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By "Today" Food Editor
updated 9/15/2004 9:05:00 AM ET 2004-09-15T13:05:00

Get ready for an Omega-3 explosion!

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When the Food and Drug Administration FDA announced last week that is was allowing a “qualified health claim” for Omega-3 fatty acids found in some foods, it was the starting gun for a race by food producers to load our supermarkets with products touting the benefits of consuming Omega-3s, which are believed to reduce the risk of heart disease and other ailments.

From where I stand in the aisles, this health claim will be as important and have as much impact on food trends as any we will see in 2005, including the new Recommended Daily Allowances.

The on-package claim will follow this wording set by the FDA: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. One serving of [name of food] provides [x] grams of EPA and DHA Omega-3 fatty acids. [See nutrition information for total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol content.]”

This health claim is specifically related to cardiovascular health and foods that contain eiscosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) Omega-3 fatty acids. And although Omega-3s have been touted as offering other benefits — such as youthful-looking, more resilient skin — the FDA claim is limited to the benefits in fighting heart disease.

The FDA ruling came hard on the heels of recommendations by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a section of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The most significant of these recommendations, which were made to the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, was that fish should be consumed at least twice a week in order to get enough Omega-3 fatty acids. (The announcement should be considered in conjunction with a report on high levels of toxins in some fish. [ See my story on this subject .])

However, it is not only fish that contains high levels of Omega-3s. Here is a list of foods that are rich in Omega-3s and that are likely to add the claim to their packaging and labels:

Higher-fat, cold-water fish
Mackerel
Tuna
Salmon
Sardines
Trout (lake)
Herring
Halibut

Oils
Soybean oil
Walnut oil
Flaxseed oil
Canola oil
Hemp oil

Dark-green vegetables
Kale
Collard greens
Chard
Parsley
Wheat and barley grass

Plants grown in cold climates
Hard red winter wheat
Cold-climate nuts (walnuts in particular)
Flaxseeds
Grains
Legumes
Pumpkin Seeds

Soy and tofu

Venison and buffalo

Eggs (some brands of eggs have been enhanced with Omega-3s)

Why will Omega-3s have such an impact?
Think Bill Clinton’s bypass. The sagging skin of baby boomers. And the ever-increasing blood pressure of Americans. Omega-3s may well be THE food and health story of 2005!

What exactly are Omega-3s?
Omega-3s are like, well, antifreeze for our bodies. They keep our blood relatively thin and circulating well, especially in cold weather.

Dr. Lester M. Crawford, the acting commissioner of the FDA, points out that there are approximately 500,000 deaths a year related to coronary disease. The FDA feels that the new claim for Omega-3 fatty acids will empower consumers by giving them knowledge to identify foods that contain these important compounds. The FDA states that Omega-3 fatty acids are not essential, but are beneficial in reducing coronary heart disease.

A “qualified health claim” on a conventional food must be supported by credible scientific evidence. As a result, there will be new research and discoveries all the time. That means it’s a good bet for healthy Americans to take heed of the FDA’s announcements and add these foods and nutrients to their regular diets.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. You can also visit his Web site at www.supermarketguru.com.

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