Omega 3 Fats- Where To Get Them And Where Not to Get Them (Part 1 of 3)
Over the past few years, omega 3 fatty acids have become all the rage. More than half of supermarket shoppers in one national poll reported that they believed that eating products high in omega-3 fats would improve their health. Quite an accomplishment for a nutrient that was almost unheard of before the 1990’s but the health benefits of omega-3 fats are indeed staggering. So much so that it truly does stand out as a bit of a panacea: regular consumption of foods naturally high in omega-3 fats has been linked to a reduced likelihood of death from heart attacks.[1,2,3] Omega-3 fats intake has been linked to reductions in blood pressure[4,5], prevention of cancers, especially prostate, breast and colorectal cancer,[7,8,9,10] improving immune system function and development  and even appears to play a major role in our brain functions. As omega 3’s have been shown to reduce the incidence of depression, anxiety and the progression of mental illness in adolescence.[12,13,14,5,16,17,18,19] The Institute of Medicine, recommends 1,100 milligrams of omega-3′s daily for women and 1,600 mg for men , but Americans don’t get that much under ordinary circumstances since wild game, fish and seafood are hardly staples in this part of the world. Given the impressive health qualities of omega-3 fatty acids, it’s not surprising that food manufacturers have rushed to create a slew of omega-3 fortified foods. Everything from eggs, cereals, milk, bread, peanut butter and spreads are now augmented with higher levels of omega-3 fats- making them, of course, considerably more expensive. Fish oil supplements are now also an extremely profitable industry as they offer consumers the possible benefits of omega-3′s without the hassle of any major dietary shifts. These all sound like viable solutions to the problem of low omega-3 intake in the American diet, but there are some very important questions about the sustainability of these approaches and the effectiveness as well. The other question not being asked is why do we need omega-3′s added to our diet in the first place when natural farming and animal rearing methods could easily provide a more natural and environmentally friendly solution. Before you spend more on omega-3 fortified foods or supplements it’s important that you have a full picture of the science behind omega-3 food enrichment and the environmental impact that our supermarket decisions can create, as there is a lot under the surface when it comes to omega-3′s. In this two part article we will take a look at these questions and explore some alternative sources for this important nutrient.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Essential Fats- What Is It And Where Does It Come From?
Contrary to popular belief, omega-3 fatty acids don’t originally come from fish. In fact omega-3 fats and fatty acids in general aren’t as straightforward as some of the more unscrupulous food manufacturers might have you believe. That being said, that the more you understand the biology behind your foods, the more likely you are to make better decisions. There once was a time when an educated consumer was a good consumer, but this tenet no longer holds true in our society today. In fact consumer knowledge has become for all intents and purposes the modern food industry’s arch-enemy, since most of the advertising and marketing pitches are based on making you buy into their version of what’s good for you and what isn’t. In the case of omega-3’s, and in depth knowledge about essential fatty acids will most certainly stop you from spending extra money on a new generation of processed foods that will do little for your health and steer you towards more natural sources.
How omega-3 fats and other fatty acids react in our bodies can be a bit on the technical side, but the chemistry of it really isn’t that difficult to grasp. As we said before, most of us think of fish when we say ‘omega-3 fats’- they actually come from plant sources. Alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is the omega-3 fatty acid that you can find in all green plants and is the most common form of fat found in nature. Leaves in plants produce omega-3 fats (which we call ‘essential fats’ as our bodies cannot produce them) as a part of photosynthesis, helping the leaves collect light. Seeds on the other hand, contain another form of essential fats called omega-6 fatty acids- or linolenic acid (LA), which serves as an energy storage system. To make matters a bit more complicated there are actually three types of omega-3 fatty acids that play key roles in the human diet:
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which as we saw comes from plant sources and is extremely abundant
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
All the studies on the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids focus on the consumption of eicosapentaenoic acids (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHA). These forms of fatty acids have what are called long chain forms of omega-3’s which can be easily used by our bodies, whereas the shorter chain omega-3’s such as alpha linolenic acid (ALA) are not as biologically available to us. Simply put, ALA is the pure omega-3 fats designed for plants so in order for other animals to be able to use it effectively it has to be first converted to EPA or DHA. Fish are high sources of long chain omega-3’s (EPA & DHA) in the form that our bodies can use because algae is at the base of their diet. Algae is an exceptionally high source of long chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA & DHA) and so their omega-3 content gets passed up the food chain to us when we eat fish. Now our bodies can convert ALA’s into EPA & DHA, however we are only able to do so in small quantities. That being said, in theory a diet high in foods like walnuts, green leafy vegetables, and flaxseeds could allow us to convert enough ALA into EPA and DHA, but most of Americans don’t get anywhere near enough of those foods and the larger source of ALA’s were taken out of our diet thanks to changes in animal meat production.
