The real problem is not too little omega-3, it's too much omega-6

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Related tags: Food industry, Nutrition, Omega-3 fatty acid, Essential fatty acid

The real problem is not too little omega-3, it's too much omega-6
Omega-3s have really fired up the imagination of the food industry over the past year, with new product introductions ranging from milk and yoghurts...

Omega-3s have really fired up the imagination of the food industry over the past year, with new product introductions ranging from milk and yoghurts to pomegranate drinks and, in Canada, wholegrain pasta and pizza.

But, when it comes to dietary fatty acids and health, omega-3s are only part of the story and the current actions of the food industry are short-term ones.

Human beings require two families of essential fatty acids: omega-6s and omega-3s. The former are pro-inflammatory whilst the latter are anti-inflammatory. Thus an increased intake of omega-3s can support heart health, for example, by damping down the inflammation of the arteries, which is one key predictor of heart attack and stroke.

Omega-3s have also been linked with improvement in other inflammatory conditions such as asthma, eczema, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.

But if inflammation is minimised in the first place there is less requirement for the body to counteract it. The importance to human health of the omega-6:omega-3 balance in this respect has been greatly underestimated.

Studies of hunter-gatherer populations suggest that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids was about 1:1.

However the food industry's increasing use of vegetable oils high in omega-6s, such as sunflower and corn oils, has been one primary contributor to a substantial change in this ratio.

It is now estimated to be closer to 10:1 or even 20:1 whilst experts recommend a suggested range of 4-5:1.

Recent focus has been on increasing dietary intake of omega-3s in order to obtain the health benefits that result from an improved fatty acid balance.

The UK government supposedly even considered, but then rejected, the supplementation of children's diets on a massive scale.

But there is a big problem with this approach: there is not enough fish to go round, certainly if current over-fishing practices are maintained and probably even if fish stocks are permitted to replenish themselves in a more sustainable manner.

The only sustainable manner to proceed is to drastically reduce dietary intake of omega-6s. And such a goal is only achievable with the co-operation of all key players in the food industry.

Stephanie French​ is a freelance nutrition strategy consultant at Harlequin Plus

Related topics: NPD

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