Research proves fish oil tablets can boost your child's brainpower - but how do you persuade fussy youngsters to take them? Here, an expert rates the top brands...and our junior panel give their taste verdict:
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By Alex Richardson
I decided (with some reservations) that it was worth helping this journalist with her (unusually well researched) tabloid article
(1) to help parents through the maze of claims that manufacturers often make, some of which can be highly misleading and
(2) to promote my newly published book They Are What You Feed Them - from which the FAB Research charity receives all the author royalties.
Please read the book - because as you'll find out there, it's always better to get your nutrients from food if you possibly can, rather than from supplements.
But anyone who does choose supplements should look very closely at what's actually in them, because unsurprisingly, media hype and boastful claims do not usually mean best value.
(And NB, research has not 'proved' that fish oils can 'boost your child's brain power'. The only properly controlled trials to date have involved small groups of children with specific difficulties in behaviour and/or learning - and results so far have been mixed, albeit with some promising indications for at least some children with conditions like dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD. What's needed now are large-scale, properly controlled trials before we can know anything about possible benefits for children from the general school population.)
Fish oils are the new health 'wonder' food - not a week goes by, it seems, without yet more research confirming how good they are for you.
Not only do they help children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, ADHD and dyspraxia, and adults with conditions as schizophrenia and depression, fish oils protect the heart and reduce the pain of arthritis.
Then last week a study, funded by Boots, found that regular doses of fish oils dramatically boosted young children's performance at school. Nearly three quarters of the youngsters - who were of mixed academic ability - showed improvements in numeracy, reading and writing after taking fish oil supplements for nine months.
"With no placebo group, we don't know what progress they would have have made anyway" says Dr Alex Richardson, a Senior Research Fellow from Oxford University. "But these findings are in line with other evidence that fish oils really can improve behaviour and learning in some children."
It is the Omega-3 fatty acids - specifically EPA and DHA - they contain that make fish oils so beneficial. Unfortunately the body can't make Omega-3s; the best source is oily fish. But the problem, as most parents know, is that children don't like it, so Omega-3 supplements are becoming a popular option.
Traditional cod liver oil is not particularly rich in EPA and DHA; it also contains the fat-soluble vitamins A and D, that can be toxic in excess, so high doses are not advisable in the long-term.
Some fish oil supplements also contain these vitamins, so ask your GP before attempting to increase dosage. There is no clear rule about how much EPA and DHA your child should take. "About 450-500mg per day combined EPA/DHA is a reasonable target for both adults and children" says Dr Richardson.
"Some may need even more to see real benefits - but I wouldn't recommend more than 1,000mg without expert supervision." There should be no serious danger of your child over-dosing on fish oils, but an excess can cause a stomach upset, and some people may be allergic to them, so discuss any worries with your doctor.
Taste is a key factor, you need to choose a supplement that is palatable. "Many of the supplements contain artificial sweeteners, colourings and flavourings which should not be necessary" says Dr Richardson, "Xylitol and mannitol are two of the better sweeteners as they are good for the teeth."
To help you choose the right fish oil supplement from the bewildering range available, we asked Dr Richardson to analyse their content, while Alex Morrison, 13, his sister Anoushka 11 and brother Joshua, six offer their verdicts on the taste on a five star rating.
Daily costs quoted are given both for the manufacturers' recommendations and for the dose needed to provide at least 450-500mg of EPA and DHA:
EFALEX WILD BERRY BLAST CHEWIES £4.99 for 30 capsules. Stockists: 0870 6060 128; www.efalex.co.uk
Chewable strawberry flavour capsules for children three years and over. Recommended daily dose: (two capsules) provides 150mg DHA, 24mg EPA, cost 33p. Sweeteners: acesulfame-K, saccharin. Colourings: carmine, iron oxide, titanium dioxide.
Dr Richardson says: You need to give six capsules to get the required amount (450-500mg cost 99p) rather than the recommended two, so it works out quite expensive. Also contains Omega-6 fats and might help eczema.
Alex: Weird - tastes like a jammy cake.
Anoushka: Sweet and fruity but there's still a little bit of a fishy aftertaste.
Joshua: Mmmm, delicious. Nice and sweet. Can I have more?
BOOTS SMART OMEGA 3 FISH OIL CHEWABLE CAPSULES £6.50 for 60 capsules. Stockists: Boots nationwide www.boots.com
Chewable orange flavour capsules suitable for children over three. Recommended daily dose: (two capsules) provides EPA 14mg, DHA 100mg, cost 22p. Sweeteners: mannitol, xylitol, aspartame. Colourings: iron oxides
Dr Richardson says: You would have to take eight rather than two capsules per day, so the daily cost to provide 450-500mg is 87p. This one also contains Vitamins A and D, so consult your GP before increasing the dose.
Alex: Initially too sweet but not too overpowering afterwards.
Anoushka: Too strong and sickly.
TESCO CHILDREN'S OMEGA 3 CHEWBURST
£2.48 for pack of 30 capsules. Stockists: 0800 505 555; www.tesco.com. Chewable orange flavour capsules for children over three. Recommended daily dose: (two capsules) provides 200mg DHA, cost 16p. Sweeteners: mannitol, aspartame. Colourings: yellow iron oxide, red iron oxide.
Dr Richardson says: Again not enough Omega-3 in the recommended dose and they do not specify the EPA content. You would need to take five tablets (cost 41p) rather than two to get the recommended amount. Also contains A and D vitamins so check with GP before increasing the dose.
Alex: Urrgh that's horrible. Far too sweet and sickly. Give me some water!
Anoushka: I actually liked these as they have a nice fruity taste.
