Omega 3: How We’re Being Deceived

By Jim F

Have you noticed how many products have Omega 3 added? Omega 3 is the new health food buzzword – but have we been mislead by marketing hype?

Lois Smithers has written a fascinating exposé showing how confusing labeling of Omega 3 foods is undermining our health.

A quick rundown: The 3 fatty acids in the Omega 3 family are ALA (alpha-linoleic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Generally ALA comes from plants and seeds, EPA / DHA come from fatty fish (salmon, sardines, etc).

A considerable amount of research has shown that EPA and DHA are good for our health.

However much of our oils consumed today are very high in Omega 6 fatty acids. Our modern diet has a very high ratio of Omega 6 versus Omega 3. The ratio has been linked with inflammation and health problems.

In 2004, the FDA issued a Health Qualifying Claim for EPA and DHA from fish (not ALA). This lead to the evolution of 317 products in 2007 that used this claim.

The Trick

Smithers goes onto delve deeply into the research and exposes how most of the products that use this health claim have very little EPA and DHA at all. In fact the ‘omega-3’ is typically of the ALA kind – and also comes in the form of oils that are very high in Omega 6 !

In other words – when you buy a product marked “Omega 3” – you may actually getting a big dose of Omega 6 – and virtually no EPA and DHA at all. Rather than helping your health – you could be making things worse.

Going Deeper
The book goes into a number of food labels and explains how to read between the lines – citing a considerable number of research articles.

Disclosure
This book has been one of a very few that I have endorsed. The author has spent considerable time getting to the truth of the matter and I found the book useful. If you have an interest in inflammation-related health issues – this may also be useful for you.

The book can purchased in more on Omega 3 here.

31 Comments

  1. Gretchen Vannice, MS, RD

    Hi Sue

    Many companies pay to have fish oil products independently tested for QA and QC.

    The lab behind IFOS is a quality lab. Companies choose to pay an additional fee, to post findings on IFOS strictly for sales and marketing purposes. Not everyone chooses to promote product that way.

    Gretchen Vannice, MS, RD
    Omega-3 Dietitian

    Reply
  2. Cathy

    I prefer taking high grade fish oil capsules as an added source of Omega-3 fatty acids. I’ve tried many kinds in the past–dirt cheap ones tend to taste like fish. I noticed be balanced high grade fish oil doesn’t give me the fish burps (ew, I know). I hate the idea of eating fish and eating the grainy weird foods that are high in omega-3s, so I get a rich source of DHA and EPA from in pill form. Check them out at http://www.thinkfeelbe.com/shop I can’t say enough good stuff about the vitamins/supplements this company sells!

    Reply
  3. Judith

    So what are we going to eat, in a couple of years time, when we have fished out the oceans?

    Reply
  4. Pat Blanks EasyDietMeals.com

    I do agree with Foster, it’s really a matter of concern.

    Glad to know about the book. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  5. Lois

    Hi Chloe…

    This comment is set out in the article you posted:

    “The guidelines given by the Food and Drug Administration in the US state that it’s unsafe for pregnant women and young children to eat fish high in mercury, which are usually larger fish such as shark, swordfish and large tuna.” This advisory was found to be quite faulty in a landmark case conducted by The Lancet. http://tiny.cc/vFzC8

    Below are conclusions from the study on the benefits in neural development of children when pregnant women consumed more than the “safe” recommendation. (National Institutes of Health).
    http://tiny.cc/vFzC8

    “Maternal seafood consumption of less than 340 g per week in pregnancy did not protect children from adverse outcomes; rather, we recorded beneficial effects on child development with maternal seafood intakes of more than 340 g per week, suggesting that advice to limit seafood consumption could actually be detrimental. These results show that risks from the loss of nutrients were greater than the risks of harm from exposure to trace contaminants in 340 g seafood eaten weekly.” This information is so important for pregnant women.

    While there are legitimate concerns regarding the state of our oceans, a larger concern is the condition of the soil that grows foods we eat daily laced with chemicals I can’t pronounce depleted of essential nutrients we need.

