How much omega-3 do you get from eating salmon?

by Jennifer Bowden / 05 September, 2017

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You can get healthy omega-3 oils from salmon or supplements, but fish has additional benefits.

QUESTIONMuch is said about the health benefits of omega-3. A readily available source is said to be New Zealand farmed salmon, but is it? I understand the omega-3 in salmon comes from its food. How much omega-3 oil are we getting from eating farmed salmon?

ANSWER: The flesh of salmon is noted for its long-chain omega-3 fats that can benefit our heart health. These fatty acids are essential to healthy growth and development in children and may play a role in improving mental health. But after a Consumer NZ investigation in 2013 found New Zealand King Salmon products had much lower omega-3 levels than their labels suggested, the question remains – are farmed salmon still a good source of long-chain omega-3 fats?

In 2008, Massey University conducted a clinical trial with 44 healthy participants to see what effect eating farmed New Zealand King Salmon had on omega-3 levels, compared with taking a fish oil supplement. Participants were randomly assigned to four groups: one ate two 120g salmon fillets each week; the others took two, four or six capsules of fish oil daily.

Analysis of the salmon and fish oil revealed that the salmon fillet group were consuming the equivalent of 820mg per day of long-chain omega-3 fats, such as EPA, DPA and DHA, and the groups taking fish oil capsules were consuming either 240mg, 470mg or 690mg of the fats each day.

Further analysis revealed that, if participants consumed 820mg of long-chain omega-3 fats in the form of fish oil, the levels of EPA and DHA in their red blood cells would probably be slightly higher than those of people eating salmon fillets containing the same amount of the fats. But given the wide variation and overlap between the predicted levels of the two groups, the researchers concluded that consumption of similar amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from either source was equally effective.

But the salmon fillets did outperform the supplements in one important regard: those taking fish oil supplements complained of bloating, nausea, burping, indigestion, heartburn and bad breath, but the fish eaters experienced no side effects.

What’s more, the salmon group had higher selenium levels by the end of the study. Fish are a useful dietary source of the mineral, which is lacking in New Zealand’s soil and therefore in most of our plant-derived foods.

However, given this study was conducted nine years ago, it’s possible the diet of farmed salmon and therefore their omega-3 levels may have changed. Interestingly, in 2013 Consumer magazine tested the omega-3 levels in five New Zealand smoked salmon products (Aoraki, Countdown’s Signature Range, Regal, Southern Ocean and Prime Smoke).

Of those, only the Prime Smoke salmon product met the omega-3 levels stated on its label. Some variation is understandable in natural whole foods, but the significant difference between the stated and actual levels of the other four products was considered unacceptable.

One such product was Regal’s Smoked Salmon Cold Smoked Slices (100g), which were labelled as containing 3g of omega-3, but independent analysis found they contained only 1.8g. The Regal Salmon website now says Smoked Regal Salmon contains 1.62g of omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) and its fresh salmon 1.38g per 100g. Meanwhile, analysis last year by Plant & Food Research of New Zealand food products found 1.63g of omega-3 fats (EPA, DHA, DPA) per 100g in a combined sample of various farmed King Salmon samples baked without fat or salt.

So yes, farmed salmon is still a rich source of long-chain omega-3 fats. And the best part about real foods such as fresh fish, as opposed to fish oil supplements, is they offer an array of other valuable nutrients: essential fats, vitamins and minerals, including selenium. But for those who can’t or don’t want to eat fish, a high-quality fish oil supplement is still a good idea.

This article was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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