Irish researchers have resurrected camelina sativa - a medieval oil seed crop, also known as false flax - as a potential source of omega-3 in yellow spreads.
Dismissed as being uneconomic to grow in commercial quantities in Ireland some years ago, camelina, with up to 45% omega-3 fatty acid content but better processing characteristics than fish oil or flax, could still be an attractive proposition for processors, said Dr Deirdre Ni Eidhin of Limerick University's Department of Life Sciences.
Now into the second of a three-year project to assess its processing characteristics, she said the aim was to produce a healthy yellow fat by blending camelina with fish oils. At the same time, researchers were attempting to reduce trans fats through novel hydrogenation techniques.
Although omega-3 fatty acids from plant oils were only 15% as effective as fish oils when metabolised in the body, they tasted and smelled better, said Dr Ni Eidhin.
They were also considerably cheaper. Camelina oil has a pleasant almond-like flavour and aroma and was rich in omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid and omega-6 linoleic acid. "By combining the two, we might have a more effective product," said Eidhin. "There's nothing like that on the market that I can see."
Finnish firm Raisio bought out Camelina Ltd, the only commercial European producer and processor of the oil, in 2004, intending to increase its range of vegetarian products containing camelina, which included its Beneviva heart-healthy margarine. But still only around 400 acres are grown in Europe.
Meanwhile, acreages in the US, where the crop thrives in arid conditions, have increased substantially this year in response for demand for both healthy food and green fuels.
Plantings in Montana alone are estimated to be up nearly five-fold to around 50,000 acres. In the US, camelina is being touted as a potential addition in baked goods and peanut butter.