Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) report echoes our warning on a widespread food-label scam
by Craig Weatherby
Back in 2005, we reported on a growing deception that takes advantage of increasing interest in the health benefits of omega-3s from fish and fish oil.
It seemed that every week, one big manufacturer or another was introducing an “omega-3 fortified” food product… everything from eggs and cereals to yogurt, soy milk, and breads.
The problem was (and remains) that food companies make misleading label claims concerning omega-3s. Their goal is clear: to meet consumers’ demand for omega-3s at the lowest cost… hence, at the highest possible profit. (See “Beware the Omega-3 Bait-and-Switch”)
Belatedly, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has issued a similar report, in the form of an article in the October issue of its Nutrition Action Healthletter publication, titled “Omega-3 Medicine”.
The part that concerns us is a subsection titled “Omega Madness”, and its message is simple: “Stick with fish or fish oil for best heart-health benefits” (Liebman B 2007).
CSPI’s record is mixed, since the media-savvy advocacy group has sometimes issued distorted reports on dietary supplements and issued exaggerated warnings about the risks of mercury in fish.
But in this case, they got the story right.
The omega-3 bait-and-switch, in brief
As our readers know, essential omega-3 fatty acids are found in two places:
- Leafy green vegetables and certain seeds and oils (e.g., soy, canola, flax).
- Fish, shellfish, zooplankton, and aquatic plants (algae, plankton, seaweed).
However, only fish, shellfish, zooplankton, and aquatic plants contain the long-chain or “marine” omega-3 fatty acids the human body actually uses:
- Omega-3 DHA is an essential component of all cell membranes. DHA is also the dominant fatty acid in human brains, and is essential to proper brain and eye functioning and to regulation of metabolic rate. (DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid.)
- Omega-3 EPA is found in all cell membranes, and is needed to make critical inflammation-moderating messenger chemicals called eicosanoids. (EPA stands for eicosapentaenoic acid.)
Plant foods contain a short-chain” omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), whose apparent primary purpose in the body is to provide the raw material with which to make the long-chain, “marine” omega-3s essential to life and optimal health.
The body converts only about 5-10 percent of ALA from plant foods into EPA and DHA, so consuming ALA is a highly inefficient way to ensure that our cell membranes and immune systems have access to enough of these two truly essential omega-3s.
(Note: the rate of conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA rises as the amount of omega-6s in your diet drops, and reaches its maximum when your omega-6-to-omega-3 intake ratio reaches 2:1).
This is the ratio humans are believed to have consumed until the advent of agriculture and the resulting rise in consumption of omega-6-rich grains and seeds in place of omega-3-rich leafy greens.
And this is why, when you see reports about the benefits of omega-3s, they almost invariably refer to the results of studies using one or both of the long-chain marine omega-3s (DHA and EPA).
This is not to say that omega-3 ALA from plants is valueless. To the contrary, most people in the world rely on ALA almost exclusively to meet their omega-3 needs, simply because they have little or no access to seafood or fish oil.
And, as “Vital Choices” contributor Susan Allport stressed in her excellent book The Queen of Fats, current fish stocks are insufficient to be the sole or even primary source of omega-3s for most people in the Third (underdeveloped) and Second (developing) worlds.
New report confirms omega-3 “bait-and-switch” problemCSPI’s press release about their report put the problem succinctly: “…certain omega-3s may reduce the risk of heart disease and might even help protect against cancer, Alzheimer’s, and vision problems. But many foods making claims have little or none of those omega-3s, and labels don’t have to reveal how much or which omega-3 fat the foods contain.”
AS CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt was quoted, “… get your omega-3s from fatty fish like salmon, or take fish oil or algal oil capsules. Many foods with omega-3 claims have only or mostly ALA, which may not prevent anything.”
The issue is that the omega-3 benefits seen in scientific studies flowed from participants’ consumption of fish or fish oil, which provide amounts of DHA and EPA far greater than the human body can make from dietary ALA.
