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Inside Track Putting fatty acids in Scots diet without eating fish

Imagine being able to benefit from the health-giving properties of Omega 3 fish oil - without having to taste anything fishy.

It's not such a far-fetched idea: a Scottish artisan company has just produced a prototype premium salad dressing that delivers a high-performing vegetarian alternative to fish oil, by using marine algae.

Gusto Artesian Foods of Leith has teamed up with researchers at Queen Margaret University to develop the pioneering product, which is now being prepared for commercial production. It is hoped that the high levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, the element in omega-3 fatty acids that helps reduce heart disease) contained in marine algae oil will help improve the nation's health. DHA is naturally abundant in oily fish such as anchovies, salmon, herring and mackerel, but few of us eat these kinds of fish. In fact, we've just about lost the habit of eating oily fish altogether. Less than half of all Scottish schoolchildren have never even heard of herring, the fish that used to be such a strong part of our cultural identity.

Now, we're so hooked on cream, butter, pies, pastries, meat products and other foods containing saturated or trans fatty acids that the incidence of heart disease, hypertension, bad cholesterol and stroke in young Scots is now so high that it recently prompted the director of the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow to declare herself "shocked": we have the highest levels in Europe.

You may well wonder how we might be persuaded to consume the equivalent of fish oils when we're so clearly averse to the idea of eating fish. Dr Jane Mackenzie, academic lead in Food and Drink at QMU, explains that while most people believe fish produce their own DHA, in fact it's the algae in their food chain that makes them a rich source of DHA.

"We like to say we're cutting out the middle man - that is, the fish," Dr Mackenzie says. "We've taste-tested our prototype dressing with consumers, and they don't associate it with what it is. So we're getting rid of the idea of fish being involved, which we hope will make it more desirable to a wider population. We want to use it to enrich the diet of vegetarians and non-vegetarians who never eat oily fish." One 15ml tablespoon of the salad dressing delivers half the EU and UK recommended daily intake of DHA.

This is a first for Scotland, and a starting point for more products destined for the premium market (marine algae oil doesn't come cheap). In the US, there is a selection of foods made with marine algae oil by a company called Life'sDHA and they include butter, cheese, milk, yoghurt, tortillas, pasta, pasta sauces, marshmallows, chocolate, burgers and muffins. However, they are niche products in a niche market, while Dr Mackenzie hopes that hers will become more mainstream, which would happen if local producers were able to use home-grown oil, because then the price would come down.

At the moment, marine algae oil is imported from North America but there's surely potential for Scotland to exploit its own rich resources of algae further down the line.

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