Food and Behaviour Research

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26 May 2010 - Omega-3 experts issue warning to public health legislators worldwide

From the 'Celebration of DHA' Press Conference, Wednesday 26th May 2010, at The Royal Society of Medicine

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

Once again, leading scientists warn that governments and legislators are failing to inform and protect consumers when it comes to the labelling of foods and supplements containing 'omega-3' fatty acids, and associated health claims.

The key issue is that not all omega-3 are the same.  Cheaper, shorter-chain omega-3 (such as ALA) derived from plant sources simply do not have the health benefits of the longer-chain omega-3 (EPA and DHA) found in fish and seafood.

But proposed European legislation will effectively conceal this vital distinction, with seriously damaging implications for public health.

The established scientific consensus (which the EFSA has completely ignored) is that conversion within the body of the short-chain omega-3 ALA into the longer-chain omega-3 EPA, and particularly into DHA, is inadequate, hence pre-formed DHA is a dietary essential. See:

For more information on this issues, see also:

Consumers worldwide are being mislead by ill-conceived and erroneous legislation governing omega-3 consumption and public health policy, and those food manufacturers who choose to capitalise on it, an alliance of neuroscience and nutrition experts have warned today.

The experts spoke of the failure of governments worldwide to accurately translate current research on DHA (the omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid) into policy for the benefit of public health ahead of the ‘DHA Celebration’ conference at The Royal Society of Medicine in central London, which will see the field’s principal experts coming together to mark the 40th anniversary of research into DHA.

In the European Union, Professor Jack Winkler warned of what he described as the ‘legalised deception of consumers’, with EU legislation allowing the same health claims to be made about the consumption of plant and marine-based omega-3s, regardless of their vastly differing health benefits.

Both the European Commission and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have failed to understand the differences between short and very long-chain PUFA , between plant and marine-based omega-3s and between ALA and DHA, allowing inaccurate claims to be made on food products from the spread on our toast to the milk in our tea.

Professor Jack Winkler said: The EFSA says, without qualification, that humans can convert ALA into DHA. This directly contradicts the latest official statement by ISSFAL .

The research is clear - it is only DHA and EPA that deliver the benefits to heart and brain health, but new EC regulation allows food companies to use cheap ALA-rich plant oils while making claims that imply they will deliver the health benefits of DHA and EPA.

"This is the legalised deception of consumers.

The EFSA has also set low dietary recommendations for DHA and EPA of 250mg/day, and the European Commission has used this as a basis for making claims. A product can claim that it is high in omega-3 if it contains just 30% of this.

The practical consequence is that European consumers following this advice would be consuming too little DHA/EPA to do them much good.”

In the USA, experts have called on legislators to re-think their policies governing fish consumption with an open letter to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, Dr Margaret Hamburg urging for changes to the way that fish consumption is assessed, to take into account the known benefits .

In the past, analysis by the FDA leading to the current recommendations focused on the reportedly key toxic effect of methylmercury , without any consideration for the positive effect of DHA-rich seafood as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Concern regarding the quantity of methylmercury in fish, aside from any of the benefits, resulted in the current FDA recommendations for pregnant and lactating women of less than 12 ounces per week.

Professor Tom Brenna of Cornell University said: “People in cultures worldwide have consumed many times the quantity of seafood covered by the FDA recommendations without net ill effect. We are concerned that the FDA’s stance is overly cautious and is driven by consideration of detectable levels of mercury, rather than bioactive levels which would be seen to have any effect on the brain. In the USA, this has led to a serious reduction in seafood consumption, and with it, permanent limitations in the development of children and mothers who follow this advice.

“A wealth of recent research provides evidence that seafood consumption supports optimal brain development, and very little evidence that the consumption of fish, even at high levels, causes harm to child or mother.

"Moreover, research suggests that low seafood consumption by mothers is associated with low school performance, and poor social behaviour and motor control in children. Many other studies of humans at other stages of the life cycle, for instance, in ageing, suggest that seafood nutrients support brain function.”

From a UK perspective, Professor Jack Winkler announced that the group would also be sending an open letter to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), the advisory committee of independent experts that provides advice to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) calling for similar changes to be made this side of the Atlantic.

Coming together at the ‘DHA Press Conference’ on 26th May 2010, the group unveiled the latest research and scientific insights to make their comments on and recommendations for the future, with specific relevance to DHA consumption and its impact for human health.

Professor Michael Crawford, Director of the institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition, chaired the press conference, introducing presentations from other ‘Omega-3 Alliance’ speakers:

Robert McNamara Ph.D:
‘DHA Supplementation and Child Psychiatry’ – the latest research into implications for brain function and behaviour in children

CAPT Joe Hibbeln:
‘Mood of the Nation – a diet induced epidemic of distress’ – a closer look at omega-3 and global mental health

Professor Tom Brenna:
‘US legislative debate’ – A call for change in US policy governing fish consumption

Professor Jack Winkler:
‘Fish versus plant debate’ – the proposed EU legislation governing RDAs and nutritional claims for omega-3s, plus the implications for human health

The presentations were followed by a Q&A session, featuring leading experts Nicholas Bazan (Louisiana), Stephen Cunnane (Sherbrooke), Christopher Robinson (Little Foundation) and John Stein (Oxford).

An ‘Evolution of DHA’ public exhibition will also be taking place for one month from 26th May at the Royal Society of Medicine’s library, 1 Wimpole Street, London.