You’ve heard the drill—and so have your customers: Omega-3 fatty acids are good for us, and fish are loaded with them. Hundreds of research papers back up such assertions, and according to a 2009 Harvard University study, 84,000 people die annually as a result of inadequate intake.
“Omega-3s are hugely important in the diet,” says Robert Rountree, MD, coauthor of Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child (Avery, 1994). “They are anti-inflammatory. They help keep the heart rhythm normal. And they are critical for brain development, brain function and mood.”
With two-thirds of the world’s fish population depleted, according to the 2009 “State of Seafood” report by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and seafood consumption expected to grow 10 percent annually, should we really rely on our scaly friends for our daily omega-3 intake? Not to mention that many fish and shellfish have at least minute traces of mercury (which has been linked to reproductive and cognitive problems) and may contain contaminants such as PCBs and dioxins.
Retailers can shine by suggesting other foods that offer these critical nutrients.
“I don’t know why more retailers haven’t grabbed at this opportunity,” says Seth Braun, a health coach with the Manhattan-based Institute for Integrative Nutrition. He believes retailers can use signage and creative demonstrations to guide shoppers beyond the fish aisle to the wealth of other omega-3 sources. “If I were a natural grocer, I would host an ‘Omega-3 Awareness Month’ and inundate the store with signs saying: Did you know omega-3 is available in this?”
Keep in mind nutrition experts stress that all omega-3s are not created equal. Most health benefits have been attributed to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), long-chain fatty acids found primarily in fish, algae and grass-fed meat, dairy and egg products. Adults are advised to get a 180-to-120 mg ratio of EPA to DHA daily (twice that if they have been diagnosed with heart disease). Meanwhile, short-chain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found mainly in plants, seeds and oils. Only a fraction of it (as little as 1 percent) converts to DHA/EPA, so consumers are advised to eat 2,200 mg daily.
Here’s a look at some optimal sources.
Pasture-fed meat and dairy.
Most domestic cattle are fed grains high in omega-6 fatty acids (which we tend to get too much of, and can impair our ability to synthesize DHA/EPA). On the flip side, animals like free-range chicken, game animals or pasture-fed cattle and bison that graze on ALA-rich plants convert some of that ALA to DHA/EPA and store it in their meat. “The longer an animal has been out grazing, the more of all these omega-3s they will have,” says Evelyn Tribole, RD, author of The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet (McGraw Hill, 2007). One study showed pasture-fed bulls had three times as much DHA and seven times as much EPA as their feedlot counterparts. In Australia, where livestock is typically pasture fed, consumers get 43 percent of their long-chain omega-3s from meat, poultry and game. Grass-fed cattle have been found to have five times the amount of omega-3s than feedlot cattle, and a more favorable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in the meat. Dairy products from pasture-fed animals are also believed to be richer in omega-3s.
Retailer tip: Highlight grass-fed meat, milk, cheese and butter with “Did you know?” signs equating pasture feeding with higher EPA/DHA content.
Algae and seaweed.
Fish gain their omega-3s by dining on seaweed and algae that are rich in these essential fatty acids. Why not bypass the fish and its potential contaminants and go straight to the source, asks Susan Levin, RD, with the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Retailer tip: Showcase chlorella-boosted “green drinks” (3 grams of chlorella algae powder offers roughly 150 mg of DHA). To get consumers past their unfamiliarity with seaweed, offer a demonstration on how to hydrate dried hijiki (soak the leaves in a bowl of water for a few minutes). Then season the leaves with soy sauce and sesame seeds and offer samples. Dulse is another good seaweed for sampling, Levin says. “It’s so chewy and salty it can give you a chip fix, and it requires no prep. Just rip open the bag.”
Colorful fruits and dark green, leafy vegetables.
The amount of ALA in fruits and vegetables is comparatively small, so consumers have to eat a large amount to meet daily requirements. But they are a good complement to more robust omega-3 sources. For instance, a salad with 3 cups of romaine lettuce provides 10 percent of a person’s daily ALA needs.
Retailer tip: Offer an omega-3 salad in the deli. Combine dark leafy greens with raspberries (1 cup boasts 150 mg of ALA) and dried seaweed. Drizzle the salad with a dressing made from flaxseed oil.
While some oils, such as flaxseed and hemp, offer ample amounts of omega-3s (1,730 mg in 1 tablespoon of flaxseed oil), many others, such as olive, corn and soybean oil, are also heavy on potentially unhealthy omega-6 fatty acids. Another problem with getting omega-3s from oil: Omega-3s tend to go rancid when exposed to light and heat, so retailers need do due diligence in choosing “quality sources that assure the product is light-, heat- and temperature-controlled,” says Braun.
Retailer tip: Offer suggestions on how to use omega 3–rich oils instead of omega 6–rich options, like flaxseed oil instead of butter to top a potato.
Flaxseed is one of the best sources of ALA—
1 tablespoon of raw, freshly ground flaxseed contains 2.4 grams, more than twice the daily recommendation. The trouble is that “the average Joe sees it in the store and has no idea what to do with it,” says Maya Nahra, RD, health and wellness educator for Phoenix-based Sunflower Farmers Market. Flaxseeds can be ground and sprinkled in smoothies, on fruit or atop oatmeal, or mixed with sea salt for a nutty salad topping.
Retailer tip: Offer an in-store demonstration on how consumers can grind their own flaxseed in a coffee grinder, and provide samples of flaxseed smoothies. Note: Flaxseed is not good for cooking or baking, says Braun, and pre-ground seeds should be stored in the fridge since heat destroys their omega-3s.
Other nuts and seeds.
In addition to being loaded with ALA, hemp seeds also contain a little-known omega-3 fat called stearadonic acid, which helps fats become DHA/EPA, says Tribole. It is showing up in everything from hemp nut butter to hemp flour and hemp cereal. Chia seeds are also high in ALA, with 2 tablespoons providing twice the daily recommendation for adults.
Retailer tip: Offer an omega-3 snack sampler, with hemp butter on flaxseed crackers, chia seeds and walnuts