Friday, August 15, 2014

Food Quality & Nutrition: Factory Chicken Vs. Alternatives

By Jennifer Halton

Organic Chicken Offers a More Beneficial Omega-3 to Omega-6 Ratio
Although we were once advised to focus on foods low in saturated fat, and more recently those low in trans fats, the benefits of choosing foods with a favourable ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is increasingly clear. Therefore not only is it important to increase our intake of omega-3 fatty acids, but at the same time we need to control our intake of omega-6. Traditionally our diet had close to an equal ratio of these polyunsaturated fats, but according to an article published in Canadian Family Physician (2006) a typical North American diet now has a ratio close to 16:1 in favour of omega-6 fatty acids. This increased ratio may explain why cardiovascular disease and other chronic health problems are now much more prevalent. One way to lower this ratio is to carefully select the meats we eat, as the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats can vary widely.

Health benefits of adjusting the ratio
As mentioned in the article in Canadian Family Physician, omega-3 fatty acids are cardio-protective in several ways, helping to reduce inflammation, arterial narrowing and blood clot formation, while controlling the rhythm of our heartbeat. Meanwhile, Healthy Canada explains that omega-6 fatty acids are associated with inflammation, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, as well as various other chronic health problems. Omega-3 fatty acids exert their benefits beyond the health of our blood vessels though. For instance, KwikMed advises that omega-3 fatty acids are needed for healthy brain development both in the uterus and during a child’s early years of life. These essential fatty acids also seem to protect our mental health, as Ascenta Health informs us that low intakes of omega-3 are associated with an increased risk of depression. Besides protecting our cardiovascular and brain health, Auum Omega 3 describes how the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s may also reduce our risk of diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis, which are less common among populations with a more favourable intake of omega-3.

Modifying our dietary intake
Oily fish are one of the best dietary sources of omega-3 available, with wild salmon providing more than 10 times as much omega-3 as omega-6 fats. However, choosing meats with a healthier ratio of these two fatty acids is another helpful way to regulate our intake of these fats. As shown in the table below, the ratio of commonly consumed meats varies between close to 2:1 and 27:1. Caribou offers the most favourable ratio of omega-3 and 6 thanks to the fact that the meat is naturally organic, grazing on grasses and other plants, which themselves are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This is also why grass-fed beef also offers a more beneficial ratio of fats when compared to other domestic meats and particularly to grain fed beef. Of the other domesticated meats, chicken offers the best ratio of polyunsaturated fats, coming ahead of turkey and even beating wild duck. Offering the least favourable ratio by far is pork, so even if you choose lean pork, which is low in saturated fat, it has far more omega-6 by ratio than any of the other meats considered.

Omega 6 (mg)
Omega 3 (mg)
Omega 6: omega 3
Grass-fed beef
Duck (wild)
Duck (domestic)
Figures based on 100g of raw meat, using values provided by Nutrition Data

Omega-3 and omega-6 in organic chicken
While a nutrient analysis report by the Chicken Farmers of Canada (2014) showed there was no significant difference between the amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 contained in organic and non-organic chicken, this is contrary to previous findings. For example, a research paper shared on (2012) highlighted that a systematic review by scientists at Stanford University found that organic chicken contains significantly more omega-3 than its grain fed counterparts. As with grass-fed beef, this is due to the higher omega-3 content of plants growing in the pasture, especially leguminous varieties such as vetch and clover. Indeed an article published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (2005) showed that the fatty acid content of poultry is strongly influenced by the omega-3 and omega-6 content of their diet.

Based on this, nutritional data for commercially reared birds should show a less favourable omega-3 to 6 ratio. However, companies such as Tyson and MapleLodge do not provide complete nutritional information for their chicken, merely showing that it is low in saturated and trans fats, without giving a breakdown of their polyunsaturated fat content. For consumers still focused on saturated and trans fats, this is reassurance enough, but with increasing awareness of the benefits of meat with an optimal ratio of omega-3 and omega-6, this is not sufficient to convince those of us who know that organic poultry is a healthier choice.

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