Much has been said about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Not enough has been said about where to get them. This post fixes that.
Little by little industrial food production methods have stripped omega-3 fats from our foods. With their role in health becoming more evident people are demanding them and the food industry is scrambling to meet the demand.
In this post I’m going to focus one of their answers, omega-3 enriched eggs. We’ll see if they are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, and whether they can make a difference in your health.
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Omega-3:6 balance in health
Both omega-3 and 6 are essential fatty acids (EFA), meaning our bodies can’t make them from other fats. They are both essential for health, but the crux is that they need to be balanced in diet. They often have opposing physiological reactions in the body. Omega-6 is linked to increased inflammation and health problems whereas omega-3 is thought to have anti-inflammatory effect in the body.
The balance of these EFAs is important because they are, shall we say.. competitive. They depend on the same enzymes to work. So too much of one causes problems for the other one.
Though omega-6 EFAs increase inflammation and are linked to many health problems, we can’t say they are bad. They are equally essential for healthy skin and body as omega-3 fats are. Omega-6 fatty acids for example are used in skin barrier that protects the skin and prevents moisture from escaping. It’s the balance that matters.
The exact optimal balance of these fatty acids is not yet determined, but a paper titled “The Importance of the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio in Cardiovascular Disease and Other Chronic Diseases” reviewed published research on several health conditions. Here are some findings from the report:
- Scientists estimate that balance of omega-3:6 in the Paleolithic era was around 1:1 – compared to 1:10-20 in most Western countries today.
- Ratio of 1:4 was associated with significantly lower mortality from heart disease.
- 1:2.5 reduced cancer growth in colon cancer patients, whereas the ratio of 1:4 with the same amount of omega-3 had no effect.
- 1:2-3 suppressed inflammation in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
- 1:5 had no effect in asthma and 1:10 worsened asthma
It’s possible that the ‘ideal’ ratio varies between health conditions, and finding out the absolutely ideal ratio isn’t even that important. It’s more important to know that there’s no ample evidence to show that several health problems are improved when you reach levels of 1:1 to 1:4 (preferably to 1:2).
Omega-3 fatty acids in skin health
When it comes to studies evaluating omega-3 fatty acids on skin conditions, there’s not much to write home about. A handful of studies with mixed results. But there’s a lot of evidence to show it’s highly plausible they are helpful in many skin conditions. Mainly because they can suppress inflammation, both local inflammation in the skin and systemic inflammation throughout the body. Unfortunately we have to wait for research to catch up and give us a definitive answer. In the meantime, there’s good reason to self-experiment with omega-3 fats.
Just keep in mind that more doesn’t mean better. In one study they gave the participants 10 g of fish oil per day. This had a very small protective effect against UV, but what worried me was the fact that the skin showed higher levels of lipid peroxidation. In non-medical speak that means that the fats in the skin were destroyed. The reason being that omega-3 (and also 6) fatty acids are very fragile.
This is very bad because there’s good reason to believe that oxidative damage to sebum is the triggering factor in acne formation. No pimple forms without this initial inflammation.
Not all omega-3s are equal
Omega-3 is actually an umbrella term that contains several different fatty acids. The most common ones are alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). EPA and DHA are sometimes referred as long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, they consists of longer chains of fatty acids.
Research has shown that while all omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial, DHA and EPA are more potent than ALA. For example the long-chain omega-3s can be 3 times more potent than ALA in suppressing heart disease.
Plant sources contain only ALA. Except for carnivores, most animals can convert ALA into DHA and EPA and meet their requirements that way. In humans this conversion happens but not very reliably. So make sure you get both DHA and EPA from your diet.
Eggs as omega-3 source
It’s no secret that moving to industrial production methods has screwed up many of the foods we eat. Omega-3 levels especially have nosedived significantly in the last 50 years. This presents a problem for the food industry. As consumers become aware of the health benefits of omega-3s, they start demanding more of them. Enriching eggs is one of the ways they’ve responded to the demand.
Let’s see what these eggs are made or, and if they are a viable solution to this problem.
