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CAB Reviews

A reviews journal covering agriculture, global health, nutrition, natural resources and veterinary science

CAB Review

Dietary strategies for increasing docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) concentrations in bovine milk: a review.


A review was made of the literature concerning the metabolism of fatty acids in the dairy cow, and the potential of increasing the content of the essential fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA; C20:5) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA; C22:6) in cows' milk. EPA and DHA are two n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which can be synthesised from α-linolenic acid (LNA, C18:3). Both EPA and DHA have anti-thrombotic and anti-carcinogenic effects. The UK Department of Health has recommended that the daily human intake of total n-3 PUFA should be 0.2 g/d, which is approximately double the current average intake. The richest source of dietary EPA and DHA is marine products, but the consumption of fish in the UK is declining. Milk fat consumption constitutes 30% of total fat consumption in the UK diet, and so enhancing the concentration of EPA and DHA in milk fat could be an effective means of increasing the consumption of these fatty acids in the UK. Grass and linseed are rich sources of LNA for dairy cows, while fish oil or marine algae are the richest sources of EPA and DHA. However, a large proportion of these fatty acids (ca 0.9) are hydrogenated to more saturated fatty acids by the microorganisms in the rumen. The proportion of absorbed n-3 PUFA is therefore only about 7 g/kg ingested n-3 PUFA. Absorbed EPA and DHA are transported around the body as phospholipids, associated with the high-density lipoprotein fraction of the plasma. This fraction is not a good substrate for lipoprotein lipase, which is the enzyme in the mammary gland that removes fatty acids from the circulation for incorporation into milk fat. The uptake by the mammary gland of absorbed EPA and DHA is therefore extremely low. The concentration of EPA and DHA in milk fat therefore remains low even when the diet is enriched with these fatty acids. It is possible that the EPA and DHA present in the milk arise from de novo synthesis of these acids from LNA in the mammary gland. However, while EPA is synthesised from LNA, there appears to be a block on the subsequent synthesis of DHA from EPA. EPA and DHA are not stored in adipose tissue triacylglycerols, and they are not used for oxidative metabolism. There is therefore little competition for circulating EPA and DHA between the mammary gland and adipose tissue, or between secretion and oxidation. There is some potential storage of these acids in the phospholipids of muscle tissue and adipose tissue. Grass is a rich source of LNA, and the LNA content of milk can be enhanced by increasing the herbage content of the diet. This potentially provides more precursors of EPA and DHA. However, increasing the proportion of forage in the diet also tends to increase the extent of rumen biohydrogenation of PUFA as this process is encouraged by higher rumen pH and reduced propionate production. Including either fish oil or some species of marine microalgae in the diet increases the EPA and DHA content of milk. However, these oils can adversely affect rumen function, so that total dry matter intake and milk fat content are reduced. Feeding fish oils to ruminant animals may also not be a sustainable practice in the longer-term. Protecting marine oils from rumen biohydrogenation should prevent the adverse effects on rumen function. However, the evaluation of a protected marine microalgae product suggested that the protection was far from complete, and a reliable means of treating algae to protect it from rumen metabolism still awaits development. Further enhancement of the EPA and DHA content of cows' milk requires more research. Issues, which need to be addressed, are the development of a suitable oil supplement, and a reliable means of protecting it from rumen biohydrogenation. A means of transporting the absorbed EPA and DHA in the circulation so that it is readily taken up by the mammary gland for incorporation into the milk fat also needs to be developed. Changes in the marketing of milk that has been improved in this way would also be required to meet the increased cost of producing this nutritionally enhanced milk.