Every time I buy milk at the grocery store and see the Omega 3-enriched milk, I cringe. While companies like Horizon say they use vegetarian-based Omega 3 fatty acids to enrich their milk, I can’t stop imagining fish oil floating around in the milk. Gag. Evidence shows that Omega 3s can improve health by reducing heart disease risk, increasing brain function, preventing cancer, and improving skin conditions, among many other benefits. As a result of this research, companies have been adding Omega 3s to their products (including baby formula), which supposedly make their products healthier than the un-supplemented counterparts. The marketing might even make you believe that Omega 3-enriched foods are necessary.
Fortification of food products really doesn’t bother me. No doubt, folic acid fortification has prevented neural tube defects in babies and niacin has reduced cases of pellagra. There is just something about Omega 3-enriched foods that grosses me out. Maybe it is because I am often unaware of their source for Omega 3, and I wonder if the Omega 3s in the products are sustainably harvested. Or maybe it is because if we ate less factory-farmed animal products, ate less junk food overall, and insisted on clean waterways in which to fish from, we wouldn’t need Omega 3 supplements in the first place. As a matter of fact, milk from pasture-raised cattle is higher in Omega 3s than conventional milk, no supplementation necessary.
My other concern is the lack of information regarding Omega 3s in products. An article in the USA Today points out that an Omega 3 enriched product might not even have DHA or EPA in it. Omega 3 fatty acids are made up of DHA, EPA, and ALA. However, not all of these acids are created equal. It is DHA and EPA in particular that have been attributed to improving brain function and development in children. Yet, a label may boast a product’s “Omega 3” status while only containing ALA. Furthermore, the USA Today article provides a chart that shows the comparatively dismal amounts of DHA and EPA in fortified products compared to whole foods such as salmon.
It is possible to obtain healthy levels of Omega 3s through your diet and your child’s diet without ever touching an Omega-3-enriched food, but it might take a little bit more effort than our culture dictates. According to an article in Nutrition Journal, “A healthy diet should consist of roughly one to four times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. The typical American diet tends to contain 11 to 30 times more omega -6 fatty acids than omega -3, a phenomenon that has been hypothesized as a significant factor in the rising rate of inflammatory disorders in the United States.” Due to our poor factory farming practices, lack of access to sustainably farmed food, and fast-food culture (among many other factors!), we have to put in a little bit more effort in finding foods that are higher in Omega 3s and lower in Omega 6s. Not that Omega 6s are inherently bad, they are just overabundant in our American diet. The goal is to strike a healthy balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids in your (and your child’s) diet.
Fish is probably the most common way to obtain Omega 3s in the diet. However, not every fish is created equal when it comes to Omega 3s. Fatty fish like salmon and herring have higher amounts while fish like tilapia and catfish are on the lower end of the scale. Experts have recommended that adults eat two servings of fish per week (12 ounces), but recommend that children should eat levels proportional to their body weight.
One common concern about fish intake, especially for pregnant women and children, is mercury and PCBs. Another concern is the sustainability of fish. Alton Brown explains sustainability concerns in a recently-aired episode of Good Eats.
The good news is that it is still possible to eat the fattiest fish, which contain the lowest levels of toxins, and are fished using sustainable practices. There are many factors to consider, such as wild-caught vs. farmed, the type of fishing methods used, and the location of the fish. Fortunately, the Monterey Bay Aquarium breaks it down for us in a wallet-sized guide. The guide is even broken down by region because those of us in the middle of country have different access than those on the coast. Pretty smart, huh?
If you forget your pocket guide, there are other ways to pick out the best choices at a grocery store. As Alton Brown points out in the video I posted above, the U.S. actually has some of the best regulations regarding farmed fish, so he recommends only buying from U.S. farms if you buy farmed fish (the country of origin is located on the back of the package). You can also look for the Marine Stewardship Council logo. I heard a piece on NPR this morning that discussed how local fisherman in the Northeast are banding together to fish more sustainably and market their fish directly to the public. If you live near an area where fishing is a way of life, consider buying from local fisherman.
