Wonders of the North: 50-year anniversary of Dyerberg and Bang’s fundamental omega-3s discoveries

By Hank Schultz contact

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©Getty Images - Imagebear
©Getty Images - Imagebear

Related tags: Omega-3s, EPA and DHA

Greenland has long been a source of mystery and wonder for the Danish people. One medieval mystery has never been solved, while a more recent one, the story of omega-3 fatty acids, continues to play out in a thriving industry that has fundamentally impacted human health.

Before Danish medical researchers Hans Olaf Bang and Jørn Dyerberg began their first investigations  involving Greenlanders on the epidemiological health effects of long chain fatty acids, it behooves one to first ask the question, why was Greenland part of Denmark in the first place?

How Greenland became Danish

The history of Scandinavian settlement on the world’s largest island extends back to the escapades of Viking Eric the Red as recorded in the Icelandic sagas. After a preliminary voyage in which he’d discovered what was then thought of a peninsula, in 986 Eric led a few ships’ worth of settlers to Greenland, a name he’d coined in what might be one of the earliest recorded instances of public relations overreach. 

Nevertheless, the protected fjords on the south and west coasts did afford enough grazing territory that those early Nordic settlers could set up shop with their cattle, sheep and horses.  While the community never boomed exactly—modern estimates put the population maximum at 5,000 or less—Norse folk did hold on there for almost 500 years.

Then sometime after 1410 (the last year a ship was recorded as having come east from the colony) the community died out.  A Norwegian-Danish missionary named Hans Egede ventured to Greenland starting in 1721 to both proselytize the Inuit as well as to search for descendants of this colony.  The Nordic Greenlanders had vanished without explanation.  Was it conflict with the Inuit?  Disease or genetic issues from inbreeding?  A cooling trend in the climate leading to a decline in agriculture?  Still to this day no one can say.

Pristine natural laboratory

From that time on Greenland has been under Denmark’s wing.  And access to this natural laboratory, with native Greenlanders (the descendants of those early Inuit) living lives both on the island and in Copenhagen, allowed Bang and Dyerberg to begin their first investigations in the 1960s.

At the time in the mid to late 60s the standard medical thinking was that all saturated fat and cholesterol was bad and should be reduced to the lowest levels possible for optimum weight management and cardiovascular health and long life span.  Bang and Dyerberg became intrigued by what seemed to be an outlier population:  native Greenlanders who consumed whale and seal blubber and fatty fish as part of their daily diet.  

Despite what seemed by contemporary wisdom to be an almost lethal amount of fat in the diet, this population showed almost no incidence of acute myocardial infarction. The pair published their first paper in what was to become a world-changing field of research fifty years ago in 1971.

Bang and Dyerberg’s prescience

A letter to the editor of the journal Nature Food​, omega-3s experts William S. Harris, PhD, Philip Calder, PhD, Dariush Mozaffarian, PhD and Charles N. Serhan, PhD laid out what Bang and Dyerberg found and its implications for human health.

“Bang and Dyerberg focused this first investigation on plasma lipids and lipoproteins, but they presciently theorized that specific fatty acids in the Inuit diet may be important modulators of atherosclerotic risk,” ​the authors wrote.

Bang and Dyerberg’s second paper compared the health outcomes of 131 Greenlandic Inuit eating traditional diets, 32 Greenlandic Inuit living in Denmark and eating a standard Danish diet and 31 white Danes.  This research led the pair to discover the powerful effects of the high levels of EPA and DHA within the traditional Greenlandic diet.

Putting the pieces together

By 1978, in a third paper, Bang and Dyerberg were putting the finishing touches on their theory of why the traditional Greenlandic diet was so powerfully cardioprotective.

“In a third paper, Dyerberg and Bang began connecting the mechanistic dots between the Inuit diet, plasma omega-3 PUFAs, and atherosclerotic heart disease,”​ Harris et al. wrote.

“Dyerberg and Bang proposed that EPA may reduce risk of heart disease not (just) by lowering blood cholesterol levels but also by its anti-thrombotic properties, properties arising from the conversion of EPA into the anti-aggregatory 3-series eicosanoids. The concept that 

fatty acids could meaningfully influence cardiovascular pathways beyond blood cholesterol was revolutionary, and presaged the heart rate-lowering, anti-inflammatoryand pro-resolvingproperties of EPA and DHA and their mediators, with yet more to be discovered,”​ they added.

“Together, these three seminal papers from Dyerberg and Bang published between 1971 and 1978 demonstrated a remarkable evolution of the understanding of diet, fatty acids, and health,”​ Harris et al. continued.

In the years since, omega-3s research has exploded.  The Harris et al. letter notes that among dietary ingredients, only Vitamin D has been more studied than omega-3 fatty acids.  In the years since Bang and Dyerberg’s seminal research, more than 31,000 scientific papers have been registered using the term, and the pace of research has been 2,000 papers or more annually in recent years.

A thriving category and  a flagship organization

This powerful and persuasive body of research has given rise to a thriving category in the dietary supplement industry.  And it also helped underpin one of the most successful trade organizations in the industry: the Global Organization of EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). A host of other single-ingredient trade groups have sprung up in the years that followed, seeking to emulate GOED’s success.

GOED’s inaugural executive director Adam Ismail (now with omega-3s supplier KD Pharma) said the power and breadth of this research was part of his reason for agreeing to help with the formation of GOED, which he came to after a stint with food ingredients giant Cargill.

“I think it’s a fairly unique story because you don’t often see medical researchers going into the field in remote, harsh environments and essentially doing anthropological research, studying a particular community, and then turning that into a biochemical finding and following that info further medical research,”​ Ismail said.

The groundbreaking nature of the findings helped focus the omega-3s industry to the task at hand, Ismail said.  Companies knew there was an opportunity to create a truly significant category resting on claims backed by truly solid science. But first the industry needed to get together to create some common sense quality parameters.

“What it took was a group of competitors coming together to really create a category.  Fish oils, particularly back before 2000, often had a really fishy taste.  It was an adverse sensory experience that held the category back,”​ Ismail said.

“So coming together to create a quality standard was in everybody’s interest. And if omega-3s consumption could be linked to a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk, that’s in everybody’s interest, too,” ​he added.

Source: Nature Food
2​, pages 303–305 (2021)
Bang and Dyerberg’s omega-3 discovery turns fifty
Authors: Harris WS, Calder PC, Mozaffarian D, Serhan CN