How Omega-3’s Got Taken Out Of Our Natural Diet
In the United States we have one of the highest food production rates in the world designed to cope with our exceptionally high levels of protein consumption. The focus on however efficiency comes as both a blessing and a curse as it disrupts natural patterns that have evolved over the span of millions of years. Chickens for example, naturally eat insects and other invertebrates as the mainstay of their diet. Insects and invertebrates eat leaves and plants that are high in ALA’s- so when the chickens eat the insects they help us out by converting some of the ALA’s into EPA’s and DHA’s- the long chain omega-3′s that are so good for us.  When animals were taken out of the fields and penned, they were fed corn and soy- foods that they would not ordinarily eat in nature, but ones that nevertheless increased our overall meat production significantly. Not only did the new feeds increase the average animal body weight and body fat percentage of our poultry and livestock, but it they also made them grow to maturity faster. A huge boon in terms of profits and the creation of more tender meats which all sound like fantastic accomplishments all around- but like all changes with natural cycles it came with a cost. And that cost was significantly of reduced omega-3 levels in our meat supplies.
You see, corn and soy products are seeds which are high in omega-6 fats called linoleic acids (LA) and not alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which can be converted into long chain omega-3′s. Linoleic acids however cannot be converted into omega-3’s. The move from animals eating a seed based diet from a leaf and plant based diet didn’t come with trumpet calls and proclamations regarding any potential health consequences as the gap between consumers and their foods in developed countries is far too wide for anyone to consider possible outcomes but this move effectively reduced the amount of EPA and DHA omega-3 fats in our diets. An occurrence which some experts link to our increased incidences of diet related disease, depression and inflammation related ailments. 1.2 million years of evolution eating wild game and later on livestock that ate leaves, plants and insects can’t be undone in the course of several decades and so one can’t help but consider the theories that reduction in omega-3’s may have had some contribution to the deterioration of public health in Western societies. So called primitive civilizations don’t have the high incidences of what are often called Western diseases and it is a fact that is hard to ignore. While authorities recognize the importance of omega-3’s in our diet, it is unlikely that there will ever be a return to truly grass fed and free foraging meats and poultry. Even though such a practice would yield a more respectful and humane way of raising animals and the fact that some studies have demonstrated that such a return might actually cost less in the long run and be better for the environment as a whole, the powerful meat and dairy lobbies in Washington would never allow anything that would upset their status quo and jeopardize their bottom line. (See my article here on the Economics of Obesity.) Besides, when was the last time a major American corporation suspended a perfectly legal practice that quadrupled its profit margins in the name of making healthier productions? The government also plays a major role in our reduction of dietary omega-3′s as government subsidies ensure that the prices of soy and corn stay as low as possible so as to help minimize costs for the farming industry. Eliminating corn and soy from the food chain simply isn’t going to happen but the astute folks in the food industry still see a way of making increasing profits from the great press attached to omega-3′s- but again without much regard for public health or the environmental costs .
To increase the omega-3 fats in chicken, pork and beef so as to optimize growth and keep production levels high farms include fishmeal  in the feeds for livestock. In some cases the addition of fish to their diets significantly increase the EPA and DHA content of the meat which allows for labeling that justifies a higher price tag. It sounds like a win-win scenario- we get eggs fortified with omega-3′s and we pay a little extra to get this valuable nutrient back into our diet. But it isn’t that simple. First of all, chickens, cows and pigs don’t naturally eat fish any more than they naturally eat corn or soy. Thus no one really knows whether such a practice could or already have created long term problems with our collective health, but we need only look back at the slew of health problems we have created in the past when our food production practices deviated too far away from the natural order of things. It’s a fine line as almost every fruit, vegetable, grain and meat source we consume today is available to us thanks in part to small shifts in the natural way of things over generations. This is what agriculture is and always has been, but there are limits and we have always suffered when those limits were crossed.
Our Desire For Omega-3 Fortified Foods & The Environmental Impact
The other pressing problem with our growing appetite for omega-3’s in our diet is the environmental impact- namely the ever decreasing numbers of menhaden due to severe and unregulated overfishing. Most people have no idea what menhaden are, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most important parts of the food chain for marine and bird life in and around the Northern Atlantic. Menhaden are small, oily fishes that no one would think of eating, yet they are fished in numbers that exceed the tonnage of all other fish species combined along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. High in protein and omega-3’s these small bony fishes are ground into a feed to satisfy the need for omega-3 enriched meats and cheap protein for livestock, the protein you get from almost every chicken breast, egg or steak you eat was once menhaden and the farmed fish you eat was once menhaden as well. If there were infinite numbers of menhaden, this would not be an issue but there aren’t. In fact our increased desire for omega-3′s has devastated the menhaden population and our demand keeps growing. The use of fish oil supplements as a source of omega-3’s for those bent on reaping its benefits in concentrated form created a huge spike in demand. Almost every fish oil supplement comes from farmed fish as wild caught fish couldn’t possibly keep up with the demand and is far more costly to manufacturers, and farmed fish are fed with- you guessed it- menhaden. Take fish oils and you are taking menhaden- there isn’t any way around it.
Eating More Fish For Omega-3’s Often Means Eat More Menhaden
Clinical advisories to consume more omega-3 fatty acids in our diets has lead to a global increase in demand for fish in developed countries. A market that can’t keep up with the ever dwindling supplies from over fished seas,[24,25,26,27] and so aquaculture now supplies a sizable amount of the fish we see in our supermarkets and on our plates. The problem is that aquaculture relies heavily on omega-3 fortified fish-meal  from menhaden for maximum growth rates and so fishing increases as menhaden populations decrease. Caught by huge fleets with miles of trawling nets, our hunger for omega-3′s has seen the menhaden catch reduced by over 60% over the past five decades thanks to overfishing. Unlike other fishes whose numbers are carefully regulated by governmental bodies, there are no quotas for menhaden- no limits whatsoever, which gives free reign to the huge corporation (called Omega Protein, of course) that catches most of it here in the United States. How important is this small, smelly fish? It’s position on the bottom of the food chain makes it an invaluable part of the marine ecosystem. Once available in schools that could be spotted from the air, menhaden provided food for larger fishes and birds near the coasts, but they play an even more important role as they are filter feeders that consume phytoplankton. An adult menhaden can rid four to six gallons of water of algae in a minute so in a way you can think of them as a natural water cleaning system. As menhaden populations declined due to massive overfishing, algae overtakes inshore waters creating huge dead zones where no marine life can survive. From Long Island Sound to Chesapeake Bay we are seeing severe reductions in marine life due to inadequate water filtration. A role that menhaden have filled over the years as populations of other natural marine filters like oysters have declined due to overfishing, but with over a half billion of them being ground into fish oils each year to satisfy our demand for omega-3′s the future doesn’t look particularly bright.
The consequences are substantial enough to have marine biologists understandably concerned but there is such a disconnect between the consumer and the foods they consume few members of the public ever give any thought to where the omega-3′s in their diet come from. As long as the demands are met, questions are seldom asked. So unfortunately as long as we are willing to pay higher prices for farmed foods high in omega-3, and consume fish oils supplements in large quantities, menhaden overfishing is not going to stop until it is too late unless individual consumers force the industry to change its ways. Getting enough omega-3′s in the diet of the general population without devastating marine ecosystems is a challenge indeed and in the second part of our series we will look at differences in omega-3’s and how artificially adding omega-3′s back to our food supply isn’t always a healthy proposition. In the third and final installment we will explore the best sources of long chain omega-3’s and highlight the reality that fish is not necessarily the most natural source for long chain omega-3’s. Keep reading!
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