The October 2009 issue of Food Chemistry published a paper titled “Fatty acid composition of certified organic, conventional and omega-3 eggs”. Sounds like just what the doctor ordered. In the paper they bought a big bunch of different kinds of eggs from Sydney metropolitan area supermarkets.
They selected the as a normal consume would, by labels. Conventional eggs carried labels like free-range, cage free and barn-laid. Those are all basically for-marketing labels that don’t mean anything. Organic eggs carried the organic certificate seal. Organic certificate doesn’t mean the chickens were pasture-fed and roamed happily in green fields. It just means they were fed organic feed, didn’t get antibiotics and lived outside of cages (but still indoors in a giant hall).
Omega-3 eggs vs. regular eggs
They then analyzed the composition of fats in those eggs, and this analysis included omega-3 fatty acids. I pulled the relevant figures from the paper into this table. This table shows the amount of different fatty acids as percentage of total fat in the egg.
|Percentage of total fat||Regular||Organic||Omega-3 enriched|
|Omega 3:6 ratio||1:11||1:11||1:2|
As you can see, omega-3 enriched eggs have almost 5 times more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional or organic eggs do. Their omega-3:6 ratio is also much closer to ideal, whereas both regular and organic eggs have absolutely horrible ratios.
It’s not surprising to me that organic eggs don’t differ much from conventionally grown. Already in an earlier post I wrote how there’s not much health difference between organic and conventionally grown produce.
To make comparisons a bit easier I dived into other reports and pulled out absolute amounts of different fatty acids per egg. For the sake of comparison I pulled the same numbers for different fish oil supplements sold at Amazon.com.
|Total per egg||Regular eggs||Omega-3 eggs||Fish oil|
|ALA||12 mg||135 mg||N/A|
|EPA||12 mg||35 mg||200 – 500 mg|
|DHA||26 mg||228 mg||120 – 250 mg|
|Total omega-3||56 mg||434 mg||500 – 1000 mg|
The amounts of different omega-3 fats in eggs vary depending on the chicken feed. If the feed contains fish oil then you’ll usually see a bit higher EPA and DHA levels. In this comparison the chicken feed contained both fish oil and flax oil. But even if the feed doesn’t contain any fish oil the DHA levels in eggs remain at similar levels, because chickens convert ALA into DHA quite effectively.
Anyway, the take away from this table is that you’ll get the same amount of omega-3 from 2 – 3 enriched eggs that you’ll get from most fish oil capsules. One of the papers mentioned that 3 omega -3 eggs is equal to one meal with fatty fish.
What about low EPA levels?
The EPA levels remain quite low even in enriched eggs. I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Dietary intake of DHA is much more critical for humans. Humans, and especially women, can convert ALA to EPA. Studies show that EPA blood levels increase as dietary intake of ALA goes up.
Things that limit conversion of ALA to EPA:
- Being a man – get some fish oil to be safe.
- High omega-6 intake, excess omega 6 also inhibits absorption of EPA from fish oil. Here’s the competitiveness issue again. Excess omega 6 gobbles the enzymes needed to convert ALA into EPA and for them to function.
Fish oil substitute?
Can you use these eggs as your main source of omega-3 fatty acids, and maybe ditch the fish oil? I wouldn’t do that. While these eggs are quite high in omega-3 and have a healthy balance, they are also high in omega-6 fatty acids.
The issue is that the vast majority of foods are high in omega-6 and quite low in 3. To get to the ideal 1:2 (omega-3:6) balance you need foods that are high in 3 but low in 6. That’s where fish and fish oil come in. Flax seed is another good option.
I would see switching to omega-3 eggs as one of those easy wins in diet, but not treat them as your main source of omega-3s.
Health effects of eating omega-3 eggs
What about the practical effects of eating omega-3 eggs? Do these just look good on paper or can they make a meaningful difference in your health? Luckily some nice researchers did studies to figure it out.
First in line is this paper that looked at the effect of omega-3 eggs of heart disease, titled “Eggs enriched in w-3 fatty acids and alterations in lipid concentrations in plasma and lipoproteins and in blood pressure”.
In this study they asked the participants to eat either 4 omega-3 or regular eggs per day for 4 weeks, while otherwise maintaining normal diet. The eggs in this study were surprisingly high in DHA, but otherwise similar what we’ve talked above.
