Decoding Front-of-Package Omega-3 Claims

June 14, 2011

Contains omega-3s is sure to catch customers eyes. But what does it actually mean?

One of the hottest front-of-package claims today refers to Omega-3 content.  Whether it’s naturally occurring or added for extra health benefits, the claim can be seen across all categories. Omega-3 fatty acids are a hot topic because of their proven beneficial effects on heart and overall health. The question the Lempert Report ponders is, what is the quality of the omega-3s found across categories and will the government have to step in to regulate the claims? 
First, a quick refresher on omega-3s, the essential fatty acids. There are twenty different types of fatty acids needed by the body for optimum health. We can manufacture all but two, thus they are named, the essential fatty acids: Omega-3 Linolenic Acid (LNA) and Omega-6 Linoleic Acid (LA).

Specifically, omega-3 encompasses EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), the components known for their role in protecting the brain and body cells from the physiological effects of stress, reducing heart disease risk factors, possibly reducing prevalence of dementia, reducing symptoms of some skin ailments, and helping support pregnancies and infant brain and eye development, and more. 

EPA and DHA (derived from marine sources) are readily used by various cells in the body and contribute to the health benefits of omega-3s; ALA (found in plant foods) can not be directly used by the body and must be converted into EPA and DHA. The conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is limited and thus larger quantities of ALA rich foods need to be consumed to obtain sufficient levels.

The Institute of Medicine recommends 1,100 milligrams of omega-3s per day for women and 1,600 mg for men. On a plant based diet, thus only consuming ALAs, it is recommended to consume between 1,300-2,700 mg ALA per day to ensure adequate amounts are being converted to EPA and DHA.

Currently most product on the shelves are fortified with plant omega-3s as they are less expensive than marine sources like fishmeal and algae.  

A perfect example is omega-3 eggs, some companies claim to contain around 350 mg of omega-3s per egg, but the types DHA, EPA or ALA and amounts of each aren't specified on the carton. On the contrary, one popular brand reveals that its omega-3 large eggs each contain 160 mg of ALA and 32 mg of DHA.  To compare, three ounces of wild Alaskan salmon or sardines, provides 1,000 to 1,500 mgs of EPA and DHA combined. 

So will the government step in and make labeling the omega-3 source mandatory? Regardless of other health claims stated on the package, the few words, “contain omega-3s” go a long way in the eye of the consumer.