Thursday, April 29, 2010

Omega 3- Facts, Fallacies, and Unethical Practices

You may have noticed lately that “Omega 3” is the new buzzword in the world of health research, and with good reason. Omega 3 is what is called an “Essential Fatty Acid”, or EFA. It is considered essential because our bodies cannot manufacture it, although we need it. EFA’s are important for the health of our nerves and blood vessels, as well as to keep our skin and other tissues lubricated and supple.

(There is one other Essential Fatty Acid, and that is called Omega 6. In the typical North American diet, it is generally quite easy to get enough Omega 6, as it is found in most plant oils, such as canola, corn, soy, sunflower, etc. However, Omega 3 fatty acids are much rarer in the Standard American Diet. (SAD) You can get them from pumpkin seeds, walnuts, hemp, flax, and some deep sea fatty fish.)

An ideal ratio of these two fats in our diet is 2:1 to 4:1; in other words, we should not consume more than 4 times the amount of Omega 6’s as Omega 3’s in our diet. A proper ratio of these two fats helps determine the flexibility of our cell membranes and makes chemical communication between body systems possible.

Hence the reason why food producers and manufacturers are falling all over themselves to help you get your daily dose of Omega 3’s. In a highly competitive marketplace, food producers will grab any advantage to get you to purchase their product instead of a competitor’s, and if that means leading you to believe that eating their product will make you healthier, of course they’re going to do it.

I happen to believe that it’s unethical to convince you to purchase what is essentially an unhealthy or marginally healthy product based on health claims that the average consumer really cannot put in proper context. When looking at whether or not to buy an item based on their claims of Omega 3 content (or any other nutrient) you need to consider the package it’s being delivered in.

I was out shopping yesterday, and I noticed two products now being marketed to you based on the fact that their food contains Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Let’s start with eggs:

Maritime Pride Omega 3 eggs cost about a dollar more per dozen than regular eggs, based solely on the supposed Omega 3 content. Suppose you purchase these eggs in the hopes of making your morning omelette healthier. Consider what you are getting with each egg:

-70 calories
-5 grams of fat, (1.5 grams of which are saturated) meaning the calories in this egg are 64% fat calories.
-A whopping 190 mg of cholesterol

And you have to consume all this fat just to take in 400 milligrams of Omega 3’s.

Another industry trying to use Omega 3’s to try and convince you their product is healthy is the pork producers. Consider a Nova Scotian pork farm, Meadowbrook Pork. They are now advertising their Omega 3 pork as “Naturally Nutritious” and a “Powerful source of nutrients”. Although their website never states how much Omega 3’s you’re supposed to get in a serving of their product, Health Canada’s website advises that it is approximately 400 mg per 100 grams of pork.

What else will you get in 100 grams of pork? Well, according to, 100 grams of roast pork will give you the following:

-248 calories
-15 grams of fat, 5 of which are saturated, meaning 54% of the calories in the meat are from fat.
-82 mg of cholesterol

To put that in perspective, consider the humble flax seed. Dirt cheap, easy to obtain, good-for-your-digestive system flax seeds. A mere TEASPOON of ground flax seed, which weighs in at paltry 13 calories, provides 570 milligrams of Omega 3’s. ONE TEASPOON! That’s not much food, but even so, you also get a gram of heart-healthy protein and almost a gram of fibre.

To recap the stats on Omega 3:
1 egg=400 mgs
100 grams of pork=400 mgs
1 tsp ground flax=570 mgs

This is proof once again that man is a silly creature, once again willing to feed a healthy food (flax) to an animal, and then eat the animal, only to get a fraction of the health benefits of the original food. Trying to “greenwash” an unhealthy food will not make it any healthier.

If you want to get a good daily dose of heart-healthy Omega 3’s, go pick up some flax seeds and an inexpensive coffee grinder. (I paid $8 for mine three years ago at the Atlantic Superstore and it is still going strong!) Flax, because it does have fats in it, will go rancid if you do not keep it in the fridge. Throw a teaspoon in the grinder every morning, grind ‘er up, and throw it in your oatmeal, your smoothie, your muffins, bread, etc. You’ll stay healthy (and regular!) for pennies a day and avoid all the fat and cholesterol.

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