It looks most of all like ground coffee, but make no mistake. It is a new substance that researchers will use to microencapsulate fish oil. This can solve the problem of fatty acids going rancid when they are exposed to the free radicals that are found everywhere and which are formed when chemical bonds are broken by heat and light, for example.
A new type of antioxidant can be used in connection with micro-encapsulation of fish oil and thereby protect the healthy omega-3 fatty acids against rancidification.
Every day, millions of people worldwide take some kind of dietary supplement based on fish oil due to the omega-3 fatty acids’ documented effects on human health.
Meanwhile, the researchers in the laboratories work hard to improve the encapsulation technologies and thereby the possibilities of protecting the active substances in fish oil against oxidation or the so-called rancidification.
Rancid omega-3 fatty acids lose nutritional value
Omega-3 fatty acids are in fact fragile, and they often risk to get destroyed even before reaching the shelves.
This happens when the so-called free radicals break the chemical bonds in the oil and thereby bring the fatty acids to oxidation, explains PhD student Mia Falkeborg from Aarhus University:
“We know that the active substances in fish oil have a low shelf life. Omega-3 fatty acids are destroyed in the meeting with free radicals which in small amounts exist where oxygen, light and heat are represented - both in foodstuffs and in the body’s own cell metabolism. Even a very small amount of the free radicals can start a chain reaction and make the oil rancid, and this affects its nutritional value.”
For this reason, Mia Falkeborg has spent the last many years of her researcher life on developing a chemical antioxidant which can be used for micro-encapsulation of fish oil with the purpose of protecting the valuable fatty acids optimally against the free radicals.
“I have designed the antioxidant so it can be used for micro-encapsulation of fish oil with an optimal protection against oxidation. At the same time, it makes the oil soluble in liquid by which there are far better opportunities to add the healthy omega-3 fatty acids to other foodstuff products”, says Mia Falkeborg.
Today, nutritional experts assess the western food to contain too little omega-3, and therefore Mia Falkeborg hopes that her invention can make the healthy and essential fatty acids more available for more people.
Omega-3 will sneak into our food
The antioxidant developed by Mia Falkeborg should be used for encapsulation of fish oil in micro and nano scale where it will be invisible to the naked eye. The advantage of this form of encapsulation is the fact that it will be possible to add the fish oil to foodstuffs such as bread or liquid and thereby enrich our food.
So far, it has been both a difficult and a costly affair. Because when you want to merge fatty acids with another product, you need a so-called emulsifier to prevent the oil from clumping like small perls.
The problem with the emulsifiers is that they make the fish oil oxidise much easier than it would have, and therefore the food manufacturers must add antioxidants which are both expensive and which make the manufacturing process more difficult.
To some extent, the antioxidants can halt the attacks from the free radicals and thus the destruction of the omega-3 fatty acids. However, even the most powerful of its kind are not protecting one hundred percent against oxidation, and this affects the quality and shelf life of the food products.
Full protection of delicate fatty acids
The research results from Aarhus University attract attention beyond the borders of Denmark since Mia Falkeborg has succeeded in developing a super antioxidant which, in the laboratory, provides full protection to the omega-3 fatty acids.
“We have tested the effect of the antioxidant by means of different types of oxidation, and it behaves just as intended. It neutralises the free radicals and in this way it protects the active substances in the oil,” says Mia Falkeborg.
The super antioxidant is extracted from a sugary substance of algae which is both an inexpensive and a sustainable material. In the laboratory, Mia Falkeborg has discovered an enzyme with which she can process the alga sugar. By this, the enzyme changes its molecular structure and turns into an antioxidant with greater strength than ever.
“I started right from the ground by making a lot of reactions with enzymes. Now, it appears that finally I have found one which can convert alga sugar into a specific chemical functional group of alginate oligosaccharides. The advantage of these alginate oligosaccharides is that they have a very strong antioxidant effect and that they are soluble in water and thus easy to make immiscible,” says Mia Falkeborg.
Antioxidant and emulsifier at the same time
Thus, the protection of the fish oil against oxidation is not the only great property of the antioxidant - it also functions as emulsifier. And precisely this dual capacity is totally unique and may result in a large number of new opportunities to enrich foodstuffs with fish oil.
“Some researchers focus on developing new technologies to emulsify fish oil. Others are focussing on preventing oxidation. My aim was to create a substance which was capable of doing both - and still was sustainable and inexpensive to produce,” says Mia Falkeborg.
She has received a prize for her research at American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS).