Every time I pick up a half gallon of non-organic, low fat milk (whichever brand is on sale) I have to reach over the more expensive product—the organic, DHA-fortified cartons of milk.
I first noticed this trend to fortify milk with DHA, a form of omega-3 fatty acid, a couple of years ago. You can also buy DHA-fortified eggs, breakfast cereals, orange juice, or DHA-fortified baby formula and baby foods.
DHA is marketed as “supporting” brain health, so what parent wouldn’t want to pay a premium price to fortify their child’s brain? What adult doesn’t want to avoid the dreaded diagnosis of dementia?
Guilt and fear are effective motivators to buy stuff (and marketers know it), but are these fortified foods really worth the extra money? How important are omega-3 fatty acids to our health, and how much do we need?
Related post: Is organic produce worth the price?
I decided to do a little research. I had to admit I didn’t know much about these essential fatty acids.
Overall, I’m not a big believer in nutritional supplements for average, relatively healthy adults. Current research simply doesn’t support their benefit. Indeed, given the American tendency to over consume, supplements are probably doing more harm than good. (But the supplement industry rakes in billions of dollars every year, so someone is doing well, regardless.)
Related post: Healthy adults don’t need multivitamins
I’ve always advocated a calorie-appropriate diet with lots of variety. I like what Michael Pollan wrote in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma—Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are good fats. Our body needs them—that’s why they are referred to as “essential”—to function and repair itself properly. And they are thought to play a role in lowering cholesterol and guarding against heart disease and dementia, as well as ADHD, depression, dry eyes, psoriasis and a lot of other conditions.
No wonder everyone wants them!
But other studies have shown that too much (in the form of supplements) can be harmful.
There are three forms of omega-3s: DHA, EPA and ALA. (I won’t bore you with the long chemical names.)
- DHA and EPA are found in certain fatty fish: mackerel, tuna, salmon, sturgeon, mullet, bluefish, anchovy, sardines, herring, and trout. Fish oil supplements are made from these fish.
- DHA (but not EPA) can be found in algae! Algal-based DHA is used for vegan supplements and for many fortified foods because it does not have a fishy smell or aftertaste.
- ALA is the omega-3 found in many plants, especially flax seeds, chia seeds, soybeans, beans and walnuts. But ALA needs to be converted into DHA and EPA, so plant sources of omega-3s are not as efficient as fish sources. You need to eat more.
One of the reasons I don’t like supplements is that I prefer to get my nutrients from whole foods. I don’t like having to measure every mineral or vitamin or nutrient I ingest every day. I just want to enjoy eating!
Luckily, I like eating a pretty typical Mediterranean diet, which is high in omega-3s from both fish and plant sources. Fish, lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, garlic and red wine are the staples of the Mediterranean diet.
If you already eat a balanced diet that includes fish once or twice a week, and a variety of whole grains, seeds, nuts and olive oil, DHA-fortified foods will not significantly increase your intake of omega-3s. They aren’t worth the extra cost.
Fresh fish, such as salmon, can be expensive. I know I can’t afford to eat it twice a week! But I love canned sardines and found a great recipe using canned salmon (and both are excellent sources of calcium because small bones are included in processing).
Recipe: Salmon & Broccoli Quinoa Patties with Lemon Caper Sauce (I substitute canned salmon for the tuna, but tuna is a good source of omega-3s, too).
Omega-6 fatty acids
One problem with the typical American diet is that we get too much of the other essential fatty acid, omega-6. Omega-6 is found in lots of vegetable oils—soybean, corn, safflower, sunflower and cottonseed. These oils are used abundantly in processed foods.
Nutritionists believe it’s the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids that is important. We should aim for about a 2:1 or 4:1 ratio. But it’s more likely we get 10 to 20 times as much omega-6 fatty acid as omega-3.
So the take-home message from that observation is to eat fewer processed foods and eat more fish, vegetables and whole grains. That’s just common sense healthy eating, anyway.
By the way, there is also an omega-9 fatty acid that is found in animal fat and olive oil, but it is not considered essential.
You might not get what you’re paying for
Another thing I don’t like about supplements and fortified foods is that there is no reliable way to know if you are getting the amount of the nutrient the packaging says.
Supplements, especially, fall in the no-man’s land I refer to as The Quack Miranda Warning. Independent tests on foods and supplements have shown the amount of DHA of EPA to be significantly lower than advertised.
And as for baby and child health, there is a raging debate over which is safer—DHA-fortified foods made from fish oil (mercury!!) or algae (solvents!!).
Bottom line: Yes, we need both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but we can get plenty from a balanced diet that includes fish, lean meats, whole grains, dairy and a variety of fruits and vegetables. We do not need to buy supplements or specially fortified and expensive products. Save your money!