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How can I get enough omega-3 without depleting fish populations?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
Fish contains two omega-3 fats, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). There's good evidence that consuming these "marine" omega-3s lowers the risk of heart disease and perhaps some other conditions as well. But your worry about declining fish stocks is well-founded. Many are already in trouble, and if everyone were to eat the recommended amount of fish, which is about seven ounces per week, the harvestable fish supply couldn't meet the demand.

Fish farming, especially of salmon, has become more common, and it's one way to meet the growing demand for fish. But salmon farming depends on fish and other creatures further down the food chain for feed (salmon are carnivores). There's growing concern that those populations are being overfished to support fish farms, and imperiling ocean ecosystems in the process.

Some plants (soybeans, flax) contain an omega-3 fat called alpha linolenic acid. Consumption of alpha linolenic acid probably confers some health benefits, but most evidence suggests that it has a much smaller effect than the marine omega-3s.

So where can we get omega-3s? Some forms of algae produce DHA, and Martek, a Maryland company that grew out of the space program (there was interest in using algae as a nutritional source for long-term flight) supplies most of the DHA used in infant formula. Many people object to genetic modification of plants and animals, but it could be a way of generating omega-3 and relieving some of the pressure on fish stocks. Monsanto has created a genetically modified soybean that produces a precursor to EPA. DuPont and other companies are also developing genetically modified organisms (yeast) and plants that could serve as sources of omega-3s.

I don't think there is any one solution to the problem of meeting the world's need for marine omega-3s. It's going to take some combination of fishery management, close oversight of fish farming, and, in my opinion, careful and regulated use of genetically modified organisms.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.