What exactly are these omega-3 fats?

You always want to do the very best for your health, and you think that fat has no place in that for fear of putting on weight. Fat-rich foods such as pizza, deep-fried foods, processed meats or cakes and biscuits are indeed poor sources of fats. They contain saturated fats, which we’re advised to avoid. But not all types of fat are bad. Take omega-3 fats. These belong to the unsaturated fats, the ‘good’ fats. You need these to stay healthy!

Fats... still a complicated issue!

Omega-3 fats are therefore good, ‘unsaturated’ fats, but where can we find them? There are three healthy omega-3 fats: ALA, EPA and DHA.

  • ALA is found exclusively in vegetable sources such as flaxseeds, walnuts and rape seed oil, or in green vegetables (including purslane, watercress and spinach) and some seeds (flaxseeds, pine nuts).
  • EPA and DHA are found in fatty and semi-fatty fish (including anchovies, herring, halibut, sprats, tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines), crustaceans and shellfish (lobsters, shrimp), seaweeds, algae and fish oil supplements.

The body can create a small amount of EPA and DHA from ALA, but not enough to provide our needs for these fats. So, as you can see, it’s very important to take EPA and DHA in particular. These are also the healthiest omega-3 fats.

Is EPA different from DHA?

EPA and DHA are the omega-3 fats that optimise normal heart function, maintain blood fat levels and play a part in maintaining healthy blood pressure. They supplement each other in these roles.

DHA has something more to offer. DHA helps brain function and keeps the eyes healthy, from before birth to a very advanced age. EPA is therefore not the same as DHA, but your body can make good use of both omega-3 fat.

Is "fish oil" the same thing as "omega 3"?

As a savvy consumer, you’ve already decided for yourself that you’ll take fish oil, so you’ll get both EPA and DHA from that. So that’s all sorted, isn’t it? Well, that’s partly right! Fish oil is not synonymous with omega 3. It does not always even contain the same amount of omega 3. Normal fish oil contains roughly 30% omega 3, high-quality fish oil around 80-90%.

Half a gram of ordinary fish oil contains no more than 150 mg EPA/DHA, while half a gram of high-quality fish oil contains 400- 500 mg EPA/DHA. When you consider that your heart needs a daily dose in the region of 1000 mg, you’ll see why you should choose high-quality fish oil. So always look to see how much EPA+DHA is contained in one capsule.

Why is a healthy omega-3 content so important?

A healthy balance between omega-6 and omega-3 is very important for the make-up of fats in the body’s cells, and for their optimal function. Research has shown that the intake of omega-3 fatty acids is lower than the intake of other types.

Our western diet is rich in omega-6, but low in essential omega-3 fatty acids. This means that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in our cells is out of balance. Minami supplements contain omega-3 and no ‘filling’ or unneeded omega-6 fatty acids, so they optimise the ratio of
omega-6 to omega-3.

Evolution of the composition of our nutrition

The intake of saturated fats slowly increases but this does not seem to be the only cause of the increase in 'Western' diseases. It is interesting to note the explosive increase of the intake of trans fats after 1900 (after the industrial revolution). Next to that we see a rise in the intake of omega-6 and a decline in the intake of omega-3.

Source: Simopoulos, A.P. (2002). The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids. Biomed Pharmacother. 56(8), 365-379.

Sources of omega-3

The best known source of omega-3 fatty acids is fish. Fatty fish species such as mackerel, sardines, herring, tuna or trout are rich in omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. There are also several vegetable sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as linseed, walnuts, green leafy vegetables, algae and seaweed. With the exception of algae and seaweed vegetable products however only contain the omega-3 fatty acid alpha lipoic acid (ALA). ALA needs to be converted in the body into EPA and DHA to have the same health benefits but this conversion is not efficient.

Do you eat fish twice a week?

Fish can be contaminated with heavy metals (mercury, cadmium, arsenic, lead), pesticides, dioxins, furans and PCBs. These toxic substances are mainly taken in via the skin and the gills of the fish. It is therefore advisable to always remove the skin of the fish in order to limit the intake of harmful substances. Small fish species (anchovies, sardines, mackerel) contain less toxic substances than large fish species.

Some large fish species (shark, marlein, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish) contain a lot of mercury and are therefore not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Tuna (fresh of from a can), wild salmon from the Baltic Sea and herring from the Baltic Sea can also only be eaten in a limited way (1 portion per week) because of the degree of contamination. A well controlled fish oil supplement offers a safe alternative in these cases.

For those that do not like fish or do not want to eat fish, sea algae form an alternative. Oil from algae
is the only vegetable source of EPA and DHA. Omega-3 fatty acids from algae are available as supplements.

Sources: EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA), 2005. Opinion of the scientific panel on contaminants in the food chain on a request from the European Parliament related to the safety assessment of wild and farmed fish n° EFSA-Q-2004-22. The EFSA Journal, 236, 1 – 118. Kris-Etherton, P.M., Harris, W.S., & Appel, L.J. (2002). Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease. Circulation, 106(21), 2747-2757. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. Advice on fish consumption: benefits and risks 2004. London: The Stationay Office. Superior Health Council of Belgium (2004). Recommendations and claims made on omega-3 fatty acids (SHC 7945).

Do you know the myths about omega-3?

There are a lot of myths concerning omega-3.
Did you know that the number of scientific publications on the effects of omega -3 fatty acids in humans is now over 25.000?

Discover more myths