Could a fatty super ingredient in butter actually be the secret to better health?
Researchers at Seraphina Therapeutics in San Diego have discovered the first essential fatty acid — a dietary nutrient that the body doesn't make enough of, but needs to maintain human health — in 90 years. Known as pentadecanoic acid, or C15:0, the dietary saturated fat found in milk, butter, fish, plants and other foods was shown in studies to demonstrate broad health benefits. It would join omega-3 and omega-6 as the only fatty acids considered by nutrition scientists as essential.
"We're really at the dawn of a new golden age of nutrition and the reason is there has been this long-held approach to nutrition which was pretty archaic, leading to very few discoveries of something that is essential," Stephanie Venn-Watson, CEO Seraphina Therapeutics, told Food Dive. "C15:0, I'm almost confident, is just going to be the first of a whole new age of essential nutrients that we never knew about but are able to find now."
While C15:0 has been gaining momentum in the scientific community in recent years due to observed associations between higher C15:0 dietary intake and lower risks of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, Seraphina Therapeutics is the first company whose work in the laboratory setting has shown that pure C15:0 can directly cause these benefits.
While more research is needed, the early findings published Monday in the peer-reviewed Scientific Reports journal so far are promising.
In studies conducted by Seraphina Therapeutics during the last three years, scientists found applying C15:0 to a dozen different human cell systems in a lab that mimicked chronic inflammation, immune disorders and fibrosis resulted in lower inflammation and tissue scarring. Other tests conducted on obese mice showed that when their diets were supplemented for three months with C15:0, it yielded similar results while also lowering glucose and cholesterol levels.
Venn-Watson said higher levels of C15:0 could soon be added to beverages like plant-based milks and foods — much like calcium, probiotics or vitamins are today — that don't have the same nutrient levels as their animal-based counterpart. It could also increase demand for other healthier foods like fish that have more of the essential fatty acid.
"As this story comes out and more and more research is done I think we're going to understand that it's not just dairy — that there are certain types of fish, certain types of plants that may serve as food sources for C15:0," she said.
Earlier this week, Seraphina Therapeutics announced it raised $5 million in Series A funding that the company will use to advance its work on C15:0 as supplements and food fortifiers, as well as other beneficial essential fatty acids and micronutrients. Venn-Watson said its first clinical trial with C15:0 in humans has been delayed to summer or fall of 2021 because coronavirus has slowed down clinical trials testing across the health industry.
If the tests in people show C15:0 can strengthen red blood cells and stem chronic inflammation, Seraphina Therapeutics could potentially look at specific nutritional deficiency syndromes that C15:0 could treat such as anemia — a condition in which a person doesn't have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to the tissues in the body.
In the near term, the company is completing one final test in animals that is aligned with FDA guidance as part of its effort to obtain Generally Recognized As Safe status. Seraphina Therapeutics is optimistic it could receive approval later this year, allowing for higher levels of C15:0 to be used in foods beyond what already naturally occurs.
Venn-Watson said today consumers are likely getting less C15:0, considered a better-for-you odd-chain saturated fatty acid — meaning there is an odd number of carbon atoms in its chain — because it is found in foods such as whole milk and butter that people have been encouraged to curtail consumption of during the last 40 years as a way to reduce their risk of heart disease.
While these products also contain a higher percentage of the unhealthy even-chain saturated fatty acid, people are missing out on the odd-chain saturated fatty acid that strengthens the outer part of a cell, which can protect against age-related ailments such as inflammation.
Venn-Watson speculated by cutting consumption of foods that have C15:0, it has resulted in a shortage of the essential fatty acid needed by humans to help maintain their health. It may also potentially increase the occurrence of diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and metabolic liver diseases, which have been on the rise since health officials encouraged a reduction in saturated fat consumption.
She hopes that a deeper understanding will shed a more favorable light on C:15:0 as an important part of the human diet.
"This is not some strange molecule in the Amazon rainforest that humans have never seen," Venn-Watson said. "This is a molecule that we've been eating and ingesting, and every mammal eats and ingests from the minute they're born."