The American Heart Association recommends eating two servings of fish, preferably fatty fish like salmon, every week. But omega-3 claims show up on far more than fish.
“Omega-3s supporting heart, brain and eye health,” boasts Stonyfield Organic Chocolate Low Fat Milk & Omega-3s, which has 60 milligrams of omega-3s per cup, mostly from sardine and anchovy oil.
Horizon sells both a Chocolate and a Vanilla DHA Omega-3 Organic Lowfat Milk that “supports brain health,” with 32 mg of DHA from algal oil per cup.
Milk has little or no naturally occurring DHA or EPA (the omega-3s in fish oil). It does have some ALA (a shorter-chain omega-3), though far less than canola or soybean oil has.
What’s more, there isn’t much evidence that ALA prevents heart disease more than other unsaturated fatty acids.
And in recent clinical trials, even EPA and DHA haven’t lowered the risk of a second heart attack or stroke in people who have already had one.
Maybe that’s why companies are branching out beyond the heart.
“Omega-3/DHA & 4 nutrients to support brain & body,” says the label of Minute Maid Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices. Despite the name, the “blend” is mostly apple and grape juice, with 50 mg of DHA from algal oil per cup.
“DHA is a key building block in the brain,” says the label. That may sound like DHA is a memory or IQ booster, but the claim is a classic “structure-or-function” one that requires little or no evidence.
So far, DHA and EPA haven’t seemed to slow memory loss. The VITAL trial is testing fish oil on memory, the risk of a first heart attack or stroke, and other outcomes, but results won’t be available until 2017.
As for “eye health,” the Age-Related Eye Disease Study 2 (AREDS2) found that a daily dose of EPA (350 mg) plus DHA (650 mg) failed to slow the progression of macular degeneration in people who already had the disease.
But none of that stops companies from flogging omega-3s.
“ALA Omega-3,” says the box of Kellogg’s new FiberPlus Antioxidants Chocolatey Trail Mix Chewy Bars.
Each 180-calorie bar (with 320 mg of ALA) is mostly oats, sugar, peanuts, almonds, crisp rice (sugar plus rice flour), and oils like palm kernel. The fiber includes processed corn fiber, and the antioxidants are the vitamin E and zinc that Kellogg adds.
“Good source of protein, fiber & ALA omega-3,” says the box of Barilla Plus multigrain pasta, which has about 200 mg of ALA from flaxseed in each 210-calorie cup of cooked pasta. (A tablespoon of canola or soy oil has about 1,000 mg of ALA.)
“I once asked someone from Barilla why they sell pasta like this,” says NYU’s Marion Nestle. “He said, ‘We have to because of the competition.’”
And because people put it in their shopping carts.
“Why buy a plain, ordinary food if you can get a superfood?” asks Nestle. “It’s all about marketing.”
Her advice: “Eat real food. It may have to be cooked, it’s not as sweet, and it’s not advertised. But you’re better off with the original food with all the nutrients and fiber that it comes with.”
Sources: N. Engl. J. Med. 368: 1800, 2013; Arch. Intern. Med. 172: 686, 694, 2012; Neurol. 71: 430, 2008; Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 91: 1725, 2010; JAMA 304: 1903, 2010; JAMA 309: 2005. 2013.