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Omega – WHAT?

 By DawnVosbein, RD

Family & Consumer Science Agent for MSU Extension Service

   It’s hard to miss all the hype about omega-3 fatty acids on the news or on food labels.  There are two main types of fatty acids that are considered “essential” to normal growth and development and must be obtained from our food. 

They are omega-3 or alpha linolenic acid (ALA) and omega-6 or linoleic acid (LA).  Omega -3’s break down further into docosahexanoic acid or (DHA) and eicosapentanoic acid or (EPA).  Omega-6’s break down into arachidonic acid (AA).

Before the advent of processed foods we ate a greater portion on omega-3’s than omega-6’s.

Recent research suggests that omega-3 may help prevent heart disease through their ability to lower triglycerides, reduce blood clotting, lower blood pressure and prevent irregular heart beat. Omega-6 on the other hand in too large quantities can increase inflammation.

In 2004, the USDA gave “qualified health claim” status to (EPA), and (DHA) Omega-3 fatty acids, stating that supportive, but now conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA may reduce the risk of coronary artery disease.

Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA) and (EPA) are primarily found in cold water fatty fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel, rainbow trout, herring, halibut and sardines.  It is currently recommended that we get 500-1000 mg per day of omega-3 fatty acids.  This can be done by consuming a fatty fish meal, like salmon twice a week.  That is because salmon have 3,500 mg of omega-3 per 6 oz. serving.  You can also get omega-3 from fish oil capsules, but should only do this on the advice of your physician as too much can cause excess bleeding.

Those of us who like local seafood and fish will be happy to know that they also contain omega-3, just not in great quantities. Tuna fresh or canned has about 300 mg, blue crab has 400 mg, farmed catfish has 300 mg, and shrimp has about 300 mg.

Many food labels are listing omega-3’s.  They are usually added to foods that are not normally high in omega-3’s.  But are they more hype than help?  Usually these products contain less than 100 mg of omega-3 and are usually more expensive that the regular item.  They also probably contain (ALA) and not (EPA) or (DHA) so are probably of no benefit. As with most foods with added ingredients, it’s better to get it from the source.  It would be difficult to add enough DHA or EPA to food because it would have a fishy taste and smell.  Flax (linseed) is also high in Omega-3. Except that it is mostly ALA and does not convert well to EPA or DHA.  So although healthy, it will not provide the same possible benefits as fish. So try to eat 2-3 fish meals per week to reap the benefits.