Beware of Misleading Omega-3 Claims

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October 20, 2007 | 113,397 views

Supermarkets are now carrying a range of products that tout their added omega-3 content as a health benefit. Everything from mayonnaise to cereal to eggs can be found with omega-3 added in. But are these products really better for your health?

Probably not, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

While the omega-3s DHA and EPA have been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and vision problems, the type of omega-3 typically added to food products is ALA -- and ALA may not give you the same health benefits.

CSPI is calling on the FDA to require labels with omega-3 claims to describe the type and amount of omega-3, however until then consumers will need to be wary. CSPI pointed to the following misleading food labels:

CSPI recommends getting omega-3 from fish oil, algal oil, or by eating fatty fish such as salmon. A six-ounce serving of Atlantic salmon contains over 3,000 mg of DHA and EPA -- more than 100 times the amount found in DHA-fortified yogurt, milk, or soy milk.

Center for Science in the Public Interest October 1, 2007

If you’ve been following the positive research on omega-3 fats and have decided to add more of them to your diet, congratulations! You’ve just made an excellent decision for your health, as omega-3 fats are pivotal in preventing heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases.

However, not all omega-3 fats are the same, and the type and source of your omega-3 will make a big difference in the health benefits it provides.

There are three types of omega-3 fats:
Most of your health benefits associated with omega-3 fats are linked to animal-based omega-3 fats like EPA and DHA, not plant-based omega-3 fats like ALA. ALA is converted into EPA and DHA in your body, but only at a very low ratio. Even if you eat large amounts of ALA, your body can only convert very small amounts into EPA and DHA, and only when sufficient enzymes are present.

So, hands down, the types of omega-3 that you want to add to your diet are EPA and DHA, which are found primarily in fish.

This does not mean that plant-based omega-3 fats are intrinsically harmful or that they should be avoided. We all need them and they should be consumed as part of a well-balanced, healthy diet. My favorite way of getting them is from freshly ground, organic flax seeds, as they also have a healthy water-soluble fiber, lignin, that reduces your risk of breast and prostate cancers.

The major problem with using plant-based omega-3 fats is when you use them exclusively as your sole source of omega-3 fats and avoid any animal-based omega-3 fats. I believe that the evidence is very clear that this will harm you in the long run.

Are Omega-3-Fortified Foods Worthwhile?

Many food companies, realizing that consumers are now interested in bettering their health with omega-3 fats, are trying to jump on the omega-3 bandwagon. You can now find omega-3 fortified cereal, eggs, crackers, yogurt, and even mayonnaise.

CSPI is right to warn consumers about this because the vast majority of these products contain ALA, which has not been linked to the same health benefits as EPA and DHA.

AVOID Omega-3 Eggs!

I would STRONGLY encourage you to avoid all omega-3 eggs as they are actually LESS healthy for you. Typically the animals are fed poor-quality sources of omega-3 fats that are already oxidized. But even if they were healthy, it turns out that omega-3 eggs do not last anywhere near as long as non-omega-3 eggs.

Surely, if you are looking for omega-3, you need to be certain that it is the correct type, and most of these products do not specify it or they make it very hard to discern.

That said, will eating foods fortified with ALA harm you? Not at all, at least as far as the ALA is concerned (although one study did find that ALA-rich flaxseed oil can actually increase your risk of prostate cancer).

These foods may harm you in other ways, though, considering that most of them are highly processed and loaded with sugar, grains, preservatives, and other food additives.

How Can I Get More DHA and EPA in My Diet?

Your absolute best sources of DHA and EPA are from krill oil or fish oil. At one time, fatty fish like salmon was also an excellent source, but today most all fish is contaminated with mercury, PCBs, and more, and these contaminants outweigh your benefits of omega-3 (particularly since you can get them from krill and fish oils, which are purified of contaminants).

I only recommend that you eat fish if you have it lab-tested and it comes back free of mercury and other pollutants.

The CSPI article also mentioned getting omega-3 from algae, however this is not as good a source because it is unbalanced.

The bottom line is, I’d avoid all the omega-3 processed junk foods out there. And I’d certainly add a dose of krill oil or fish oil to your daily routine if you’re looking for optimal health.