Something fishy

Pumped into foods from yogurt to pizza, omega-3 fatty acids, made from fish, are being hyped as an elixir for heart disease and depression.

Published October 17, 2006 11:15AM (EDT)

I can't say I've ever eaten yogurt fortified with microencapsulated fish fat before, but hell, there's a first time for everything. I'm in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and Ian Lucas, executive vice president of global marketing at a marine research company called Ocean Nutrition, has just handed me a spoon. The yogurt sitting between us is flecked with peach, but it also contains a surprise: powdered oil from smushed anchovies, encapsulated in pork gelatin. You might say it's surf and turf in a cup. It's also just one of a slew of newly developed food products that have been fortified with omega-3 fatty acids.

With the yogurt still in front of me, Lucas pours a large, cold glass of fish-oil fortified milk as I rip open a bag of omega-3 tortilla wraps -- all products that contain what's referred to in industry circles as designer lipids. Food technologists working the world over have been busy figuring out how to shrink fish oil capsules to microscopic size and bake them into bagels. Entire companies have devoted themselves to breeding algae laden with omega-3, which can be dried into flakes and used as animal feed, or sprayed as powder and used in food products. There are already omega-3-fortified eggs and infant formulas on the market (not to mention margarine, gummy candies, orange juice, fruit chews, nutrition bars, chocolate, bread, pizza crust and, yes, yogurt) -- and eventually there will be omega-3-fortified cake. There will be cookies. There will be omega-3 ice creams and cheeses. Research has even begun on omega-3 pâté.

Scientists started investigating the nutritional benefits of omega-3 fatty acids from fish flesh in the early 1970s, when H.O. Bang and J. Dyerberg trekked to Greenland to study the link between the Inuits' high consumption of fish and low rates of coronary heart disease. Since then, several trials have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids may, among other things, reduce the risks of cardiovascular disease, cardiac arrhythmias, Alzheimer's and schizophrenia; alleviate symptoms of depression and rheumatoid arthritis; improve neonatal brain and eye development and prevent premature births -- even reduce people's homicidal tendencies and make puppies easier to train. Though their precise effects on the body are still controversial, several supposed benefits have enough research behind them (preventing cardiovascular disease and depression, for example, or improving neonatal health) that omega-3s are emerging as a potential wonder fat -- especially for food companies, who are rushing to pack omega-3s into as many edibles as possible.

Companies may be dreaming big, but not every fish oil scheme has been a success. In fact, Ocean Nutrition -- which supplies about 50 percent of the fish oil for America's flourishing supplement market -- has leapt ahead of its competition by patenting a method of microencapsulating fish oil, then spray-drying it into a powder that can be added to food. If that doesn't sound appetizing, consider the alternative: When omega-3 fatty acids are exposed to air, they oxidize, which can make whatever they have been added to smell and taste like rotting fish. No one wants this to happen, least of all Lucas. It took Ocean Nutrition more than seven years and $50 million to figure out how to manufacture its powdered oil, a process that is patented and closely guarded. Now, the 47-year-old Ontario native dreams of turning the supplement -- called "Meg-3" and represented by a smiling fish mascot -- into a branded ingredient that will one day be as familiar as NutraSweet.

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The disappearance of omega-3s from the American diet, their discovery as critical nutrients, and, now, their surge back into the food supply is a prototypical example of the modern food industry in action: Identify a nutrient that food processing has removed from our diet, build hype around it, and make consumers pay to get it back. The irony is, we didn't always need supplements or fortified food to get our omega-3s. Some omega-3s -- several of which are considered to be "essential" fatty acids (EFAs) since the human body needs them but cannot produce them -- naturally occur in canola, soybean and flaxseed oils, green plants like algae, the eggs of grass-fed chickens, and the flesh of fatty fish. Back when Americans' diets were closer to hunter-gatherers' -- relying mainly on lean meat, fish, green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, berries and honey -- we got enough omega-3s from our food alone. But when the Agricultural Revolution introduced cultivated crops, and we began eating farm-raised, corn-fed animals and products made from vegetable oils like corn, soybean, safflower, cottonseed and sunflower, the amount of naturally occurring omega-3s in our diets dropped drastically. At the same time, we dramatically increased our consumption of another, less desirable, fatty acid: omega-6.

