The ABCs of omega-3s

Why this fatty acid is so essential

Can you believe that fat is where it’s at these days? That’s especially true of omega-3s. Fish is loaded with the stuff, but many kids (and a few grown-ups) balk at the sight of Nemo on the dinner plate. Thus, a profusion of omega-3 products now assails us in the supermarket. So junior can fill up on eggs, yogurt, bread, pasta, even orange juice chock full of omega-3s. But should he? The short answer is yes — kids need omega-3s. It’s known as an essential fatty acid because the body can’t manufacture it and it must be supplied by the foods we eat. Essential fatty acids are veritable workhorses: They build cells and hormone-like substances that regulate blood pressure, blood cholesterol and immune function. Proper health depends on them.

But over the past decade, omega-3s have been singled out as having particularly fine attributes. For one, these fats are good for a child’s heart. While high cholesterol and risk of stroke are not exactly childhood concerns, eating good-for-your-heart fats makes nutritional sense. Second, they support the normal development of the brain, eyes and nerves. And the benefits start early. According to Montreal dietitian Louise Lambert-Lagacé, it’s particularly important that pregnant and nursing mothers get enough omega-3s, since studies show a strong connection between maternal omega-3 intake and a baby’s brain development and visual acuity.

To understand omega-3s, you have to get a little scientific. There are three main types found in foods: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found only in plant sources. DHA and EPA are almost exclusively in fish and shellfish.

Stephen Cunnane, a professor of medicine and physiology at Sherbrooke University in Quebec and an expert on omega-3s, says “gram for gram, there is no other major organ in the body that contains more DHA than the brain.” He adds that government agencies and paediatric associations around the world recommend adding DHA to infant formula and diet because of the crucial role it plays in infant brain development.

Consider this: At birth, an infant’s brain is only 70 percent of its adult weight. In the first two years of life, the brain grows another 15 percent. Ditto in the next two years. All the more reason to make sure a child’s diet has enough omega-3s.

The retina also contains a lot of DHA. In young infants, DHA affects visual acuity — the eye’s ability to distinguish fine detail. Studies show that infants who did not get enough DHA while in the uterus have poor scores in visual acuity and less DHA in the retina.

So how do kids get this DHA? It’s found in fish, seafood and fish oil, but our bodies can actually make it too. Thanks to a complicated process, the omega-3s we digest in plant form (that’s ALA) are actually converted into DHA. But we don’t convert it very well. Experts disagree on the amount, but stats range from as low as 0.5 percent up to only seven percent of total ALA can be converted into DHA. So if we can’t convert it, we must eat it in order to get it.

Enter fish. Not every family likes to eat it. Besides, there are concerns about mercury, PCBs and other toxic contaminants in our watery friends, prompting a new development in food fortification. It’s now possible to get your little diner to nosh on DHA via eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt and even orange juice. Thanks to that aforementioned conversion process, hens who peck on ALA-rich flaxseed create eggs rich in DHA. Cows who graze on fish meal in their feed produce DHA-rich milk. Scientists have also discovered how to micro-encapsulate fish and flaxseed oil so that we don’t notice any aftertaste after slugging back fortified orange juice.

But while you’re making an effort to get more DHA into junior, it’s still important to include plant sources of omega-3s in a child’s diet too. “It’s not one or the other,” says Cunnane. “It is one and the other!”

Here’s how to load up on plant-based sources of omega-3s:

• Flax is tops. The flaxseeds you eat must be ground for your body to absorb the omega-3s. You can grind the seeds yourself in a coffee grinder for maximum freshness. Ground flax can be stored in the fridge for four to six months. The nutty taste of flax makes it an easy addition to morning cereal — and it offers extra fibre. Substitute up to ½ cup (125 mL) of ground flax for flour in cookies, breads and muffins. Mix together a paste of honey and ground flax, and spread on toast.

• Walnuts are a good source. The fresher the walnut, the more likely a kid will like it. Choose California walnuts and store shelled walnuts in the fridge or freezer.

• Soy beverages, tofu and other soy products are rich in omega-3s.

• Use canola oil in your cooking and boost your family’s omega-3 intake.

• Don’t forget to eat those vegetables. All leafy greens have ALA, but in small amounts.

Omega-3s have given fat a whole new image. As Lambert-Lagacé says, “Among the good fats, these are the very best ones on the map.” But a word of caution — you can get too much of a good thing. Choose omega-3s more often, instead of the bad guys (a.k.a. trans and saturated fats). Then, despite all that oil, you won’t slip up.

Wondering how much of this healthy stuff your child needs?
1-3 years old: 0.7 grams/day
4-8 years old: 0.9 grams/day
9-13 years old (males): 1.2 grams/day
9-13 years old (females): 1.0 grams/day What does it look like and where do I get it? Plant-based sources (ALA)
1 tbsp (15 mL) flax oil: 8.0 g
1 tbsp (15 mL) ground flaxseed: 1.8 g
½ oz (14 g) walnuts: 1.3 g
4 oz (114 g) tofu: 0.3 g

Fish, per 100 grams (DHA & EPA)
Farmed Atlantic salmon: 1.84 g
Wild Chinook salmon: 1.73 g
Canned light tuna: 0.128 g

Other sources
1 omega-3 egg: 0.4 g
1 cup (250 mL) Neilson Dairy Oh milk 2%: 0.1 g
1 cup (250 mL) President’s Choice Blue Menu Oh Mega J orange juice: 0.1 g
1 slice Country Harvest Flax bread: 1.0 g
100 g Danino Banana Yogourt: 0.1 g

Tuck a little salmon in your child’s pasta, add a little black bean sauce and, before you know it, the whole family is knocking back a healthy portion of omega-3s.

2 tbsp (30 mL) canola oil
1 large red pepper, thinly sliced
300 g pkg. whole-grain pasta (such as Catelli Flax Omega-3 Spaghettini)
1 tbsp (15 mL) grated fresh ginger
1 lb (500 g) salmon fillet, skin removed, sliced into bite-sized pieces
2 tbsp (30 mL) sherry, Dubonnet or white wine
4 tsp (20 mL) black bean and garlic sauce
¾ cup (175 mL) chicken stock or pasta-cooking water*
1 tsp (5 mL) sesame oil
4 green onions, chopped (green and white parts)
¼ cup (50 mL) chopped fresh coriander

Heat a large frying pan at medium-high. Add canola oil and sliced red peppers. Stir-fry for 5 minutes or until tender.

Meanwhile, in a large pot of salted, boiling water, add pasta and cook according to package directions.

Add ginger to frying pan and stir to mix, then add salmon and stir-fry 2 minutes. Add sherry, black bean sauce, stock or pasta-cooking water, sesame oil and green onions. Bring to a boil, stir to mix and combine with cooked pasta. Garnish with coriander.

Makes 4 servings.

*Go ahead and dip a glass measuring cup into the pot of cooking pasta. This starchy, hot brew is the perfect liquid addition to most sauces.

Recipe tested by Jenny Koniuk.

In a Serving
calories 550
protein 30.7 g
carbohydrates 60 g
fibre 6.6 g
vitamin C 122%
folate 70%
omega-3 3.3 g
omega-6 4.1 g

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