Health and Wellness
May 29, 2007
Okay, admit it. The saying, "taking fish oil each day keeps the doctor away" doesn't exactly have the same ring to it as its apple counterpart. Still, even without a catchy slogan, Omega 3's, the long chain fatty acids found in fatty fish like mackerel, tuna and salmon, have rapidly become the poster child for a variety of health benefits.
Best known for their impact on heart health, Omega 3's have been found to embed themselves into heart tissues, and their presence is believed to reduce the chance of irregular heartbeats, also known as arrhythmias. Arrhythmias are believed to cause sudden fatal heart attacks, so reducing the incidence of arrhythmias keeps the heart beating at a steady rhythm and blood circulating regularly.
Of the various kinds of Omega 3's, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and the slightly shorter chained alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are considered important in nutrition. Fatty fish are high in EPA and DHA. Soybean, canola and flaxseed oils are high in ALA, which can become EPA and DHA in the body. However, the body's ability to convert ALA to EPA and DHA is modest, resulting in much smaller amounts of the preferred EPA and DHA.
"Ideally," says Dr. Maureen DiRienzo, Nutrition Global Lead, for Monsanto, "we should get our Omega 3's directly from fish, and if not from fish, from fish oil supplements. But fish is expensive, and in many locations, not readily available. That means that many people won't be able to get even near the amount that health authorities recommend."
The American Heart Association recommends eating fish that are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids at least two times a week. That breaks down to about 500 mg Omega 3's a day. The next best source, fish oil capsules, provide about 300 to 400 mgs each. Flaxseed, soybean and canola oil are rich in ALA, but since ALA is so inefficiently converted to EPA and DHA, these are not the optimal choices.
"It's pretty hard to get the recommended amount of Omega 3's in your diet," says DiRienzo. "And that is why we are constantly searching for new sources."
Foods with added Omega 3's may be a sufficient alternative. Called "one of 2007's hottest food additives" by USA Today, Omega 3's can now be found in orange juice, cereal, butter, milk, breads and more. There are DHA-enhanced eggs. There is even ALA-improved pet food. When shopping for these foods, DiRienzo suggests selecting products that derive their fatty acids from an EPA/ DHA source like fish oil rather than an ALA source like flax seeds, although ALA-containing products may be easier to find. DHA and EPA oxidize much more quickly than ALA. Therefore, the odor associated with DHA and EPA is more offensive, even "fishy." Many food manufacturers avoid it for that reason.
Currently, Monsanto is in the advanced stages of developing soybeans that skip the ALA conversion process, and start with SDA (stearidonic acid) - the fatty acid that precedes EPA and DHA in the conversion chain. This modification could help alleviate the odor issue, because SDA is less likely to oxidize than EPA and DHA . Tests are promising, and DiRienzo expects the new soybean to be ready in about four to five years.
In the meantime, fish and fish oil are still the best sources for Omega 3's. And since, in addition to heart health, emerging research suggests that Omega 3's may also improve cognitive function in developing children, lower blood pressure, enhance immune function, and slow Alzheimer's progression, they're worth every scaly bite.
***The American Heart Association recommends that those patients taking more than 3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids from supplements should do so only under a physician's care. The FDA has noted that high intakes could cause excessive bleeding in some people. Also, children and pregnant and nursing women may be at increased risk of exposure to excessive mercury from fish but also are generally at low risk for cardiovascular disease. Thus, avoiding potentially contaminated fish is a higher priority for these groups.