Thanks to the promotion of oils like corn and soybean as "heart healthy" in the mid-20th century (not to mention subsidies for them), Americans' consumption of vegetable oils has increased enormously over the past 100 years. Lard and butter have been demonized; margarine and Pam have basked under greasy halos. In one telling example, in 1990 McDonald's boasted of its switch from cooking its fries in beef tallow to using vegetable oil and in 2002 announced plans to prepare all American French fries in a blend of corn and soybean oil, thus upping the omega-6 content of each of its billions served.

Whereas the ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids should hover around the Paleolithic range of about 4:1 to 1:1, nutritionists estimate that the average American's diet ratio now falls closer to 20:1. And according to these experts, the effects of this imbalance on the body are potentially disastrous: One recent study suggested that omega-6 quickened the growth of cancerous human prostate tumors, and omega-3 specialists like Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, and the coauthor of "The Omega Diet," speculate that the imbalance might even play a role in our increasing rates of heart disease, insulin resistance, allergies, autoimmune diseases, depression and suicide.

Back at Ocean Nutrition, though, things look a little less dire. I've just returned from the company's purification plant in Mulgrave, Nova Scotia, where I donned lab coat, hairnet, glasses, hardhat and galoshes and took a tour through the facility. To give a sense of the scale of their operation, Lucas showed me a three-story tank of oil left over from the purification process. Slightly yellow, the oil in the tank was so clear that I could see all the way to the bottom. While remarkably unsmelly, what odor it did have resembled a mixture of fish skin and varnish.

Upon my return to Ocean Nutrition's Halifax headquarters, I meet Jaroslav Kralovec, the company's director of chemistry. Kralovec helped develop the technology behind Meg-3, and like everyone else I spoke to about the techniques behind fish oil microencapsulation, he's tight-lipped about specifics. Basically, it involves creating a white, milkshake-like mixture of fish oil, pork gelatin (for kosher products they use fish) and a salmagundi of unidentified additives, which is then spray-dried to create tiny gelatin balls with even tinier balls of fish oil inside. Viewed under a microscope, each capsule looks like the frothy interior of a malted milk candy.

Ideally, Kralovec tells me, one wants to make capsules that are perfectly round, since spheres have the most "structural integrity." That integrity's important because if those capsules break, as can happen when you bake or process products that have a single shell around their fish oil rather than Ocean Nutrition's double shell, the leaking oil can make the food taste like fish. "You have to treat oil gently," Kralovec explains, smiling. "If you don't, it will punish you." Indeed, once oxidized, omega-3s can be smelled at several parts per billion.

To understand why any sane person would subject himself to punishment by fish oil requires knowing a bit about what fats can do in the body. First of all, both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are polyunsaturated -- which in simplified science lingo means that their chains of carbon atoms have more than one double bond in them. That structural difference between the two is also the reason for their names: omega-3s' first double bond occurs three steps up from the bottom of their chain, while omega-6s' first double bond is, you guessed it, six steps up.

No one -- not even Kralovec -- understands exactly why the placement of the first double bond has such a profound effect on the way fatty acids work in the body. What we do know is that omega-3s and omega-6s make cellular membranes more liquid -- which helps the membranes do their jobs better. They also produce hormone-like substances called eicosanoids that affect everything from blood pressure to immune system performance, the perception of pain and the susceptibility to allergies and inflammation -- and even play a role in determining whether certain genes are expressed. Though both families of eicosanoids are vital, those from omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting, while those from omega-6s promote inflammation, blood clotting, and the proliferation of cells. When the two families of fatty acids exist in roughly equal ratios in the body, they work as a well-balanced team. But when this balance tips out of whack, bad things can happen.

Also, unlike cholesterol and protein, the type of fat we eat directly affects what type we've got in our cellular membranes -- for example, if we eat a lot of omega-3s, our membranes will have a lot of omega-3s. And that relationship transfers up the food chain. If an animal eats omega-3s (or 6s) and you eat the animal, your cellular membranes will be affected by what the animal ate. In that regard, at least, we really are what we eat.

So it's too bad that we've changed our animals' feeds so much over the past century. Eggs from free-range chickens raised on a diet of wild greens, insects and worms can have several times the omega-3 fatty acids as eggs from grain-fed birds. Grass-fed beef can have two to four times more omega-3s than those raised on grain. Even farm-raised salmon have significantly fewer omega-3s than their wild counterparts. The fact that we now primarily feed our livestock corn (high in omega-6s) instead of grass (higher, relatively, in omega-3s) means that we have changed the fat content of our meat and eggs and milk -- and thus, inadvertently, the composition of nearly every cell in our bodies.

