April 28, 2008
The Disappearance of Omega-3s
Omega-3s have been the talk as of late, but as with any diet craze, it appears our understanding of their vital role is way off.
When any new diet craze hits our 'culinarily' confused culture, it seems the responsible thing to do is maintain a level of skepticism.
In the case of information pertaining to omega 3s, it appears critical information has evaded the radar of North American media and hence the eating public.
In a fascinating book researched and authored by Katonah, New York's Susan Allport, the history, science and hype surrounding omega-3s is laid out in meticulous detail.
In The Queen of Fats - Why Omega-3s Were Removed From the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them", Allport insists that the family of fatty-acids known as omega-6s must be included within any dialogue on omega 3s.
While it sounds as though adding a whole new family of fats to the equation may only further enhance our confusion, the 6s do begin to make the whole dilemma far more palatable. You see the 3s and 6s must remain in an ideal proportion to one another within our bodies, but unfortunately it appears our diet is currently awash in omega-6s. The reason for this has very much to do with the steady disappearance of the 3s from our diet, but before understanding where they went, we must first understand the difference between the two.
"There are really small differences in chemical structure between these two families of fats, but large differences in function, and large differences in where they're found," says Allport. "Omega-3s all originate in the green leaves of plants and the omega-6s are much more abundant in seeds."
At first glance, seeds may not appear to be so prevalent, but as Allport points out; "We're talking about safflower oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and to a lesser extent, soybean oil. These are the predominant oils in our food supply," adds Allport, "and they've replaced butter and lard and other fats.
Allport suggests taking a look at any packaged food label, and you'll likely see one of those four oils in it.
Well-known food writer Michael Pollan has called The Queen of Fats a 'nutritional detective story', and such a description rings true when readers learn why these oils have become so prevalent in our diet. Most frightening, is Allport's use of the word 'eliminate'.
"The people who first started working on omega-3s focused on them because they knew omega 3s cause rancidity in foods, so it was thought to be a good idea to eliminate them," says Allport. "It was much much later that people realized how essential these fats are for every tissue in the body, particularly those fast-acting tissues like the brain or the heart."
As Allport suggests in her book, by the time it was known how essential omega-3s were to our health and well-being, the food industry already had a significant stake in maintaining the status quo. That status quo continues today, as the food industry is clearly interested in extending product shelf-life and increasing their bottom lines.
Packaged food is just one family of foods where omega-3s have been disappearing in exchange for more omega-6s; meat, dairy and eggs have too seen their omega-3 content quickly decline. If we track back to Allport's comment that all omega 3s originate in green plants, the reason for such a change in animal products becomes clear; our North American culture has moved from raising animals on pasture and forage to a diet heavy on grain, so animals too have lost much of their omega-3 content.
One study in particular referred to by Allport compares the omega-3 content of an egg from a traditionally raised hen versus one derived from a factory-farmed grain-fed counterpart. The results were shocking. The traditional egg had an omega-3 content ten times higher!
So what is the health impact of too much 6 and not enough 3? "The number of diseases linked to this imbalance grows every day," answers Allport. "Omega-3s are found in greatest concentration in the brain, in the heart, and in sperm, and that's where deficiencies of these end up first."
While it appears as though this groundbreaking book is suggesting that the many diseases plaguing us could very likely be the product of this imbalance, some Canadian media continues to steer Canadians into more ecologically devastating responses. In October 2007, CBC's The National aired a segment on omega-3s that encouraged expecting mothers to eat more fish from our already-depleted oceans. It seems it would have been more responsible to have encouraged an increase in the consumption of greens and/or grass-fed meat and decrease the consumption of processed foods among other alternatives.
As for all of us, The Queen of Fats encourages taking a hard look at whether or not our entire food supply is in need of a major overhaul.
Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across Canada and is available as a Podcast. An interview with Susan Allport can be heard at (www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner/042408.htm).
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