Food and Behaviour Research

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30 Sep 2009 - The Telegraph - EU rules on health foods could fool consumers

By Kate Devlin, Medical Correspondent

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

Leading scientists are urgently calling on the EU to amend their proposed nutrition regulations because there are different kinds of 'Omega-3' fats - and they do NOT all have the same effects on health.

This article conveys that basic fact, but unfortunately the original version does not mention the key terms 'EPA and 'DHA'. These are the only forms of omega-3 for which there is good evidence of health benefits. To clarify the all-important distinction between EPA/DHA and ALA, words in bold type have therefore been inserted into the article below.

Consumers deserve to know the difference between EPA/DHA (the main omega-3 found in fish oils) and ALA (cheaper, plant-derived omega-3 that do not have the same health benefits). Until they do, the kind of deception and exploitation already practised by many food and supplement companies will continue - and the EU's proposals will legalise this.

For the latest evidence on the non-equivalence of plant-based omega-3 (ALA) and the long-chain omega-3 found in fish and seafood (EPA and DHA) see:

Consumers will be fooled into thinking food and supplements containing Omega 3 are healthier than they really are under new European rules, a group of leading scientists warns.

The proposals, designed to regulate what health claims can be made for foods and supplements, could actually harm public health, they said.

The new rules will set out which products can call themselves “high” in or a “source of” Omega 3. But the scientists warn that this will allow manufacturers to use plant oils containing a particular form of Omega 3, for which there are fewer proven health benefits, instead of more expensive fish oils which contain the most beneficial, longer-chain omega-3, called EPA and DHA.

The new rules would also allow claims that a food is “high in polyunsaturates”, without any recognition that these can include also include high levels of Omega 6 oils, which can limit the benefits of Omega 3.

A petition, signed by 20 scientists from seven countries, including Britain, calls on the European Commission to halt the progress of the regulations and set up a scientific committee to recommend new proposals.

The scientists warn that the new rules could allow manufacturers to deceive consumers.

They would be able to pour in cheap plant oils, but imply that they deliver the same health benefits as fish oils,” said John Stein, Professor of Neurophysiology at Oxford University. “This exploits consumers’ faith in omega-3s”.

This is a public health issue,” said Prof Jack Winkler, director of the Nutrition Policy Unit at London Metropolitan University, who has co-ordinated the petition. “We know that Britons do not eat enough fish to get high enough levels of Omega 3 EPA and DHA, so the only way is through fortified food. We are in favour of regulation, we just want it to be based on the proven health benefits.”

He added: “This is a classic piece of euro-madness. It will legalise the deception of consumers”.

The most important omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), present in oily fish like salmon, sardines, trout, herring, have been shown to protect against heart attacks and are also believed to be crucial for the development of the brain.

The body does not produce its own essential fatty acids and they must be obtained from the diet.

The experts warn that some fats which could be included in foods “high in polyunsaturates” could actually be bad for health.

(These regulations) would allow companies to fill products with cheap vegetable oils, such as sunflower and corn, that are high in omega-6s”, said Dr Alex Richardson, also of Oxford and Director of Food and Behaviour Research. “We already eat a disproportionate amount of omega-6s. This regulation would make that imbalance worse. It would actually harm public health.”

A standing committee of the European Commission will vote on whether to approve the draft proposals on Thursday. These will then be considered by the European Parliament for three months until January next year, when all existing claims about omega-3s will become illegal and only those covered by the regulations will be allowed.

Last month doctors said that there was “compelling” evidence that the Omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA could help protect against heart attacks and warned that they should be taken by everyone.

A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency, which will have a representative on the European Commission committee, said: "Oily fish is the only significant dietary source of long chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA and consumers are recommended to eat two portions of fish per week of which one should be oily.

"Plant derived short chain fatty acids (ALA) offer no significant cardiovascular benefit to consumers.

"We want any claims agreed at EU level to be supportive of Government dietary advice, and not mislead consumers into believing they can achieve their recommended dietary intakes from foods other than oily fish."