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The more I've learned about omega-3s, the more I've wanted to eat salmon for every meal. I've also started taking supplements: large, amber-colored capsules with a lemon-flavored gelatin coating that makes them go down easy. But if you bite into them -- which, for the sake of journalism, I made myself do -- they explode in an oily burst on your tongue, leaving a slick coating that tastes like day-old salmon. I don't recommend it.

One of the main challenges to supplement makers is that their pills can cause fishy after-burps, a side effect known in the business as "burp-back." When this happened to me, I called the company.

"What do you mean they make you burp?" asked the representative.

"I mean that after I take them, I burp."

"You might not make enough lipase," she said, referring to the enzyme in the stomach that helps break down fats. "Are you eating them with meals?"

I told her I was.

"I don't know why that's happening, then," she said. "Our supplements don't make people burp."

She was right to be concerned. If preventing mackerel burps were important to me, I could easily switch brands. My local grocery store's supplement aisle is cluttered with fish oil, flaxseed oil and algae oil -- not to mention strawberry- and lemon-flavored fish oil -- as well as fish oil capsules with enteric coatings to prevent burp-back. Many come in liquid or gelcap form, most are molecularly distilled, and some even include omega-6s. As Corinna Benoit, the national sales manager for a high-end fish oil company called Nordic Naturals, put it, "It's not your grandmother's cod liver oil."

And here's something your grandmother almost certainly didn't know: There are three main kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, and their effects are not the same. An omega-3 is not an omega-3 is not an omega-3.

ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid, which is most often found in leafy green plants and nuts (the best-known source is flaxseed), is the only omega-3 fatty acid considered to be "essential," since the human body can't produce it. While still under study, its benefits seem mainly cosmetic and are associated with skin and hair.

When it comes to potential medical benefits, the two omega-3s currently garnering the most attention are EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids). Roughly speaking, EPA is credited with cardiovascular and mental health benefits, while DHA is particularly prevalent in brain and eye tissue and important in prenatal and neonatal development. The body can make EPA and DHA from ALA, but since we're extremely inefficient at this conversion, it's best to eat them directly. Unfortunately, not many Americans do.

And that fact has everything to do with matters of taste: EPA and DHA are most prevalent in the flesh of fatty fish (think anchovies, sardines, mackerel and salmon), which many Americans either don't like, can't afford, or avoid because of possible environmental contamination. Until the supplement market -- and now, fortified food business -- started booming, it was difficult to bypass the mackerel and go directly to the source, since these fatty fish get the EPA and DHA from the bottom of their own food chain: algae.

Why do one-celled creatures, living deep beneath the ocean, have fat in them at all, let alone polyunsaturated fatty acids like EPA and DHA? To find out, I visited the Baltimore headquarters of Martek Bioscience, a company founded by scientists originally hired by the space defense contractor Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) to investigate algae oil as a possible sustainable energy source and to learn how to grow it in space. Today, Martek specializes in breeding DHA-producing algae to make oil that's added to products like infant formula and nutrition bars.

At Martek's headquarters, I met a fast-talking research scientist and molecular biologist named Casey Lippmeier, whose passion for phytoplankton made me feel less embarrassed about having questions scribbled in my notebook like, "Important: Why can't plants get fat?" We walked through Martek's sea green wainscotted hallways to Lippmeier's laboratory, which smelled like fried chicken. ("That's because we're baking some oil to test for stability," he said. "Sometimes it smells like varnish and paint.")

Lippmeier explained that algae use oil to store their energy, and omega-3s' main benefit for algae and fish (which get unsaturated fatty acids from algae or from smaller, algae-eating animals) has to do with saturation. Saturated fats solidify at a higher temperature than unsaturated fat -- that's why butter is solid at room temperature, while vegetable oil is not. This means that if algae or fish were to have high levels of saturated fat in their cell membranes, the waters they live in -- even if only slightly chilled compared to the fat's melting point -- could cause their membranes to congeal, just as the melted butter in which you gleefully dip your lobster morphs into a depressing gel by dessert. By preventing their membranes from freezing, omega-3s help algae and fish survive. And while being warm-blooded (not to mention multicellular) means that humans don't have to worry about spontaneously congealing, we can benefit from membrane liquidity just the same.

