Heart Attack Relief? The Truth About Omega-3

Fish products find their way into an odd range of foods, as omega-3 fatty acids are increasingly used to fortify what you eat to prevent heart attacks and other ailments.

Most Americans don't get enough omega-3 in their diets, but there are questions as to whether the fortified version of this fatty acid is really the answer.

Omega-3 is known to reduce heart attacks and deaths by reducing inflammation and blood clots. It can also relieve joint tenderness for those suffering from arthritis.

More than 230 new products enriched with omega-3 hit the market this past year, with more on the way, including Tropicana orange juice, which will unveil a "healthy heart" version this week that contains tilapia, sardines and anchovies.

"It doesn't taste like a Caesar salad at all. It tastes like orange juice," one person sampling the juice told ABC News.

But can a glass a day of this fortified orange juice really help your heart?

"The amount of omega-3 that's being added to orange juice is pretty small," said Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health. "Adding this to a glass of juice is going to make a minimal difference."

Food manufacturer Unilever makes spreads and salad dressings with much higher levels of omega-3, something their customers want, according to spokesperson Mike Bauer.

"Consumers want to be health savvy," he said. "They've read what the scientific community has to say and they believe products high in omegas are good for them."

Help Only From the Sea?

Most new products that contain high levels of omega-3 use a type derived from plants, such as flax and soy, where the science regarding the health benefits is much less conclusive.

"There's very strong evidence that the benefits from fatty acids from fish are beneficial on cardiovascular disease," said Tufts University professor Alice Lichtenstein. "The data are not strong for the plant-derived omega-3 fatty acids."

To know which form of the fatty acid is fortified in the foods you buy, look at the ingredients label. Alpha linolenic acid (ALA) indicates the omega-3 fatty acids are derived from plants. Any listing of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) indicate the omega-3 comes from fish oils.

But it's unclear how these will help -- not only do nutritionists debate the benefits of omega-3 from plants, they can't agree on how safe it is. Some preliminary evidence suggests high doses can increase the risk of prostate cancer and macular degeneration.

"This is an area where there is uncertainty, and in that case, it makes sense to be cautious," Willett said.

Nutritionists say the best way to get all the omega-3 you need is to obtain it the old fashioned way: Eat at least a couple of servings of fish a week.

For a comprehensive listing of Medicine on the Cutting Edge reports with John McKenzie, click here.