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The VPR Table: Omega-3s

02/18/11 5:55PM
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courtesy smoochi via Flickr
Can you spot the Omega-3s?


Vegetarians & the seafood-phobic might be getting the Omega-3s they need without fish oil supplements.

On this week's VPR Table, food author Rowan Jacobsen gets right down to the science and ecology of how the Omega-3s find their way into our food.

Tune in Friday evening and Saturday morning for the skinny on Omega-3 fatty acids.

Learn more about Rowan Jacobsen

Recommended Reading: The Queen of Fats

and Seasons of Fats

Vermont has become a land of fish-oil eaters. Everyone I know seems to be popping fish-oil pills to get their allotment of omega-3 fatty acids, those miracle fats that have been shown to strengthen your heart, raise your IQ, stave off depression, and even make your kids more socialized. It's a smart move, but I have to say, there's something disconcerting about so many staunch locavores scrambling to source their veggies from neighbors while they eagerly gobble fish oil made from ground-up menhaden scooped out of the Gulf of Mexico. Truth is, there are excellent sources of omega-3s right here in the Green Mountain State.

"Green" is the operative word, because omega-3s are photosynthesis molecules. Plants manufacture them in their leaves because omega-3s are the most fluid, flexible fats in the world. They are nature's ultimate engine lubricant, and plants use them to keep their photosynthetic cellular machinery running smoothly. Animals can't manufacture omega-3s, but we long ago learned to get them from plants and use them to keep our own high-performance cells firing at high speed. Omega-3s make our neurons run faster and our heart cells run longer.

Human beings, with our high-performance, energy-intensive brains, require more omega-3s than any other species. And when leaves were the foundation of our food supply, we used to get them. Either we ate greens directly, or we ate animals that ate greens. Then we switched to grains for the bulk of our calories-wheat, corn, and rice-and grains don't contain omega-3s. Even so, we still ate lots of dairy products and meat from animals that grazed on greens and were thus high in omega-3s. And we ate wild fish, which are full of omega-3s thanks to phytoplankton, the single-celled plants that are the foundation of the marine food web.

Today most people don't eat much fish. And, since it's cheaper to cluster our meat animals and egg-layers in factory farms and feed them grain instead of grass, we get very few omega-3s in our diet, with catastrophic health results. Heart disease, diabetes, declining mental performance. Hence the fish-oil pills. But here in Vermont we're fortunate enough to have an abundance of meat, eggs, and dairy products from grass-fed animals that are rich in omega-3s. Sustained by that green diet, we can all be vitamin locavores, and leave the menhaden in the sea.

For more on omega-3s:  The best work on omega-3s is Susan Alport's book The Queen of Fats.   For an introduction to the subject, try Alport's articles Seasons of Fats.




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