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Of course, my investigation into algae fat -- while personally fascinating -- didn't answer the question of what we're supposed to do about getting our omegas. It turns out that the answer depends on what you think our problem is -- and what your philosophy is toward food.

The simple solution would be to eat more omega-3s and fewer omega-6s. But food and drug companies are banking on the idea that though Americans can be convinced that they suffer from a national deficiency in omega-3s, they still won't eat fish. Instead, consumers like the convenience of pills -- and experts agree that supplements are an effective and safe way to get an omega-3 fix (just look for molecularily distilled oil that contains EPA and DHA instead of just ALA, and avoid supplements with omega-6s). Consequently, launches of omega-3-enhanced products jumped from 20 in 2002 to 72 in 2005, according to the Mintel Group's Global New Products Database. And we should expect to see many more: Although they haven't announced new products yet, both General Mills and Kellogg's recently signed deals with Martek.

Companies are also counting on a plenitude of fish oil even as the populations of some predator fish like tuna are threatened. Smaller fish, like anchovies and mackerel, are already being harvested in huge quantities as a protein source for animal and fish feed -- but since their oil is so damned smelly, it's considered a "waste" product (albeit one that supplement companies recycle into pills that sell for $25 a bottle). In fact, there's so much excess fish oil that Lucas, Ocean Nutrition's marketing vice president, estimates that his company and all of its competitors use only 2 percent of all the available oil -- and not even all that oil goes into supplements. Today, the oil left over from Ocean Nutrition's purification processes is recycled to heat the company's plant, and the surplus is sold to two nearby cities, where it's mixed with diesel and used to run municipal buses.

But the main reason companies are attracted to fish-fortified products is, of course, that there are huge profits to be made. Sales of "functional foods," whose benefits reach beyond basic nutrition and of which designer lipids are a subset, were predicted to reach $25.7 billion this year, and $34.2 billion by 2010, according to Omega Protein. Those potential profits are why Monsanto, a major producer of genetically engineered seeds, is working on a way to genetically modify soybeans so that they will produce a type of fatty acid that can be converted to EPA four times as efficiently as ALA. Researchers recently cloned genetically modified piglets capable of creating their own omega-3 fatty acids -- in a move, presumably, toward omega-3 bacon. If this research is taken several steps further, we may soon be able to create premium-priced livestock that produces more healthful milk, eggs and meat and, in the process, rebalance our ratios of omega-6s to omega-3s without having to alter what we -- or our livestock -- eat.

And that's the tricky thing. By adding omega-3s back in to, say, our cookies, we are not so much addressing our nutritional problems as we are side-stepping them, fortifying food so that we can have our prepackaged cake and eat it, too. Shouldn't we be trying to rebalance our diets from the bottom up, instead of stuffing modified foods down?

Few omega-3 proponents are so puritanical. Simopoulos, the scientist and coauthor of "The Omega Diet," says it would be impossible to solve Americans' omega-3 deficiency without fortified foods. "You're not going to alter the way animals are fed because when you have millions of cows, where are you going to find all the grass for them to feed on?" she explains. "We should be able to use food technology to return fatty acids to the food supply in amounts appropriate and similar to those that are present under complete natural conditions."

Robert Orr, president and CEO of Ocean Nutrition, sides with Simopoulos, too (and for the record, his omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is 1.4:1). To him, omega-3 cookies are not an ethical dilemma. "I guess my view is that if the kid's going to eat the cookie anyway, can we make the cookie healthier?" he says. "If they have all those omega-6s, can we get some balance into their diet? If that's how it has to get there, then that's how it's going to get there." Considering Americans' taste for Oreos, maybe he has a point.

And yet. As nutritional science gets more and more convoluted, with health claims pasted on everything from string cheese to Coco Puffs, there's something radically -- and appealingly -- simple about the idea that to decide what's best to eat, we really need only go back to our past.

"Cut way down on omega-6s. Eliminate the seed oil products, get rid of trans fatty acids, eat a lot of fatty fish and dark green leafy vegetables, unrefined, unfiltered olive oil, and if nothing else, take some fish oil capsules and eat grass-fed products," says Jo Robinson, the coauthor of "The Omega Diet" and the founder of, a Web site that promotes grass-fed meat. "Basically, we're not smart enough to know what we're supposed to eat -- so we need to figure out what we used to eat."

And if all else fails, there's always fish oil yogurt -- which, as I discovered, doesn't taste half bad.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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