Not All Omega-3s are the Same?>

Not All Omega-3s are the Same

by Andrea Klausner, MS, RD  

If you don’t eat fish but want to get more of their healthy omega-3 fats, fortified foods may sound like a good idea. Adding omega-3s to foods—such as breads, spreads, cereals, frozen waffles and even pasta and cheese—is certainly a good marketing ploy. But do these fortified foods reel in the same health benefits as natural sources of omega-3s?

Why omega-3 fats?

These polyunsaturated fats have been linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease. They may help relieve rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, reduce the risk of macular degeneration, help preserve cognitive function in older people and help treat depression and certain other mental disorders.

But not all omega-3s are the same

There are two different sources of omega-3s: marine and plant. Omega-3s from fish—eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—have known heart benefits. They help reduce blood clots, arrhythmias, inflammation, high blood pressure and triglycerides (fats in the blood). That’s why the American Heart Association and other health authorities recommend eating at least two servings of fatty fish a week (and larger amounts for people who have heart disease). Salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines are particularly good sources of EPA and DHA.

Another omega-3 fat, called alpha linolenic acid (ALA), comes from plant foods, notably flaxseeds, walnuts and canola oil. Our bodies convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but very inefficiently—less than 1 percent by some estimates. Most researchers question whether it’s possible to consume enough ALA to end up with as much EPA and DHA as you’d get by eating fatty fish. That is, ALA cannot replace the omega-3s from fish. On the positive side, some studies suggest that this fat may reduce the risk of heart disease and have other health benefits of its own.

The daily catch

There’s no official recommendation for EPA or DHA, but some food companies have set 160 milligrams as a “Daily Value” for both omega-3s combined (or 130 milligrams for each alone). Government and health organizations around the world, including the American Dietetic Association, advise higher levels of EPA and DHA—usually about 500 milligrams a day (3,500 milligrams a week) to reduce the risk of heart disease. Two small (4-ounce) servings of fatty fish a week supply about that much. The American Heart Association advises 1,000 milligrams a day for people who already have heart disease. The “Adequate Intake” for ALA, set by the Institute of Medicine, is 1,100 milligrams a day for women, and 1,600 milligrams a day for men—about what most Americans consume.

Reading the fine print

Last year, hundreds of new food products in the U.S. claimed to be high in omega-3s. But you have to read the label to find out the actual amount—anywhere from 30 to 1,000 milligrams. And how meaningful these amounts are depends on the source. Typically, it is ALA. In the last few years, however, an increasing number of manufacturers have been using EPA and DHA from fish oil, due to improvements in processing that can transform smelly fish oil that goes bad quickly into an odorless powder with longer shelf life. Others add algae oil, a vegetarian source of DHA. Some products, such as margarines, contain both fish oil and flaxseed—and thus have all three types of omega-3s (ALA, EPA, DHA). The same goes for “designer” eggs, which come from hens that are fed flaxseed, fish oil and/or algae. Some cows are also fed special diets with DHA to increase the omega-3s in their milk.

The reel deal

Fortified foods are a way to boost your intake of omega-3s. But they can’t take the place of fish. Keep these points in mind:

  • Most fortified foods provide only a fraction of what’s recommended for potential benefits. A cup of fortified orange juice, for example, has 50 milligrams of EPA and DHA—virtually nothing compared to salmon. Fortified products often cost more, too.
  • If the package doesn’t declare the source of omega-3s, chances are it’s ALA from flaxseed, hempseed or even just canola or soybean oil. These foods provide about 200 to 1,000 milligrams of ALA per serving. But we already get relatively large amounts of ALA in our diets without fortified sources.
  • Omega-3-fortified products are not necessarily healthful in all ways. Horizon Organic DHA Omega-3 Chocolate Milk, for example, has about four teaspoons of added sugar. Fortified granola bars may contain trans fats and a lot of sugar.
  • Vegetarians take note: ALA is always from a plant source, but DHA may come from either fish or algae. Cabot uses algae DHA to enhance its cheese, but Jif Omega-3 Peanut Butter contains EPA and DHA from sardine/anchovy oil and tilapia gelatin.
  • If you don’t eat fish, a basic fish oil supplement is an option. Supplements that supply ALA, such as flaxseed oil capsules, won’t do the trick.

Where do I find EPA/DHA?

Fish Serving Size EPA/DHA (in milligrams)
Herring 4 ounces 2,200-2,500
Salmon 4 ounces 1,200-2,400
Sardines canned 4 ounces 1,200-1,600
Trout 4 ounces 1,000-1,400
Tuna canned 4 ounces 300-1,000
EPA/DHA-fortified food Serving Size EPA/DHA (in milligrams)
Cabot Cheddar Cheese with DHA 1 oz 32
Francesco Rinaldi ToBe Pasta Sauce ½ cup 64
Horizon DHA Omega-3 Milk 1 cup 32
Jif Omega-3 Peanut Butter 2 tablespoons 32
Kellogg’s Live Bright Brain Health Bar 1 bar 100
Silk DHA Omega-3 Soy Milk 1 cup 32
Smart Balance Omega-3 Milk 1 cup 32
Tropicana Healthy Heart Orange Juice 1 cup 50
Wegmans Omega-3 Whole-Wheat Bread 1 slice 40

Where do I find ALA?

Food Serving Size ALA (in milligrams)
Beans, kidney 1 cup cooked 300
Canola oil 1 tablespoon 1,280
Flaxseeds, ground 1 tablespoon 1,600
Soybeans, green, cooked 1 cup 640
Soybean oil 1 tablespoon 925
Walnuts 1 ounce 2,600
ALA-fortified Food Serving Size ALA (in milligrams)
Barilla Plus Pasta ½ cup uncooked 180
Health Valley Golden Flax Cereal 1 cup 1,000
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter 1 tablespoon 460
Kashi Go Lean, Honey Almond Flax Cereal 1 cup 500
Nature’s Path Flax Plus With Figs Frozen Waffles 2 1,500
Quaker Fiber & Omega-3 Granola Bar 1 320
Smart Balance Omega Plus Mayonnaise 1 tablespoon 500
Total Plus Omega-3 Cereal 1 cup 160
Uncle Sam Oatmeal with Flaxseed 1 packet 400