There is considerable interest in the potential impact of several polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in mitigating the significant morbidity and mortality caused by degenerative diseases of the cardiovascular system and brain.

Despite this interest, confusion surrounds the extent of conversion in humans of the parent PUFA, linoleic acid or alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), to their respective long-chain PUFA products. As a result, there is uncertainty about the potential benefits of ALA versus eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) or docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Some of the confusion arises because although mammals have the necessary enzymes to make the long-chain PUFA from the parent PUFA, in vivo studies in humans show that asymptotically equal to 5% of ALA is converted to EPA and <0.5% of ALA is converted to DHA. Because the capacity of this pathway is very low in healthy, nonvegetarian humans, even large amounts of dietary ALA have a negligible effect on plasma DHA, an effect paralleled in the omega6 PUFA by a negligible effect of dietary linoleic acid on plasma arachidonic acid.

Despite this inefficient conversion, there are potential roles in human health for ALA and EPA that could be independent of their metabolism to DHA through the desaturation - chain elongation pathway.