Get Those Omega-3s Without Paying Mega Prices

Photo: Naomi Ibuki

You have probably noticed omega-3-enhanced foods popping up everywhere lately, from eggs to milk to baby food. Omega-3 fatty acids, found naturally in salmon and other foods, are good for your brain, your eyesight and your heart.

 Because they're important to neural development, getting enough is especially a concern for pregnant women, babies, children and nursing mothers. The problem is getting them cost effectively. This is a challenge for many households -- like mine -- because it becomes a concern just as families are first facing the many financial pressures of parenthood.

One of the cheapest natural ways of getting omega-3s is eating canned tuna fish. Unfortunately, high mercury levels in tuna threaten those same growing brains that the fish's fatty acids would help. That leaves salmon and fortified foods, or supplements.

Although salmon does not tend to have high mercury levels, it has its own issues. The most affordable type of fresh salmon is farmed salmon, but some studies warn that it should be avoided due to another kind of contamination -- PCBs. Wild salmon, recommended as healthier and better for the environment, can be quite pricey, running anywhere from $13 to $20 a pound.

I stretched my budget to buy farmed salmon ($7 to $9 a pound) once a week or so until I realized that this fish might be doing us as much harm as good. Now, I buy canned wild salmon, which is much cheaper at about $3 to $6 for a 14-ounce can. The taste is nowhere near as good as fresh salmon, but it's not a bad stand-in for tuna in the old workhorse sandwich. With the money I save buying canned salmon instead of fresh, I splurge on fresh wild-caught salmon every once in awhile and we really, really enjoy it.

As for omega-3-fortified food, the price hike can be significant, especially with eggs. Sometimes the price difference is partly due to the fact that the brand that offers an omega-3 fortified version is also the high-end brand, and the store brand has no similar option.

We've solved that one at our house by taking the advice of Dr. Oz of Oprah fame: We keep a little flaxseed oil in the fridge and a bag of flax meal in the freezer. Dr. Oz says he has oatmeal with omega-3-rich flax oil every morning for breakfast, and I often do the same. But really, you can pour a little flax oil on any dish -- you just can't cook it. It's pretty much tasteless, an advantage when slipping it past suspicious children and husbands.

Flax meal can be added to all kinds of recipes in place of some of the flour.

There are a couple of downsides to the flax plan. One, many sources say the omega-3s in flax are not as good as those in fish. Two, it may not be for everyone in the family: My pediatrician advised against fortifying our infant's food with flax oil, warning that if the baby aspirated the oil it could damage her lungs. Talk to your own pediatrician about this. There are of course omega-3-fortified formulas, baby foods and baby yogurt out there, but since my baby is breastfed (the price is right), I just try to increase my own fatty acid intake so she'll get it from me.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

We do the canned salmon and flax meal / seed thing too. Particularly since I no longer have the same source for cheap whole salmon that I used to (darn). I haven't done the oil thing yet . . . I'll have to see if we can get that up here in the woods . . .

Guest's picture

Frozen wild salmon is a cheaper alternative to fresh. I buy it at Whole Foods and keep it in the freezer, then thaw it in the plastic packs in a bowl of cold water, which takes less than an hour.

I also get wild salmon in pouches there—it's similar to canned, but it's available in 3 and 6 oz. sizes. At about $1.50 for the small pouch, it's an economical sandwich alternative, and as I'm the only one in the family who likes the stuff, there's no waste. I mix it with mayo and French dressing, chopped tomatoes, and a bit of dill, a recipe I got from the back of the pouch, and it's delicious.

Guest's picture

If you have a very small food processor, you can grind flax seeds and then add a bit to your cereal, your smoothy, or whatever you are making. You probably don't want this to be your only source of Omega-3, but there are advantages to eating the whole seed raw. You get fiber, oils, and probable a dozen other nutrients that haven't been discovered yet.

Guest's picture

Depending on the brand, Omega 3 gels cost less than $.05 each and represents more than a daily recommendation...
My Doctor says that this is an adequate way to get the benefits of fish oil, despite what I've read about the body not accepting the vitamins in capsule as well as in food.

Am not homeopathically inclined, but Omega 3, and Bcomplex are among the few that the NIMH accepts as beneficial.

Carrie Kirby's picture

These omega-3s, from what I've read, are just a natural component of a healthy diet, but a component that most modern Americans just don't get enough of without making a special effort.

Guest's picture

You can use a coffee grinder for quick flax seed grinds, then you can add it to anything. And if you keep the grinder designated as your "flax grinder" there's nothing to clean up!

Thanks for the tips on canned salmon!!

Myscha Theriault's picture

I've done this before with nuts . . . not sure why I didn't think of it for flax seeds. Thanks!

Guest's picture

Sure, tuna has some mercury in it but the levels are very low. Read and heed the following from the EPA/FDA:

Carrie Kirby's picture

Sure, that may be what the EPA says, but Consumer Reports says differently, at least for pregnant women. Since I've been either pregnant or breastfeeding continuously for the past four years, I go with the more conservative advice. I do love tuna and treat myself with it occasionally, but rarely these days.

Guest's picture

1 Tablespoon of ground flax seed combined with 3 Tablespoons of warm water can be used to substitute an egg in many baked goods. If the recipe calls for more eggs, just multiply the formula above... very healthy (and tasty!) substitution, I don't think anyone has ever noticed

Guest's picture

Based on some web site reading I did last year, I would caution on flaxseeds:

1. What you get in flaxseeds is not the essential omega-3 fatty acids, but a precursor (something that the body has to turn into the desired substance).

2. The efficiency rate of transformation can be about fifteen percent, so you have to do a lot of flaxseeds to get the desired amount of usable fatty acids.

3. Some people have metabolism that really don't like flaxseeds.

I recommend going the fish oil gel route, especially if you need a lot for cognitive and mood problems, or other things. That said, if you like the nutty taste of flaxseeds and your body can handle them, enjoy.

Guest's picture

If the baby aspirates anything but breast milk it can damage it's lungs.....

Guest's picture

Canned sardines are another fish that's low in PCBs and mercury and high in omega-3's. They are cheap, too. Because they are a small fish, low on the food chain, fishing them does not cause as much environmental impact as does fishing tuna (a large predator), nor do they bioaccumulate the same amount of toxins. The healthiest choices are those packed in olive oil or sardine oil. Water packing removed some of the omega-3s, and soybean oil isn't particularly healthy.

They are especially good on bread with mustard. Enjoy!