Walking down supermarket aisles, you may have noticed lately that numerous new products are proudly and prominently boasting "contains omega-3s" on the label.
How true is this claim? Does it hold real health benefits? After all, omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil have been conclusively shown to reduce cardiovascular "events" like heart attack and death from heart attack. The 11,000-participant GISSI-Prevenzione Trial, for instance, demonstrated 28% reduction in heart attack and 45% reduction in death from heart attack by taking fish oil capsules. In our program for heart disease reversal, omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil are a crucial and necessary ingredient. We use fish oil to reduce triglycerides (and VLDL), raise HDL, and accelerate clearance of dietary by-products in the blood after meals, all powerful effects.
Of course, it's hard to gauge benefits like reduced heart attack risk on your own. But effects like reduction of triglycerides and other patterns can be readily observed by you and your doctor. Thus, you can know-for a fact-whether omega-3s are doing their job or not. A triglyceride level of 250 mg/dl, for example, will usually drop by over 100 mg/dl by taking 1800 mg per day of EPA and DHA. (Most standard fish oil capsules contain 300 mg of EPA and DHA per capsule; six capsules provide 1800 mg.) Linolenic acid has no effect on triglycerides.
One confusing issue that trips up many people is that some commercial products contain alpha-linolenic acid, officially designated an omega-3 fatty acid. However, only a tiny amount of linolenic acid is converted to the biologically active omega-3s, EPA and DHA.
Let's take a look at Natural Ovens' Brainy Bagel, for example (so named because of some preliminary evidence that the omega-3, DHA, might favorably impact Alzheimer's dementia). The label (not shown) states that it contains "620 omega-3," referring to the 620 mg of linolenic acid from flaxseed, in each bagel. There is no EPA or DHA added.
What does this mean? If you take fish oil for reduction of heart attack risk and reduction of triglycerides, can you reduce fish oil dose if you eat a Natural Ovens' Brainy Bagel every day?
No, you cannot. Despite the linolenic acid, because it lacks EPA or DHA, this product has no effect on reduction of triglycerides or any of the other effects we associate with EPA and DHA forms of omega-3 fatty acids.
I find the claim of contains "omega-3" confusing and potentially misleading, since people will often interpret such a claim to mean that it contains 620 of EPA and DHA, similar to two capsules of standard fish oil (1000 mg capsules). I find this especially troublesome when people stop or reduce their fish oil, since they've been misled into thinking that products contain active omega-3 fatty acids that yield all the benefits of the "real stuff." (Linolenic acid may possess benefits separate and distinct from the DHA and EPA; a topic for another post.)
Other products do indeed contain the omega-3, DHA, though usually in small quantities. Breyer's Smart with DHA omega-3 is an example, with 32 mg DHA per container.
I find products with DHA (from algae) a more credible claim. This form does indeed provide the benefits of real omega-3 fatty acids.
However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has looked at the actual contents of DHA in some of these products and found some discrepancies, including amounts of DHA less than the labeled amount. Other products claim to contain omega-3s without specifying whether it is DHA or linolenic acid. In my experience, and in agreement with the CSPI advice, if it's not specified it's probably linolenic acid. CSPI takes this issue seriously and has asked the FDA to take action against Country Hen and six other egg producers that boast omega-3 heart health claims based on linolenic acid content.
All in all, the addition of DHA to food products is a nice way to boost your intake of this healthy omega-3. However, keep in mind that these are processed, often highly processed, foods and you will likely pay a premium for the little boost. For now, if you want to obtain the full benefits of omega-3 fatty acids like reduction of triglycerides, accelerated clearance of dietary by-products from the blood, reduction of stroke, and dramatic reduction of heart attack risk, then stick to fish oil, the real thing.
For a brief summary of the CSPI report and a link to their Nutrition Action Newsletter, see Omega-3 Madness: Fish Oil or Snake Oil.
Published On: November 19, 2007