This study set out to identify whether stearidonic acid (18:4n-3; STA) can be used to increase the eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3; EPA) content of plasma lipids and cells in humans and to understand more about the effects of increased consumption of gamma-linolenic acid (18:3n-3; GLA), STA and EPA in humans.

Healthy young males were randomised to consume one of seven oil blends for a period of 12 weeks (9g oil/day) (n = 8-12 subjects/group). Palm oil, sunflower oil, an EPA-rich oil, borage oil (rich in GLA), and Echium oil (rich in STA) were blended in various combinations to generate a placebo oil and oils providing approximately 2g GLA + STA + EPA per day, but in different combinations. Blood was collected at 0, 4, 8 and 12 weeks and the fatty acid compositions of plasma triacylglycerols, cholesteryl esters and phospholipids and of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) determined.

Significant effects were observed with each lipid fraction. Neither STA nor its derivative 20:4n-3 appeared in any of the lipid fractions studied when STA (up to 1g/day) was consumed.

However, STA (1g/day), in combination with GLA (0.9 g/day), increased the proportion of EPA in some lipid fractions, suggesting that STA-rich plant oils may offer a novel means of increasing EPA status. Furthermore, this combination tended to increase the dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (20:3n-6; DGLA) content of PBMCs, without an increase in arachidonic acid (AA) (20:4n-6) content.

EPA consumption increased the EPA content of all lipid fractions studied. Consumption of GLA (2g/day), in the absence of STA or EPA, increased DGLA content with a tendency to increase AA content in some fractions. This effect was prevented by inclusion of EPA in combination with GLA.

Thus, this study indicates that STA may be used as a precursor to increase the EPA content of human lipids and that combinations of GLA, STA and EPA can be used to manipulate the fatty acid compositions of lipid pools in subtle ways. Such effects may offer new strategies for manipulation of cell composition in order to influence cellular responses and functions in desirable ways.