Omega-3s

What are omega-3s?

Omega-3s, aka omega-3 fatty acids, are a group of unsaturated fatty acids essential to human development.  They are found in numerous foods, including certain fish.  Oily cold-water fish, like sardines, wild salmon, and mackerel, have high levels of omega-3s. In fact, a great deal of advertising capital has been expended on omega-3 awareness in recent years, which has driven an increase in consumer demand for fish and fish oil supplements.

Why do they call them “omega-3s”?

This has to do with chemical composition.  “Omega-3″ is a code word signifying that there is the first double bond in the molecule is the third carbon-carbon bond from the terminal end of the carbon chain.  We don’t have to dig too deep into this, but it’s important inasmuch as it clarifies how an omega-3 fatty acid is different from an omega-6 fatty acid.

And what’s an omega-6?

Basically, it’s the same thing, but the double bond is the sixth carbon-carbon bond from the terminal end, rather than the third.

So why should I care?

It may not seem like a major difference, but these two fatty acids have vastly different effects on the human body.  Omega-3s have been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, have pronounced benefits for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, improve blood circulation, and may even ease depression and anxiety.  Omega-6s, by contrast, are associated with increased heart attacks and strokes, mood disorders, cancer, and other severe health issues. Research on the effects of both omega-3s and omega-6s is ongoing.

Is should be mentioned that here in the United States, our diets lean heavily towards the omega-6 side of the equation.  The ratio of omega-6s to omega-3 in a “typical western diet” is thought to average between 10:1 to 30:1.

Are there other sources of omega-3s aside from fish?

Absolutely.  We can get our omega-3s from plants just as easily as from fish. Flax seed is a great option; the oil in flax is several times richer in omega-3s than most fish oils.  As a matter of fact, fish don’t actually synthesize omega-3s — they capture them from the algae in their diet.  Kelp is an excellent source of omega-3s, as are walnuts and acai palm fruit.  Some studies show that grass-fed cattle produce high levels of omega-3s in their milk as well.

Do the oils I cook with contain omega-3s or omega-6s?

Probably both.  The issue is the ratio.  Here are some base ratios for common oils, from better to worse:

Ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s

  • Flax oil: 3:1
  • Canola oil: 1:2
  • Soybean oil: 1:7
  • Olive oil: 1:3-13
  • Corn oil: 1:46
  • Cottonseed, peanut, grapeseed, and sunflower oils have only negligible amounts of omega-3s.

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