The media may be saturated with the message that omega-3s are good for us, but it seems that there is still a lack of knowledge over what omega-3 is, and what exactly we are consuming when we eat foods that are fortified with omega-3. In the latest omega-3 report – 2010 US Consumers’ Choice: Omega-3 Nutrient Products – dairy products and beverages fortified with omega-3 are the two categories that have seen the highest sales increase over the past two years in the omega-3 market. Other foods commonly fortified are bread and spreads. Consumers, it seems, are influenced mainly by what they see on the television and what they read on the internet.
What consumers really need to understand is that not all omega-3s are created equal, particularly when it comes to such things as heart health and brain function. In fact, it is well established that dietary omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids are involved in health promotion and disease prevention, but specifically and uniquely those omega-3s that are derived from fish. It is these omega-3s and these omega-3s only that are needed for proper growth and development in foetuses, infants and children, and for the regulation of immune function, inflammatory function and cardiovascular regulation at all ages.
The difficulty with adding marine derived omega-3s to everyday food items is that these long chain fatty acids are prone to rancidity when exposed to air, raising issues with both taste and the product’s shelf life. However, fortifying food items with the short chain omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) derived from plants does not pose with the same problems, as ALA is significantly more stable than the long chain fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoeic acid (DHA). However, whilst ALA is an omega-3 fatty acid, is does not offer the same health benefits as that of EPA or DHA, as it is simply a precursor to these longer chain fats. Indeed, consumed sources of ALA (such as flaxseeds and hemp seeds) must be physically modified before offering any significant health benefits, a process that is extremely inefficient in humans. In fact, the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is consistently low in most people; less than 8% of ALA is metabolised to EPA and only between 0.02% and 4% is metabolised to DHA. Although there is currently no Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for omega-3 fats in the UK, the government do suggest a daily intake of 450mg a day for adults and 200mg for children. However, these figures are specifically for long chain omega-3s. Consumers may still be under the false impression that they’re getting sufficient quantities of omega-3 simply by using a fortified spread or breads when the reality is that many fortified foods often contain fairly insignificant levels of omega-3, or are fortified with short chain ALA, and they would need to eat huge amounts to achieve any significant health benefits.
So if you are under the impression that you are boosting your intake of beneficial fats as you place your ‘omega-3 laced’ loaf of bread into your trolley, you may have to think again. Make sure you read the label as this will give a clear indication as to the source, and if it doesn’t state EPA or DHA then you might want to head for the fish counter. The alternative is, of course, to supplement your diet with a quality fish oil (I recommend omega 3 fish oil Vegepa) and, if you really are not a fish lover, try supplementing with echium oil; Echiomega may not be a fish oil but it’s certainly superior to other plant sources of omega-3.