Here are some results, FIY the numbers refer to blood concentrations of different fatty acids:
- ALA went from 0.1% to 0.9% (900% increase)
- EPA from 0.4% to 3.5% (875% increase)
- DHA shot from 3.8% to 8.9% (234% increase)
- Total omega 3 from 4.3% to 13.3% (up by 309%)
- Total omega 6 from 29.4% to 26.1% (11% drop)
- Omega 3:6 balance from 1:7 to 1:2
This lead to measurable health benefits, such as drop in blood pressure and triglyceride levels (good for combating insulin resistance and hormonal acne).
Another study looked at the effect of eating one omega-3 egg per day for 24 weeks. During the study period omega 3:6 ratio went from 12:1 to 7:1, DHA blood levels increased by almost 200% and EPA blood levels by 50%. This study also showed improvements in triglyceride levels. Yet another study showed decrease in inflammation levels after 6 months of 2 to 3 eggs per day.
Enough said about this. Eating omega-3 eggs clearly improves health.
What about pasture-fed eggs
I haven’t seen scientific comparisons of true free-range eggs (pasture fed chicken) to omega-3 eggs. Basically the term free-range is meaningless as it’s used now. The only thing it requires is access to outdoors. In many cases this means there’s a little fenced outdoor at the side of the massive building the chicken are in. Most of the birds never see outdoors, let alone forage for their natural diet (as the term free-range implies).
Whereas true free-range, or pasture-fed, is just what the name implies. The chickens do happily roam the green fields plucking out worms, bugs, seeds and whatever they eat naturally. This diet of course affects the nutritional composition of their eggs.
Unfortunately I’m not aware of any credible comparisons. The Mother Earth News did test eggs from several pasture-fed farms. According to their results, these eggs have quite similar total omega-3 content than enriched eggs. The report (PDF) didn’t say anything about EPA or DHA content of true free-range eggs. It also showed significantly higher vitamin levels as compared to conventional eggs.
We started this post by asking whether enriched eggs are a good source of omega-3 fats. And I think we answered it pretty conclusively. Enriched eggs make for a surprising good source of hard-to-find omega-3 fatty acids.
When chicken feed contains flax sees or fish oil, omega-3 content in the eggs shoots up by several hundred percent. It gets much closer to the ideal 1:1/1:2 ratio, whereas the ratio in conventional eggs is heart attack inducing 1:11. In absolute numbers 2 – 3 eggs gives you the same amount of omega-3 fatty acids as most fish oil capsules do.
Studies have shown that these eggs not only look good on paper, but also provide real health benefits. Eating enriched eggs improves omega-3:6 ratio in the blood in a dose-dependent manner, i.e. the more you eat the better the ratio gets. These eggs are also heart-healthy, with studies showing improvements in blood pressure and triglyceride levels.
But don’t throw away your fish oil pills just yet. Eggs of all types and colors are quite high in omega-6. So you still need some foods that are exclusively high in omega-3 to balance your overall dietary intake.
- Fatty acid composition of certified organic, conventional and omega-3 eggs.
- Fatty acid composition of eggs produced by hens fed diets containing groundnut, soya bean or linseed.
- Eggs enriched in w-3 fatty acids and alterations in lipid concentrations in plasma and lipoproteins and in blood pressure. (PDF)
- Enriched Eggs as a Source of N-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids for Humans. (PDF)
- The Importance of the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio in Cardiovascular Disease and Other Chronic Diseases.
- Enrichment of hen eggs with n-3 long-chain fatty acids and evaluation of enriched eggs in humans. (PDF)
- Metabolism of α-linolenicacid in humans.
- Conversion of α -linolenic acid to longer-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in human adults.
- Efficiency of conversion of [alpha]-linolenic acid to long chain n-3 fatty acids in man.
- Impact of foods enriched with n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids on erythrocyte n-3 levels and cardiovascular risk factors.
- Healing fats of the skin: the structural and immunologic roles of the ω-6 and ω-3 fatty acids.
- Nutritional skin care: health effects of micronutrients and fatty acids.
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