Research describing fatty acids as modulators of inflammation and immune responses abounds. Many of these studies have focused on one particular group of fatty acids, omega-3.

The data from animal studies have shown that these fatty acids can have powerful anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory activities in a wide array of diseases (e.g., autoimmunity, arthritis, and infection). However, the evidence from human trials is more equivocal.

In this review, a historical framework for understanding how and why fatty acids may affect the immune system is provided. Second, highlights of two recent landmark reports from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality are presented. These reports critically evaluate the evidence from human clinical trials of omega-3 fatty acids and rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and a few other immune-mediated diseases. Third, the data from human clinical trials investigating the impact of various bioactive fatty acids on ex vivo and in vivo immune response are reviewed.

Limitations in experimental design and immune assays commonly used are discussed. The discordance between expectation and evidence in this field has been a disappointment.

Recommendations for improving both animal-based and human studies are provided.