    When it comes to eating fish, a rash of fears and warnings surface regarding a food source science is telling us to add twice a week. Or, if you are concerned about fish in the sea, add a purified oil that has removed all contaminants.

    And like Sue, I’ll ask, all of this begs the question – why is so much being written about the dangers of fish when science has conclusively shown how health will benefit from adding it?

    That’s best left for another discussion.

    Lois Smithers

    Reply
  6. SueK24

    My pleasure Lois! I’m looking forward to reading your book.

    Another related issue, I’ve always found the omega 3 eggs to be highly decpetive to the public. People don’t realize that those yolks also still contain arachidonic acid, and that consuming them will serve to enhance the inflammatory process. Not what would be considered a healthy scenario at all!

    Then there’s the promotion of flax seed and flax oil. Don’t even get me going! 🙂 Yes, the lignans provide some benefit, but the fact that flax oil quiclky oizdizes is conveniently not mentioned in the promotion of flax products.

    Again, Kudos to you Lois!

    Reply
  7. SueK24

    My previous post was meant to be in reply to Gretchen’s IFOS comment of 6/19.

    Reply
  8. SueK24

    All which begs the following question. Why don’t more companies want to pay for the testing that will assure the public that their product meets the most rigorous standards in the industry? I’d venture to say that most likely they know they will not attain the IFOS 5 star level.

    Reply
  9. Spectra

    Yeah, that’s why I don’t buy the processed omega-3 fortified foods…the idea of eating fishy-tasting cereal or eggs just makes me want to hurl.

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  10. Mike H.

    Very informative post! It’s a pretty big issue for sure. I agree that we need to get our EPA/DHA from marine sources/supplements, but there is also value in plant-based omega-3’s. I have to agree though that it is foolish of those promoting flaxseeds/salba, etc to claim that it is the same as eating salmon. You simply can’t attain the same benefits.

    It’s interesting that you find too much omega-6’s even in oil supplements! Udo Erasmus (a local here) is considered a guru and a top guy worldwide when it comes to lipid research and yet his oil blends still contain too much omega-6’s.

    It is kind of laughable that omega-3’s are making their way into milk, bread, orange juice and so on… Even if you eat omega-3-fortified eggs, you’d have a to eat a dozen per sitting to get what you would in a hunk of salmon.

    The book s sounds very timely – I’ll add it to my “must-read” list. I found The Brain Diet an incredible resource for explaining fats and how they relate to inflammation and oxidation as well as prevent it with proper diet.

    It’s amazing to think that our current ratio of 6’s to 3’s is about 15:1 in western diets. 150 years ago it was closer to 3:1/2:1.

    Reply
  11. Chloe

    Although we derive omega-3 from a range of different foods and Omega-3 “enhanced” products, on the whole we are advised that fish is the richest source.

    However, much of the fish available to us is so toxic that the suggested 3 servings per week could be extremely harmful to our health…

    There’s a write-up on the toxicity of fish at the following address: http://www.foodeu.com/articles/Fish+Carries+Health+Warning.aspx

    Reply
  12. Kailash

    Walnuts have much more Omega-6 than Omega-3. In fact, they have a 5:2 ratio.

    The ideal Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio from all foods one eats is 3:2.

    One can rebalance by eating flax, chia or aquatic animals, which are the only foods having more Omega-3 than 6.

    Bottom line for health: Eat from the sea.

    Reply
  13. Lois

    Thanks Gretchen, for the great information. And Melanie, thanks so much for your endorsement of the book! It’s very much appreciated.

    Judy, the book addresses the state of health in America from inflammatory diseases, how Omega-6s in processed foods create inflammatory compounds, and how 6s deceptively hide in products labeled Omega-3. So it addresses today’s health issues.

