Researchers Discover Source of Omega-3 Rich Oil in Peruvian Amazon

Plukenetia carolis-vegae, omega-3 fatty acids
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Could the discovery of the Plukenetia carolis-vegae plant lead to a new source for an omega-3 fatty acid dietary supplement?

In August 2012, researchers Rainer Bussmann of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis and Carlos Vega of the Institute for Sustainable Local Development discovered a plant in the Peruvian Amazon that could potentially be used as either a salad dressing oil or new source of omega 3 fatty acids for dietary supplements. The two hope that in addition to the discovery of a new plant variety, the efforts to cultivate the plant will also help to conserve the Amazon.

The Plukenetia carolis-vegae is part of a known species of plant whose family also contains species called Plukenetia volubilis and Plukenetia huayllabamban. However, the new plant sprouts seed pods that are larger than those of the other plants. The oil is rich in a type of omega-3 fatty acid known as a-linolenic acid. ALA is also found in flaxseed oil, canola oil, soy oil, and walnut oil.

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The body can convert ALA to other types of omega-3 fatty acids such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These omega-3’s have been shown to reduce inflammation and may help prevent chronic diseases, such as heart disease and arthritis. They may also be important for brain health and development.

Oils from plukenetia plants are excellent on salads, says Mr. Bussman. The taste is described as nutty and green, “evoking the flavors of peanut and cucumber.” He even believes the plant could potentially have other food uses. For example, he says, the dried seed could be roasted and made into hummus.

Large-scale cultivation of the plants is still a few years off. The newly discovered species is rare; limited to only a couple dozen bushes. However, if the crops become popular, the growth could help conserve the Amazon. The plants prefer shade, so trees would not need to be cut down for crops.

References:
Nature. doi:10.1038/nature.2013.12915
Bussmann, R. W., Téllez, C. & Glenn, A. Nord. J. Bot. 27, 313–315 (2009).

Additional Resource:
University of Maryland Medical Center

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