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Seafood FAQ: Surveying the sources of omega-3s

How do dietary supplements compare to seafood?

Bumble Bee produces one of many omega-3 supplements on
    the market. Omacor is the only FDA-approved omega-3
By James Wright
July 01, 2006

Seafood marketers got a shot in the arm back in the 1980s when omega-3 fatty acids - particularly long-chain omega-3s found in oily fish - were revealed as crucial to human health. When the American Heart Association openly praised omega-3s in 2002 for thwarting heart disease, capitalizing on health benefits was in the best interests of every seafood supplier. Further, omega-3s aid in the prevention of cancer and strokes, among other benefits, and are key to proper brain function and normal growth and development.

Dietary-supplement makers also benefited from the groundswell and quickly transformed omega-3s from a marketing buzzword to a driving force in the health-products industry; U.S. consumers spent about $300 million on fish oil supplements last year, according to the Nutrition Business Journal . Derived from both fish oil and plant sources, omega-3 supplements in shelf-stable pill and gel form can be found in nearly every drug store and supermarket, prompting consumers to ask, "Why eat fish when I can get my omega-3s from a pill?"

As supplement sales continue to grow, seafood suppliers and retailers should learn the difference between seafood's nutritional benefits vs. those of omega-3 supplements and communicate that information to their customers.



Q. What are omega-3

fatty acids?

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats found in the tissue of oily fish like salmon, herring, anchovies and mackerel, as well as in vegetable and plant sources such as flaxseeds, soybeans and walnuts, to name a few. Omega-3s are classified as essential; they cannot be manufactured by the body and must be obtained from food sources.

The three main omega-3 fatty acids in human diets are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapenaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is widely regarded as the most essential omega-3 and is more abundant in fish and fish oil than in any other food source. Plant-based sources contain mostly ALA, which is a short-chain fatty acid.

Long-chain polyunsaturated fats like EPA and DHA are key building blocks in the brain and contribute to efficient transmission of signals between nerve cells.


Q. Is there a difference

in the way our bodies

process omega-3s from

different sources?

"There is no difference, in a general sense," says Joyce Nettleton, Ph.D., author of "Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Health."

However, the rate at which our bodies convert plant-based ALA into EPA and DHA is very slow, Nettleton notes. The type of omega-3, it seems, is more important than the source itself. "Studies do show that these fatty acids are slightly more available from [seafood]," she says.

"With fish, you get the omega-3s in a form in which they are protected in the tissue of the meat, but you also get heart-healthy nutrients like selenium and trace minerals like Vitamin D, which we also don't get enough of. The issue is getting enough omega-3s into our bodies in the first place.

"And if you eat fish as part of 
your meal," she adds, "it's probably 
replacing something else, like a cheeseburger."


Q . Are all omega-3 supplements created equal?

No. Omega-3 content varies greatly among supplements, and lab studies have shown that the actual amount doesn't always match the claim on the label. The average 1-gram fish-oil supplement has 300 milligrams of omega-3s, comprised of EPA and DHA, says Dr. William Harris, professor of medicine at the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls.

While supplements based on plant sources such as flaxseed contain 55 percent omega-3s, it's nearly all ALA, which the body converts to EPA "very poorly," he says, adding that our bodies' ability to convert flaxseed oil into DHA is "nonexistent."

"Long-chain omega-3s from fish are far better evidenced for health benefits," Harris adds. "No contest. EPA and DHA are both way more important than ALA."

If it sounds a bit confusing, it is. As Nettleton points out, some supplements claim to have omega-3s, omega-6s and omega-9s, leaving consumers to rely on packaging claims and the opinions of health-store clerks.

"Few people actually understand it all," Nettleton says. "You're at the mercy of the vendors and what you can find yourself if you're seeking information. All manner of snack bars, mayonnaise, chewable supplements - this, that and everything - claim to have omega-3s."

While spoilage is a concern for all supplements, as with any food products, the refining process for fish oil eliminates contaminants like methyl­mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which are present in the environment and in some seafood species.

Flaxseed oil is the most abundant omega-3 product on the supplement market, mainly because it is the easiest and cheapest to manufacture, says Nettleton.


Q. Who should take omega-3 supplements?

Supplements help many people - particularly those who don't or won't eat fish - because there simply aren't many sources of essential long-chain fatty acids.

Those with cardiovascular disease, high triglyceride (fat) levels and type-2 diabetes can benefit the most.

The AHA advocates two servings of fish per week for healthy people and at least 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids daily for those with coronary heart disease. For those with serious conditions, up to 3 grams of omega-3s are recommended.

Sup­ple­ments seem an obvious choice to meet that need, but the Food and Drug Administration says no more than 2 grams per day should come from supplements.

Heavier doses of omega-3s can lead to excessive bleeding in some people and should be taken only under a physician's care, the agency says. Additionally, Omacor is the only FDA-approved omega-3 prescription medication on the market.

The 1-gram capsules, partially derived from fish oil and comprising 465 mg of EPA and 375 mg of DHA, are prescribed to reduce triglycerides.

"It's hard to get a gram [of omega-3s] a day unless you eat fish," says Nettleton. "Supplements can contribute; they're easy, inexpensive and effective.

"But there's no question that consuming nutrients from the original source has a lot going for it."


Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com




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