    I don’t advocate Omega-3/Omega-6 supplements. If we ate whole foods (love Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Real Food) purchased grass-fed meats, reverted to old farming methods, grew gardens, we’d be giving our bodies what they need. Sadly, those who do (or can) are small numbers. We are a nation of consumers who buy food with a food industry concerned about profit.

    A line of pork products (fed soybean and flaxseed) received USDA permission to sport an Omega-3 label – and that has gone too far. One example in the book that tells the sad tale.

    Today’s consumer is harried, raising children, two jobs, rushing in and out of grocery stores. They hardly have time to surf the web for Omega-3, Omega-6 information. When they try, they are met with so much conflicting information, confusion sets in. I’ve heard this too many times to count.

    They believe buying products labeled Omega-3 is a good step. Did you know sales of Omega-3 products are predicted to reach $7 Billion by 2011?

    We are either a nation deficient in Omega-3 OR the Omega-6 abundance makes it appear that way. What we cannot dispute are scientific studies of the power of EPA and DHA, moleculary distilled, free of toxins, ocean PCB’s to change the imbalance. My fist hand experience was changing my diet did not help but my situation was advanced. When I added a powerful EPA DHA supplement, things turned around.

    As to fish in the sea. Many schools of thought about our eating pattern as we evolved. I believe our ancestors sprung up along coast lines as catch from the sea sustained their lives (among other things). While salmon is declining, sardines, anchovies and other EPA DHA sources are just as good.

    If you were ill and learned EPA and DHA might positively impact your inflammatory condition, would you be thinking about a study that predicted oceans would be depleted in 2050? If you wanted a few more years to be with your children, and their children, would you go for the fish right now?

    There are issues facing the health of a nation of ill men, women and children evidenced by the number of prescriptions filled. And science is telling us, EPA and DHA from fish have anti-inflammatory properties. What do most of these illnesses have in common? Inflammation.

    Many say this discovery is the most significant for mankind in 50 years and I believe that having been a recipient.

    Thanks very much for your post.

    Lois Smithers

    Reply
  14. Lose weight for life

    That is a really good find. Very sneaky of them. I think having canned tuna or salmon are a great souce of Omega 3.

    Reply
  15. Judy Wyatt

    I appreciate that fish is a wonder food and that there are lots of supplements that are unbalanced because they offer too much Omega 6 and not enough usable Omega 3, as y’all are describing. But I can’t accept that Omega 3 from plant sources is “therefore” bad — I keep reading from y’all that the ALA in plant sources is inefficiently absorbed and “therefore” we should all be eating fish and/or swallowing fish oil capsules.

    My concerns:

    First, there are a lot of people who have fish allergies. Second, humans have for thousands of years developed healthy diets in locations far from any source of fish. Third, humans have developed healthy diets without any animal products at all. Fourth, fish supplies are being depleted and there ain’t enough fish in the oceans and rivers and fish farms to feed the entire world.

    I cannot believe that everyone who isn’t popping these fish oil pills is a heart attack (or insert disease of your choice) waiting to happen. I cannot believe that vegetarians who eat a variety of whole foods are also a (insert disease of your choice) waiting to happen.

    I also cannot believe that if a diet is so deficient in any form of Omega 3, a person has only to pop a few fish oil pills and everything will be hunky-dory. A diet that is so deficient in Omega 3 is very unbalanced in a lot of ways, and a supplemental pill ain’t going to make everything OK.

    I’m sure that this book has a lot of important information about the current state of scientiffic knowledge regarding Omegas, and about how to read between the lines when we come across advertised health claims for a product. I will put the book on my wish list for the next time I order books.

    But the real issue here is that our diets are unbalanced NOT because we are buying the wrong fish oil pills, but because we eat processed rather than whole foods, and we raise our food animals on corn and soy and antibiotics, and we raise our plant foods on soils that are depleted of many nutrients.

