"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.
Not All Omega-3 Fatty Acids Are Created Equal
Before you load your shopping cart with fortified products, it helps to know that your body uses some omega-3 fatty acids more efficiently than others.
There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids. DHA and EPA are the two with the most proven benefits, and they're found mostly in seafood and marine algae. ALA is more difficult for the body to use, and it's found in plant-based foods such as canola oil, flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and walnuts.
Read fortified-food labels closely. Scan the ingredients list next to the nutrition facts section and you'll discover that most functional foods are fortified with ALA omega-3 fatty acids from food sources such as flaxseed and canola oil.
The reason? ALA from plants doesn't impart strong odor or flavor to cereals, pasta, and other functional foods. DHA and EPA from fish sometimes do.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: A Primer
Here, in brief, is research on the benefits of each omega-3 fatty acid:
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). ALA is found mostly in plants, such as spinach, kale, and other salad greens, as well as in flax, soy, walnuts, and canola oils. ALA is converted inside the body to EPA and DHA omega-3s. The catch is that this conversion isn't very efficient, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a diabetes educator and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Some estimate that only about 5% of ALA gets changed into the more bio-available EPA and DHA.
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). DHA is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid found mostly in seafood like salmon, tuna, and shellfish, though some can also be found in algae -- the same food some fish eat. Essential to the healthy brains of adults, DHA is also vital to the development of a child's nervous system and vision. Read the labels of functional foods like pastas, yogurt, and soy milk and you'll find many get their DHA boost -- between 16 and 400 milligrams -- from algae oils.
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). EPA is found mostly in cold-water fish and fish oils. Like DHA, EPA is studied for its uses in aiding bipolar depression, lowering cancer risks, and reducing the risks of macular degeneration. Of the three fatty acids, EPA and DHA are the ones the body finds most easy to use. Experts suggest we get the bulk of our omega-3 fatty acids from DHA and EPA sources, such as fish, supplements, and some functional foods like margarine.
Studies suggest that ALAs can confer health benefits, and experts recommend getting at least 2 grams daily. But most of the research establishes the health benefits of DHAs and EPAs, which is why many dietitians encourage people to focus on getting these omega-3s in their diet.
That includes pregnant women, says Gerbstadt. She says research suggests that when pregnant women get at least 200 milligrams of DHA a day, their babies excel in cognitive development. And the effects seem to linger long after supplementation ends, Gerbstadt tells WebMD. But, to avoid issues concerning mercury-tainted fish, some experts suggest pregnant women get their omega-3s from algae-based supplements. Others recommend limiting the amount of fish per week to two servings per week and completely avoiding fish high in mercury.
Overload: Can You Get Too Many Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
With so many foods fortified with omega-3s, can you ever get too much?
It's "very unlikely," Gerbstadt tells WebMD. Without supplements, it's hard to over-consume omega-3s in the typical American diet. Yet, there are concerns for those on anti-clotting drugs, as fish oil supplements (EPA/DHA) may have an anti-clotting feature. Yet there is little evidence that an intake of less than 3 grams a day could cause bleeding.
Seeking a Healthy Ratio: The Risks of Omega-6 Fatty Acids
One fatty acid we may get too much of is omega-6. The typical American gets 11 to 30 times more omega-6s than omega-3s -- when the ratio should be a healthy four to one.
"Omega-3s and omega-6s compete," says Moores. "Say the omega-6s vie for hormones to do one thing in your body; well omega-3s want those same hormones to do something else." That struggle can result in a rise in blood pressure, heart problems, and inflammation, which is why "it's so important to strike a balance between them," Moores says.
To strike the right balance, enjoy fish, leafy greens, or functional foods fortified with DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids. While research delves into the ways that omega-3s are important to body and brain, one thing is certain: these healthy fats are essential to good health.