By now I’m sure you’re well aware of Omega-3’s. The term is thrown around in the media and is showing up on more and more food labels. But do you know what an Omega-3 is? Do you know what foods contain Omega-3’s? Do you know if you should be taking a supplement? Don’t worry if you don’t because I’ll explain it all.
What are Omega 3’s:
Omega 3’s are long chain fatty acids. There are three different types of omega-3’s:
ALA (Alpha-Linoleic Acid)
DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)
EPA (Eicosapenthaenoic Acid)
ALA is called an “essential fat” because our body cannot make it. Our body can make DHA & EPA from ALA, however this process is inefficient.
ALA is abundant in our food. Most notably it comes from seeds, nuts and oils such as canola, flax, soybean. DHA & EPA’s biggest food source is fish, particularly fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring & anchovies.
When talking about health benefits of omega-3’s, particularly concerning heart disease it is DHA & EPA we are referring to.
Health Benefits of Omega-3’s:
There are many claimed health benefits of Omega-3’s such as decreased cardiovascular disease, cancer prevention, prevention of macular degeneration, prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and many more.
The link between fish oil (EPA & DHA) and cardiovascular disease protection has been clearly established.
In 2004 a meta-analysis published in Circulation, showed that people who ate fish five times a week had a 40% lower risk of death from heart disease. And in an Italian Study (GISSI) people who had recently suffered a heart attack were randomly assigned to take either a fish oil supplement or not. Those who took fish oil were half as likely to have died of a sudden death heart attack during the 3.5 tar followup.
Similarly, Omega-3’s have shown to decrease triglyceride levels and decrease blood pressure.
As for the other areas – while there is some emerging evidence and positive research, there is no clear evidence at this time.
Recommendations for daily intake of EPA & DHA vary slightly by organization but overall:
General population: 300-500mg DHA & EPA are recommended. Dietary intake is preferred, equivalent to approximately 2 servings of fatty fish per week
Heart Disease: 1000 mg supplemental Omega-3’s in addition to dietary intake
High Triglycerides: 2000-4000mg supplemental Omega-3’s in addition to dietary intake
As mentioned, dietary intake is best. But if you are like me and live somewhere landlocked or don’t enjoy fish that often, supplements are a good option.
How to choose an Omega-3 Supplement:
Once you’ve decided you need to take an omega-3 supplement, you need to decide which one. A couple of things you’ll want to consider:
1. Look for an omega-3 supplement only. You do not want omega 6 or 9’s. You get both of these in high amounts in the diet. Supplementation is unnecessary.
2. You want the omega-3 source to be EPA & DHA, this means the ingredient list should be fish oil. If you see ALA or flax seed oil on the label, look for a different supplement.
3. Avoid any “liver” supplements such as cod liver oil. These contain high amounts of vitamin A which could lead to toxicity.
4. Look for a supplement with enteric coating, this can help reduce some of the side effects such as “fishy burps” and upset stomach. Another cure for that is taking supplement with meals or storing in the freezer.
5. Look for a NPN number on the bottle. This ensures that the supplement has been government approved for safety, efficacy and quality.
*Speak with a doctor before starting any supplements
Supplements can cause GI distress, fishy burps, reflux & diarrhea.
High doses of omega-3 supplements can cause increase risk of bleeding.
Long term fish oil supplement use can cause vitamin E deficiency, therefore many supplements contain vitamin E. Caution should be used with additional vitamin E supplementation. Speak to your doctor.
What about Omega-3 containing food?
There are many, many products on the market now touting omega-3 claims. Are these just a marketing scheme? The answer…mostly yes.
First of all, many products that have always contained Omega-3’s are now sporting the claim. The product didn’t change, mayonnaise made from soybean oil always had omega-3’s, therefore the new bottle with the omega-3 claim isn’t any healthier than it used to be.
Secondly, you need to consider the type of omega-3’s. The type that contains the most health benefits are DHA & EPA, the source of these are fish oils. When manufactures are adding omega-3 to products, how likely do you think they are adding fish oil? Instead, they are often adding ALA. Which, we already receive an abundance of in our food supply. Therefore, you are not getting the desired health effect from the food product you purchased.
Here is a break down on some popular Omega-3 containing products:
Brunbae Farms Omega 3 Eggs:
Each egg contains 75mg DHA. An ordinary egg contains 20mg DHA. Therefore, by purchasing these eggs you get about extra 50mg DHA per egg. This is about the amount of DHA found in 1 Tbsp salmon.
My Opinion: It’s certainly not a bad idea to purchase these eggs but they are more costly and provide minimal amounts of added DHA daily.
You’ll see many margarine’s now have a claim, “Source of Omega-3’s”. margarines have always had omega-3’s as they are made from canola and sunflower oils. However, these Omega-3’s are ALA.
Becel also offers an Omega 3 margarine now and when I looked at the label it does include fish oil. A step in the right direction.
However, after comparing the nutritional facts panel from regular Becel to the omega-3 version, they both contain the same amount of Omega-3’s. There is no breakdown of DHA, EPA or ALA. The Omega-3 version does contain all forms of omega-3’s (ALA, EPA & DHA) whereas the original has only ALA.
My Opinion: The EPA & DHA in the omega-3 margarine is not quantified but is likely very miniscule in order to keep the flavour profile the same as regular margarine.
Take one look at the ingredient list and you see flax oil, meaning the added Omega-3’s in this product is ALA.
My opinion: Skip this product if you’re only buying it for the omega-3’s. It’s not worth it.
I hope I wrapped up any and all lingering questions that you head. Feel free to leave me a comment and ask more questions if I didn’t!