    I am interested in learning about Omega 3. I am not interested in buying a supplement. I prefer Michael Pollan’s philosophy: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

    Reply
  16. Melanie R. Jordan

    Very nice post! I’ve known about the evils of Omega-6 vs. Omega-3 imbalance for quite some time based on some of the early work of Dr. Andrew Weil. However, I had no idea how often we as consumers are being duped into thinking we are buying the “right” kinds of Omega-3 products (that we pay a premium for), and we really are not getting the Omega-3 health benefits that we think we are.

    Kudos to Lois Smithers for bringing this deception to light.

    Melanie R. Jordan
    Author of “Have Your Cheeseburger And Keep Your Health Too!”

    Reply
  17. Gretchen Vannice

    The critical issue with omega-3s is that people discern plant (ALA) from fish (EPA and DHA) and that if they buy supplements, that they buy fresh, not oxidized, product. Higher concentrates are generally more pure, too.

    Reply
  18. Gretchen Vannice

    IFOS follows the CRN monograph, their standards are not higher than CRN. I can go into more detail with standards of fish oil manufacturing if someone is interested. Gretchen Vannice

    Reply
  19. Gretchen Vannice

    Lois
    I met Dr. Dyerberg recently and it was a thrill. A very pleasant man.

    Reply
  20. Gretchen Vannice

    IFOS is a source of information, but companies pay to be posted so it’s selective, based on who wants to pay for it. Today, some fish oil companies are using that site to market and promote products. There are several good products available, including Minami, PharmaOmega and Carlson. Full disclosure: I manage the science division for PharmaOmega, and have seen the independent testing results first hand. I’ve worked with omega-3s and fish oil for 7 years.

    Reply
  21. Lois

    These posts warm my heart! Thanks Sue and Gretchen.

    When a manufacturer puts a dollop of flaxseed in a product that also has 2000 mgs of Omega-6s from soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, or corn, that tiny dollop of flaxseed cannot deliver any benefit over-powered as it is by Omega-6s. Not to mention damage from processing.

    Then flaxseed proponents make statements that flaxseed is heart healthy, we don’t need fish, supplements taste bad with the answer being, grind flaxseed instead. Flaxseed has great benefits but let’s be fair to the consumer and stay with science. I haven’t see a clinical study that says flaxseed is heart healthy nor does the FDA.

    The Walnut Council of California says walnuts are heart healthy on their website – ALA. I have searched every medical data base and that is not reflected in the studies. And go so far as to say, a handful of walnuts is as healthy for you as a piece of salmon.

    On the other hand, science has been accumulating studies piled high around the world of the benefits of EPA and DHA from fish. And that’s what we need to stay focused on in light of the epidemic of inflammatory diseases.

    It is quite sad that Dr. Jorn Dyerberg’s magnificent discovery of EPA and DHA in the 70’s is being compromised to such an extent, it’s being lost on the consumer who needs it the most. The more we get the message out there, the more we help so many who are lost in confusion.

    Someone should write a book 🙂

    Blessings….

    Lois Smithers

    Reply
  22. Steve Tuel

    Thanks for raising a very important point. Too often consumers are getting no benefit from well-intentioned changes in their diet. I go into more detail about Omega-3s and how you can know you are getting the right ones on my blog.

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  23. Spectra

    Great post! I’ve always been a little leery of foods that have omega-3’s added to them because they never disclose exactly what they put in the food…I’m guessing most of the food companies use cheap ALA and then try to justify charging people 100% more money. Most of the time, it would seem like it’s just a better idea to take a high quality fish oil supplement and eat a diet rich in natural omega-3s.

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  24. SueK24

    I agree with Gretchen about the need to discern better fish oil supplements. For those wishing to find out more and/or take advantage of the most highly refined, concentrated, and safe to consume fish oils available in today’s world, take a look at the IFOS (International Fish Oil Stardards) website’s consumer reporting page (easily found by googling “IFOS”). The IFOS standards are very difficult to acheieve and are more rigid than those of The Council for Responsible Nutrition, the European Pharmacopeia, and the Norwegian Medicinal Standards.

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  25. SueK24

    Thanks Jim for pointing us to Lois’ book! I work for Zone Labs, Barry Sears’ company. Barry Sears is the author who invented the Zone diet and he’s also one of today’s most highly respected researchers in the field of Omega 3’s and fish oil. I’ve long been aware of the deception being thrust upon the public in today’s market place by hyping foods with a little added ALA (and the additionls omega 6s’ usually accompanying it) as the way to a healthy diet. In fact I still read some publications which proactively urge people to liberally add omega 6 fats to their diet! I haven’t read Lois’ book yet, but thanks to people like Lois, hopefully the public will become more quickly educated about the subject of what Omegas’3, so we can avoid the kind of fiasco with the health of Americans, such as has been created since the food industry went “fat free” some 25 or so yrs ago. They took fats out of foods, replaced them with additional carbs and chemicals to make them palatable without fat, and in the process created today’s obesity epidemic!

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  26. Heather

    Thanks for the post! Very informative!

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  27. Gretchen Vannice

    So nice to see an intelligent discussion. As a nutrition scientist, I’ve used the word ‘functional’ omega-3s in regard to EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, adding a little powdered flax seed to foods – like snack chips, packaged foods – and making omega-3 claims is common practice today, and a disservice to the public. I continue to try to educate the public on differences between plant vs. fish sources of omega-3s and both of you, Lois and J. Foster have done a nice job. I formulate science-based products with EPA and DHA. The next chapter of this story is discerning better fish oil supplements. Many products are very low dose, not very pure and taste bad. Fresh fish oil doesn’t taste bad.

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  28. Lois

    Hi Jim..

    Many thanks for your post on my book – deeply appreciate your endorsement. I wrote this book for anyone confused by Omega-3s, Omega-6s in foods and the link to inflammation.

    EPA and DHA from fish are anti-inflammatory studied extensively. ALA – while some great benefits exist through flaxseed (51% ALA, 17% Omega-6) and other sources, conversion process to EPA is very limited and we cannot convert any DHA. DHA is essential for neural development in fetuses, developing brains of children and for all of us as we age. DHA comes through a fish or algae source.

    When we begin to see the extent of Omega-6s oils used in foods for over 50 years and how those oils become inflammatory compounds, I think consumers will be able to grasp the gravity and make better choices.

    51% of adults and children are now on prescriptions medications (new record) with inflammatory issues. No one wants to be sick – the question is, how many are lost in confusion from the marketing power of the food industry? Far, far too many.

    Many thanks again…

    Lois Smithers

    Reply
  29. Courtney Sue

    Nothing wrong with adding a little fresh-ground flax seed meal to your meal, or eating walnuts or salmon.

    This whole thing is really just another example of fortifying foods instead of encouraging people to eat the REAL foods that the nutrient comes from. I guess most folks would rather eat a candy bar artificially loaded with vitamins and Omega-3’s than eat a salad with walnuts.

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  30. Regina Wilshire

    I agree and also add a caution – omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats and highly suseptible to damage/rancidity when heated….high-heat application processed foods are more likely to have damaged (rancid) omege-3 than the whole food that contains them…..EPA/DHA enhanced ultra-pasturized milk or fortified breakfast cereals are more likely to have damaged/rancid omega-3 fatty acids in the end product than wild salmon that’s cooked properly or served raw.

    Reply
  31. Scott Kustes - Modern Forager

    One other pertinent fact…ALA is a short-chain fatty acid that is unusable by the human body. We require the long chain acids EPA and DHA. The body can put ALA through several steps of elongation and desaturation to finally get it to EPA and then further DHA, but this process is HIGHLY inefficient. Only 5-10% of ingested ALA gets converted to the usable forms, hence why I don’t recommend supplementation with flax oil.

    ALA is what is most likely being added to all of these fake food products…it’s cheap and plant-derived rather than being useful animal-derived omega-3s.

    Just stick to eating real foods and you’ll be A-OK.

    Cheers
    Scott Kustes
    Modern Forager

    Reply