Joshua: Nice first taste and no nasty taste afterwards.
MorEPA MINI JUNIOR
£13.99 for 60 softgels. Stockists: Mail order: 0870 053 6000; www.healthyand essential.co.uk Natural strawberry flavour softgel capsules for children and adolescents. Recommended daily dose: (two capsules) provides 490mg EPA and 70mg DHA, cost 47p. Sweeteners: none. Colourings: none.
Dr Richardson says: A daily dose of this gives you 560mg EPA/ DHA which is around the level used in trials that showed improvements in children's behaviour and learning. Extra marks for the lack of artificial sweeteners and colourings.
Alex: I prefer these as you just swallow them and don't have to chew.
Anoushka: I don't like swallowing capsules but these weren't too bad and there was no aftertaste.
Joshua: Fine. Easy to swallow.
£18.88 for 90 chewable soft gels. Stockists: 08704 054 002; www.nutri-linkltd.co.uk Natural lemon-flavoured chewable softgels for children from three years to teens. Recommended daily dose: (two softgels) provides 148mg EPA, 98mg DHA, 36mg GLA, cost 42p. Sweeteners: none. Colourings: none.
Dr Richardson says: You would need six (at a cost of £1.26) rather than the recommended two capsules to reach the target dose. Extra marks for no sweeteners or colourings.
Alex: Doesn't taste of much at all, but is quite fishy.
Anoushka: Not bad at first, like lemony water. Horrible rubbery aftertaste though.
Joshua: Beginning is not nice - just like water and fish - but afterwards tastes OK.
HEALTHSPAN BRAIN BOOSTERS
£8.95 for 120 capsules. Stockists: Mail order: 0800 731 2377; www.omega3 forchildren.co.uk Chewy orange fruit bursts for children over three. Recommended daily dose: (two capsules) provides 180mg DHA and 120mg EPA, cost 15p. Sweeteners: sucralose, mannitol and sodium saccharin Colourings: yellow iron oxide paste
Dr Richardson says: If you are on a tight budget this is worth considering. You need only three capsules (22p) to get a 450mg dose. Shame they added sweeteners and colourings. May not be suitable for children with asthma as it contains sulphur dioxide.
TASTE: Alex: Disgusting aftertaste.
Anouschka: Nice first taste but fishy aftertaste lingers.
Joshua: Mmmm. Nice orange taste.
EYE Q CHEWS
£22.99 for 180 capsules. Stockists: Boots and superdrug 0870 241 5621; www.equazen.com Chewy strawberry flavoured capsules for children over three. Recommended daily dose: (six capsules to start), cost 77p, then two capsules thereafter, provides 186mg EPA, 58mg DHA, 20mg GLA, costs 25p. Sweeteners: xylitol, strawberry flavour. Colourings: carmine.
Dr Richardson says: Instructions say six capsules per day for 12 weeks, reducing to two. To achieve the target dose you really need a minimum four capsules a day (51p) long-term. Uses tooth-friendly sweetener xylitol.
Alex: Very watery, doesn't taste of much at all.
Anoushka: Bitter and slightly fishy.
Joshua: Tastes of water and a bit of cherry. OK.
£14.99 for 28 Sachets. Stockists: 0870 066 4137; www.higher nature.co.uk Lemon or orange flavour sachets suitable for children over six months old. Recommended daily dose: (one sachet) provides EPA 340mg DHA 225mg, Omega-6 50mg, cost 53p. Sweeteners: tooth friendly xylitol. Colourings: natural.
Dr Richardson says: One sachet provides a good dose of over 500mg. Sachets are a convenient alternative for children who do not like swallowing capsules.
Alex: Urrgh. Sickly with a bitter aftertaste.
Anoushka: OK. Tastes at first a bit like lemon mousse but then creates a weird feeling at the roof of my mouth.
Joshua: Too fishy in beginning, very sour at the end.
VALUPAK SMART OMEGA 3 IN HONEY
£3.99 for 150ml (15x10ml doses). Stockists: From independent pharmacies and Lloyds Pharmacy. Honey flavoured liquid formulation for children over three years old. Recommended daily dose: (10ml) provides 200mg DHA, 40mg EPA, cost 27p Sweeteners: none. Colourings: none.
Dr Richardson says: You would have to take 20ml (cost 53p) to get the required amount. It flags up that it contains no added sugar but the main ingredient is honey. Although it suits some children, liquid formulations do not keep as well as capsules and sachets. Store away from sunlight.
TASTE: Alex: Not too bad if you like honey.
Anoushka: Gross! The lemony honey flavour does not mask the flavour of fish.
Joshua: Rich honey taste. A little bit oily at the end.
£19.50 for 300ml. Stockists: 0121 433 3727; www.biocare.co.uk Tropical fruit flavour liquid formulation for children over two. Recommended daily dose: (10ml) provides 500mg EPA, 375mg DHA, cost 65p. Sweeteners: fructose Colourings: none
Dr Richardson says: If you really want to match the type of dose used on many of the big trials, this is an excellent product but again as it is a liquid, be careful of how you store it. One 10ml spoon provides 875mg EPA/DHA so you could actually give your child a little less on the spoon. It is flavoured with fruit purees.
Alex: Not very keen on this one. Much too sour and strong a taste.
Anoushka: Disgusting at first but afterwards quite nice and tangy.
Joshua: Urgh. Not good. But actually afterwards it's not bad.
They Are What You Feed Them is a new book by Dr Alex Richardson on how diet can affect children's behaviour (HarperThorson £12.99), to be published on June 19. Buy your copy at www.theyarewhatyoufeedthem.com