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China science

Blooming marvel: the Chinese flower that could help save fish stocks and guard against heart disease

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 9:05am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 3:23pm

It has long been called the “King of Flowers” in China but now the tree peony could rule the waves as an alternative to fish oil.

The native Chinese plant has seeds that can be squeezed to make the healthiest kind of cooking oil, according to a new study by Chinese scientists.

The researchers found that tree peony seeds yield oil that is has equal portions of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.

The unsaturated fatty acids are essential to human health and genetic analysis indicates that humans evolved on a diet with them in roughly equal measures.

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But in modern diets, the ratio of the fats has been tipped in omega-6’s favour by more than 15:1.

The imbalance raises the risk of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune conditions, according to various studies.

Part of the problem is the kind of cooking oils used in the kitchen, with the omega-6:omega-3 ratio hitting nearly 700:1 in sunflower oil, nearly 600:1 in peanut oil, about 100:1 in corn oil and more than 16:1 in olive oil.

In a paper published in Scientific Reports last week, the Chinese researchers said tree peony seeds hit the sweet spot, producing an oil that had a roughly 1:1 balance of omega-6:omega-3 fats.

“The tree peony symbolises happiness, wealth and power,” the authors wrote.

The study was led by Professor Hu Yonghong at the Chenshan Plant Science Research Centre under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai.

Hu and his colleagues examined many wild and domestic varieties of tree peony and found all of them contained a large amount of alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA).

ALA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid and has a number of health benefits such as reducing blood lipids and preventing heart disease. The seed oil of a Sichuan species was about half ALA.

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At present, most ALA used in nutritional supplements comes from fish but that source is under severe pressure.

“Owing to overharvesting and environmental pollution, fish oil can no longer serve as a source of ALA,” the researchers wrote.

With potential annual seed production of 57,855 tonnes, tree peony seed oil could save the diminishing fish population in the world’s oceans, they said.

The scientists said the central government was taking the potential of tree peony seed oils seriously and had a national plan to accelerate the development of the industry.