Omega-3 Madness: Fish Oil or Snake Oil
Stick with fish or fish oil for best heart-health benefits, says Nutrition Action
October 1, 2007
WASHINGTON—Omega-3 claims are popping up in everything from cereal to mayonnaise, but are those foods the panacea that marketers would have you believe? According to the cover story in the October issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter, certain omega-3s may reduce the risk of heart disease and might even help protect against cancer, Alzheimer’s, and vision problems. But many foods making claims have little or none of those omega-3s, and labels don’t have to reveal how much or which omega-3 fat the foods contain.
DHA and EPA, the omega-3s found in salmon, trout, other fish, and algae, are linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Another omega-3, ALA, found in flaxseed and to a lesser extent, canola and soy, may not have the same benefits. But that doesn’t stop companies from loading products with ALA and bragging about their omega-3 content.
“The good news is that omega-3s from fish oil can reduce the risk of heart attack, and the research is building on other health benefits,” said Center for Science in the Public Interest senior nutritionist David Schardt. “But get your omega-3s from fatty fish like salmon, or take fish oil or algal oil capsules. Many foods with omega-3 claims have only or mostly ALA, which may not prevent anything.”
CSPI says the Food and Drug Administration should require labels with omega-3 claims to disclose the amount and type of each omega-3 in the food. Until they do, consumers should be wary of generic omega-3 claims. Here are a few examples of tricky labeling:
• Breyer’s Smart! Yogurt doesn’t say that each serving has just 32 mg of DHA—as much as you’d get in three-quarters of a teaspoon of salmon. And Breyer’s vague “boost your brain” claim needs no evidence.
• Silk Soymilk Plus Omega-3 DHA’s label boasts that each cup of milk has “400 mg of beneficial Omega-3,” but only the most diligent label readers will notice that the soy milk only contains 32 mg of DHA per serving—again, the amount in just a bite of salmon. The remaining omega-3s are ALA (which just about everyone gets enough of, thanks to soy and canola oil).
• Kashi Go Lean Crunch! Honey Almond Flax cereal advertises 500 mg of omega-3, but doesn’t specify whether it’s ALA, DHA or EPA. Unless the label promises EPA or DHA (and lists fish, fish oil or algal oil on the ingredient label), it’s safe to assume that any omega-3 claim refers to ALA—especially when the product contains flax, soybean oil, or canola oil.
• Land O Lakes Omega-3 All-Natural Eggs' label states “Contains 350 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per serving.” However, tests by an independent laboratory found that less than half of this omega-3 is DHA and EPA.
Schardt recommends eating fatty fish like salmon twice a week to average 500 to 1,000 mg a day of DHA plus EPA. (The American Heart Association recommends 1,000 mg a day of DHA plus EPA omega-3s for people with heart disease.) A six-ounce serving of Atlantic salmon has more than 3,000 mg of DHA and EPA, over 100 times what you’d get in a serving of DHA-fortified yogurt, milk, or soy milk.
“If your omega-3s are not from fish, algae, or fish oil, you’re likely paying extra for snake oil,” said Schardt.
For a review of the current research on the health benefits of omega-3s and more on omega-3 fortified products, see the full Nutrition Action article "Omega Medicine? Is fish oil good for what ails you?”