This review examines the data pertaining to an important and often underrated EFA, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). It examines its sources, metabolism, and biological effects in various population studies, in vitro, animal, and human intervention studies.

The main role of ALA was assumed to be as a precursor to the longer-chain n-3 PUFA, EPA and DHA, and particularly for supplying DHA for neural tissue. This paper reveals that the major metabolic route of ALA metabolism is beta-oxidation.

Furthermore, ALA accumulates in specific sites in the body of mammals (carcass, adipose, and skin), and only a small proportion of the fed ALA is converted to DHA.

There is some evidence that ALA may be involved with skin and fur function. There is continuing debate regarding whether ALA has actions of its own in relation to the cardiovascular system and neural function. Cardiovascular disease and cancer are two of the major burdens of disease in the 21st century, and emerging evidence suggests that diets containing ALA are associated with reductions in total deaths and sudden cardiac death.

There may be aspects of the action and, more importantly, the metabolism of ALA that need to be elucidated, and these will help us understand the biological effects of this compound better.

Additionally, we must not forget that ALA is part of the whole diet and should be seen in this context, not in isolation.