And this matters because modern people require amounts of DHA and EPA far greater than our ancestors. The reasons for this increased omega-3 requirement are twofold:
- Modern diets are awash in omega-6 fatty acids (from cheap vegetable oils and grain-fed meats), which promote inflammation and the many major diseases associated with chronic inflammation.
- Omega-6s compete with anti-inflammatory omega-3s for space in our cell membranes. Adequate amounts of omega-3s are also needed in our cells to maintain mental and eye health, and discourage auto-immune disorders.
Avoiding the omega-3 bait-and-switch
As CSPI says, “the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should require labels with omega-3 claims to disclose the amount and type of each omega-3 in the food. Until they do, consumers should be wary of generic omega-3 claims.”
Consumers must scrutinize labels closely, to see whether the manufacturer reveals which kind of omega-3—plant (ALA) or marine (EPA and/or DHA)—their product contains. Ideally, a “fortified” product should contain both EPA and DHA, but DHA alone is acceptable, especially for children. While EPA is highly beneficial, and is the key anti-inflammatory omega-3, DHA is the most critical omega-3 for brain and eye development.
The CSPI report cites the following examples:
- Breyer’s Smart! Yogurt. The label boasts that this yogurt contains DHA, but doesn’t disclose the minuscule amount: only 32 mg per servings, or as much as you’d get in three-quarters of a teaspoon of Salmon.
- Silk Soymilk Plus Omega-3 DHA. The label claims that each cup has 400 mg of omega-3s, but the fine print reveals that it only contains 32 mg of DHA per serving. As CSPI notes, “The remaining omega-3s are ALA (which just about everyone gets enough of, thanks to soy and canola oil).” What CSPI failed to say is that both of these oils—which are the biggest sources of omega-3s (ALA only) in the American diet—are far higher in omega-6s, which means that very little their omega-3 ALA ends up as omega-3 DHA or EPA in cell membranes.
- Kashi Go Lean Crunch! Honey Almond Flax. This cereal’s label claims it has 500 mg of omega-3, but doesn’t specify which ones it contains. As CSPI correctly notes, “Unless the label promises EPA or DHA (and lists fish, fish oil or algal oil on the ingredient label), it’s safe to assume that any omega-3 claim refers to ALA—especially when the product contains flax, soybean oil, or canola oil.” This is because plant sources of ALA are much cheaper than marine sources of DHA and EPA.
- Land O Lakes Omega-3 All-Natural Eggs. The carton bears this claim: “Contains 350 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per serving.” However, CSPI reports that independent lab tests reveal that less than half of the eggs’ omega-3s are DHA and EPA.
As Susan Allport wrote in The Queen of Fats, omega-3 expert Artemis Simopoulos, M.D, found that the eggs of Greek chickens raised on small rural farms contain 10 times more omega-3s (ALA, DHA, and EPA) than factory-farmed American eggs, simply because the Hellenic hens ate insects and wild greens instead of grains.
- Liebman B. Nutrition Action Healthletter. Omega-3 Madness: Fish Oil or Snake Oil? Accessed online October 24, 2007 at http://www.cspinet.org/new/pdf/omegas.pdf
- Liebman B. Nutrition Action Healthletter. Omega Medicine: Is fish oil good for what ails you? Accessed online October 24, 2007 at http://www.cspinet.org/new/pdf/omegas.pdf
- Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Omega-3 Madness: Stick with fish or fish oil for best heart-health benefits, says Nutrition Action http://www.cspinet.org/new/200710011.html
- Moss L. Four slices of bread for your daily omega 3? Sorry, you'll have to make that 11 loaves. Accessed online October 24, 2007 at http://news.scotsman.com/uk.cfm?id=1700262007
- Which?.com. Which? uncovers dodgy omega 3 claims: Innacurate claims are confusing shoppers. Accessed online October 26, 2007 at http://www.which.co.uk/
- Allport S. The Queen of Fats. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.