If you choose to eat fish that you’ve caught yourself, pay attention to local warnings and recommendations about fish from local waterways. Resources like a state’s Department of Natural Resources or Department of Wildlife will often have recommendations about the consumption of fish. You can also contact the local park management office.
Marion Nestle posted an article on her blog recently that the federal government is considering an option to allow genetically modified salmon into the food system. If GM salmon is allowed in the U.S., it will be more important than ever to seek sustainable and ethically produced fish. GM salmon grosses me out even more than Omega 3 milk!
Grass-fed beef is higher in Omega 3s than grain-fed beef, which is what you’ll typically find in the grocery store. Grain-fed cattle are often fed high amounts of corn, and as a result, grain-fed beef is lower in Omega 3s. Meanwhile, cattle that are left out in the grassy pastures have higher levels of Omega 3s that are more proportional to the recommendations of a healthy Omega 6:Omega 3 ratio. Simply making the change from grain-fed beef to grass-fed will bring a better balance of Omega 3s and Omega 6s in your diet.
Of course, it is not as easy as just picking up a pound of grass-fed beef at your local grocery store. Some grocery stores don’t even carry grass-fed beef. You may have to shop at a health food store, farmer’s market, buy from a local farm, or join a food co-op. Additionally, the sticker price of grass-fed beef is higher, sometimes twice as much as grain-fed beef. You will also need to get used to the taste. Some people prefer the taste of grass-fed over grain-fed. However, some say you need to get accustomed to it. To me, grass-fed beef tastes slightly “gamier,” but I’m now used to eating venison, so it doesn’t faze me at all.
You can find more affordable sources of grass-fed beef by contacting farmers. Eat Wild has a great list of resources that you can shop locally or have shipped to your house. You can also check out Local Harvest for farms that sell grass-fed beef.
I personally find it more convenient to have food shipped to my house and stored in my freezer for months rather than buying meat at the grocery store every week. It is just a different way of shopping that will become easier once you do it a few times.
Also keep in mind that while the immediate price is higher, better nutrition will likely keep your healthcare costs down in the future. I know, I know… tell that to the person on a budget (me!). Chances are, though, you can find ways to work healthier food choices into your diet. Furthermore, I detest the current state of conventional farming practices in the U.S. I just feel better about life in general when I give my money to an ethical farmer instead of a greedy factory farmer.
Like grass-fed beef, chickens that are raised on pastures will produce food that is higher in Omega 3s. “Free range” is not always as self-explanatory as it sounds. The government sets certain standards for companies to be able to slap this label on their eggs. Some farmers push the label to the limit, and some farmers practice this the way you hope they do. The best way to know where your eggs come from is to visit the farm or raise the chickens yourself.
Again, the eggs will likely be more expensive than what you find in the grocery store, but you can find cheaper methods of obtaining free-range eggs. Some farmers will offer lower prices if you subscribe to their egg program, or you can compare prices at your local farmer’s market or food co-op.
Like Omega 3-enriched milk, you can also get conventional eggs that are higher in Omega 3s at the grocery store. The chickens who laid these eggs are often fed meals augmented with flax seed or fish meal. While I don’t see anything wrong with feeding a chicken flax seed to increase the nutritional potential of the egg, these chickens are not necessarily living a better life than those who aren’t fed supplements. If you really want the healthiest choice in terms of personal health, animal health, and environmental health, go for the local farmer’s free-range eggs.
Add Omega 3 to the many benefits of breast milk. According to Kellymom, babies generate DHA slower than adults and benefit from Omega-3s in their diet (such as via breastfeeding). A breastfeeding mom can increase Omega 3s in her breast milk by increasing her own intake of Omega 3s in her diet.
Many nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and other vegetarian food options contain Omega 3s, including marine algae, which is the source for most vegetarian-based Omega 3 supplements. The difference between vegetarian sources and animal sources is that non-animal sources are typically much higher in ALA and lower (or absent) in DHA and/or EPA. This is just something to keep in mind when you read that you should eat certain non-animal based foods for your Omega 3 intake. Because toxins like pesticides and insecticides are often lurking in fat, it is always best to choose organic when possible.