! Now where's that maple syrup?

Thick shakes. Add a teaspoon of finely-ground flax seeds or seed mix and whizz up. Leave to stand in the fridge for at least half an hour, preferably several hours, to thicken up. Can leave some "wholemealy" bits floating, but if you've put fresh strawberries and a teaspoon of caster sugar in too, who cares? My other favourite is vanilla and honey.

Veg soups and stews. A tablespoon of mixed oils adds body. Add some olive oil too, for that Mediterranean taste.

Tomate al' olio. Sliced ripe tomatoes, mixed oils, a dash of olive oil, sea salt. Add fresh crushed garlic to taste. A brilliant summer salad, or with rice or pasta at any time.

Mixed seed butter (tahini). Add a little mixed oil to the ground seed mix (coarse or fine to taste). Spread on bread, toast, etc.

Mixed seed halva. Pound a little honey or golden syrup into the finely-ground seed mix. Cut/press into blocks.

French dressing. Mixed oils, sea salt, pepper and a little vinegar or lemon juice make a great dressing, and for that gourmet touch, add half a clove of freshly crushed garlic.

Orange juice. Briskly stir in a teaspoonful of your favourite oil. Drink. Not to my taste, but several people have told me how much they like it. At least give it a try like I did!

Different names and formulae

Each oil has more than one name, and each family of oils has several members, so people often fail to be clear and get thoroughly muddled up. Just a few years ago, people didn't know how to tell some oils apart, so they didn't even know what they were experimenting on! So always be careful to interpret what you read and hear, especially with old information.

People often write 'w' as shorthand for "omega" because the letter w looks a bit like the Greek letter Omega, ω. Other people give up and write n- instead. Some people call these oils fatty acids, as in "the essential fatty acids", partly because that is technically what they are, and partly so as not to get confused with those aromatic essences which are also called essential oils.

Polyunsaturates exist in two forms, "cis" and "trans." The cis forms are natural and good, the trans forms are created during frying or commercial processing and are bad. Always beware the processed trans forms. They are preferred by the processing industry because they have a longer sell-by date. Many people, especially those sponsored by industries, fail to distinguish between cis and trans - even though we know trans fats to be harmful. For example, try checking the small print on a tub of margarine.

w3, omega 3, linolenic acid, LNA, alpha linolenic acid, ALA, 18:3w3, 18:3 (n-3) (note the second 'n' in "linolenic") - the essential oil we are most deficient in. There are several omega 3 oils, all are polyunsaturates. One of them is linolenic acid, LNA. The essential form found in nature is cis alpha linolenic acid, or ALA, and is also (and rather confusingly) often referred to as LNA.

Gamma linolenic acid, GLA - a particluar form, or isomer, of LNA. Many people fail to make clear whether they are talking about and studying ALA, GLA, or a mixture - often because they don't know!

w6, omega 6, linoleic acid, LA, 18:2w6 18:2 (n-6) (note only one 'n' in "linoleic") - the other essential oil. There are several omega 6 oils, all are polyunsaturates. One of them is linoleic acid, LA, 18:2w6. The form found in nature is cis linoleic acid.

w9, oleic acid, OA, 18:1w9 - the oil to which Olive oil gives its name. There are several omega 9 oils, all monounsaturates. One is oleic acid, or OA. It is more resistant to heat and commercial processing than most oils, and stays safe from the unwelcome trans form up to quite high temperatures. However, processing does remove the co-factors (and the taste!) and pesticides still like to concentrate there, so always buy your olive oil EXTRA VIRGIN COLD PRESSED and preferably ORGANIC.

More information

Updated 6 August 2007