"Now enriched with omega-3 fatty acids." Stroll supermarket aisles and you'll see that phrase just about everywhere -- on cereal boxes, egg cartons, even jars of eye cream.
And with good reason. Despite what the latest fad diets may say, we need these essential fats to function, from building cell walls to keeping our brains healthy.
Research also suggests omega-3 fatty acids may lower our heart disease and stroke risks; the omega-3s EPA and DHA also may help depression, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and a host of other conditions still being studied, from asthma to menstrual pain.
"Omega-3s seem to be involved in so many body functions," says Minnesota dietitian Susan Moores, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "We're still getting a hold on all the things they do."
With all that omega-3 fatty acids have going for them, it's easy to see why fortifying foods and beverages with omega-3s has become big business -- one projected to grow to $7 billion by 2011.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Whole Foods
The catch with these super fats is that our bodies don't make EPA and DHA. We get omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA, and ALA) from the foods we eat. And because most of us aren't getting enough, a host of functional foods have appeared on supermarket shelves to help us get the omega-3s we need.
Should we be getting our omega-3s from fortified foods like waffles, cereals, and juices, or from natural sources like fatty fish such as salmon and tuna?
"I'm a huge proponent of food synergy," Moores tells WebMD. "I think where nutrients are found naturally is probably the best place to get them."
And one of the places where omega-3 fatty acids are abundant is in oily, cold-water fish, such as:
As a matter of fact, dig into a 4-ounce serving of canned, white tuna and you'll get about 540 milligrams of omega-3s, while 3 ounces of salmon can have twice that.
Fish Alternatives: Omega-3s in Fortified Functional Foods
Not everyone likes or can eat fish. This is when fortified functional foods and supplements can fill in the fatty acids gap, says Moores. But she cautions the buyer to beware when purchasing functional foods with omega-3s. "Labels may say 'a good source of omega-3s,' but there really isn't a definition of that."
There's no recommended standard dose for omega-3 fatty acids, yet the American Heart Association recommends most people eat a variety of (preferably oily) fish at least twice a week. Include oils and foods rich in linolenic acid (flaxseed, canola, and soybean oils; flaxseed and walnuts). People with heart disease should consume about 1 gram of EPA plus DHA per day from fish or supplements, and 2 to 4 grams of EPA plus DHA, provided as a capsule under the supervision of a doctor for people trying to lower their triglycerides.
Fortified foods such as pasta, soy milk, oatmeal, cereal, and margarine can each have between 250 and 400 milligrams of added omega-3s per serving, depending on the brands you choose.