Hey Lifehacker, Half the margarine I see in the supermarket is Omega-enhanced in some way. What's the difference between omega-3 and omega-6? Which one is better for you and which margarine should we buy? Thanks, Butterly Confused
Margarine picture from Shutterstock
Omega 3 and Omega 6 are two types of essential fatty acids (polyunsaturates) that we need to get from the food we eat. Both are essential to the human body, although its important to consume the right amount. Some scientific studies argue that you should ingest more Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids than Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids if you want to maintain a healthy diet. Other studies claim that the actual ratio doesn't matter as long as you don't overdo it.
In any event, most Western diets contain too much Omega-6 and not enough Omega-3 which may lead to health complications. This would seem to make the answer to your question obvious (i.e. -- get a margarine spread that contains Omega-3.) However, there are different varieties of Omega-3 fats and the super-healthy ones aren't usually found in margarine.
We posed your query to Dr. Peter Clifton, the head of Nutritional Intervention at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute. Here’s what he had to say on the difference between Omega-3 and Omega-6 as it relates to margarine:
There are short-chain Omega-3s and long-chain Omega-3s. Short-chain Omega-3s come from plants, such as canola oil and linseed oil. Long-chain Omega-3s are the ones you find in fish which are associated with protection from heart disease and are used to treat people with arthritis. Omega-6, which is found in margarine, is associated with protection from heart disease just as much as short-chain Omega-3 [when consumed in the right quantities]. So eating margarine that contains Omega-6 is helpful and eating margarine that contains both Omega-6 and Omega-3 is equally helpful. But whether or not the margarine contains some m-3s probably makes difference in terms of lowering cholesterol or protecting from heart disease. They're pretty much the same.
That said, if you're not getting much shorter-chain Omega-3 in your diet (AKA alpha-linolenic acid), it can't hurt to plump for a spread that touts this ingredient. By the same token, you're almost certainly getting enough Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats in you're diet already via cooking oils and the like, so there's no need to increase your intake with margarine.
Basically, your primary sources for both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats should come from organic, unrefined oils such as olive oil, milk and free-range eggs if you want to get the most health benefits.
Got your own question you want to put to Lifehacker? Send it using our contact form.