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.
What’s the difference between omega-3 and omega-6?
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.