Omega-3 has been a hot buzzword in the food space for the better part of the last decade. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you that omega-3 is important for a healthy diet.
But not all omega-3′s are created equal. Which means you may be buying a product fortified with omega-3 that has almost no health benefits for you. Be sure you will be paying more than you would have for the standard, un-enriched version.
In order to better understand what’s going on, here’s a quick primer on omega-3, in 10 bullet points.
What you need to know:
1. Food can be broken down to three categories – protein, carbohydrate, fat. Our bodies need all three to function.
2. Fats can be broken down into the “good” and “bad” fats (though this is an over-simplification). The bad fats are “saturated” and “tran-fats” – they increase the risks of heart disease, for example. Again, this is highly simplified, not all saturated fats are bad.
3. The “good” or “heart healthy” fats are called unsaturated fats. They are further divided into polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats. They can be found in olive oil, walnuts, avocado, and fish.
4. Fats are actually composed of different types of fatty-acids. It is the fatty acids that are saturated or unsaturated. For example, Canola oil is regarded a relatively healthy oil because it is composed of 90% unsaturated fatty acids – oleic acid, linoleic acid and linolenic acid, and only 10% saturated fats.
5. Fatty acids are further broken down into groups based on their chemical makeup. The omega-3, omega-6, omega-9 classification of fatty acids is based on position of certain carbon-bonds inside the fatty acid molecule. This is the most difficult part of today’s post, so hang in there. Omega-3 and omega-6 are also called “essential fatty acids”; this means our body does not manufacture them on its own, so we need to get them from food.
6. If you’re still with us, omega-3 is actually a family of fatty acids which includes alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). All three are polyunsaturated (reminder: that means good).
7. Studies have proven unequivocally that omega-3 consumption is good for our health, in an all round sort of fashion. From raising the IQ of unborn babies, to better heart health, and even more mental stability.
8. But not all omega-3 fatty acids yield the same benefit. They are further classified into 2 groups - “long chain” such as DHA and EPA, and “short chain” such as ALA (alpha linolenic acid). The long chain fatty acids are the ones that are considered most beneficial. They are readily available from oils of cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel. The short chain ALA is found in flax seeds and chia seeds for example.
9. The human body does know to turn ALA into the more useful EPA and DHA, but only at a 10-15% efficiency. The omega-3 health claims have regulatory organizations in a tizzy, because manufacturers are fortifying foods with cheap (read vegetable) sources of omega-3 in order to plaster health claims on them, when in fact they may prove less beneficial than omega-3 sourced from fish oils.
10. To complicate things even further, it appears that consumption of foods high in omega-3 is not enough. The proportion of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in our bodies also plays a role in improving health outcomes. The modern diet has raised our consumption of omega-6 (through soybean and corn oils) to levels that way too high compared to our omega-3 levels. This imbalance needs to be rectified by either consuming less omega-6, or more much more omega-3.
What to do at the supermarket:
As you can see from the above example, nutrition is quite complex. Scientists are discovering new interactions every day. And while a better understanding of how our body works with nutrients is important, let’s keep in mind that food itself has been, for thousands of years, a pretty straightforward affair: Grow, harvest, prepare. And somehow, humanity survived.
The modern supermarket has changed our relationship to food. Now it’s pretty much just one verb - “buy”.
While fortification of processed foods with omega-3 won’t cause harm, and in some cases be healthy for you, the naturally good sources of omega-3 are sardines, salmon, flax oil, with other seeds and nuts to some extent.