The FDA said that foods containing eiscosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids can now carry a qualified health claim stating that they may help to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).
"Coronary heart disease is a significant health problem that causes 500,000 deaths annually in the US," said Dr. Lester Crawford, acting FDA commissioner. "This health claim should help consumers to improve their health by identifying foods that contain these important compounds."
The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) welcomed the decison, but expressed its disappointment at the FDA's failure to award a full, unqualified health claim to omega-3 and its ability to reduce the risk of CHD, for which they had petitioned.
"We continue to believe that the science is strong enough to warrant an unqualified health claim," said Annette Dickinson, president of the CRN.
Dickinson also stated her dissatisfaction that the FDA failed to stipluate a minimum requirement for the amount of Omega-3 EPA/DHA that a conventional food should contain in order to use the qualified health claim.
"We believe it will do consumers a disservice if foods with insignificant amounts of these fatty acids carry the claim," she said.
In 2000, the FDA announced a similar qualified health claim for dietary supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids.
The FDA recommends that consumers not exceed more than a total of 3 grams per day of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, with no more than 2 grams per day from a dietary supplement.
Manufacturers and food companies, such as Martek Biosciences and Kraft Foods, who have urged the FDA to take action on this issue, should be pleased, this decision has finally been taken as it has been a long time in the making.
In June, the FDA put off a decision for a second time on whether to grant a petition for this qualified health claim.
Of all the functional food ingredients available, the future looks most promising for omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), particularly in the US, according to recent research by consultancy firm Frost & Sullivan.
The research commented that while the more mature European omega-3 PUFA market was likely to stabilise at an annual growth rate of eight percent, some key market participants in the US are experiencing growth rates of over 20 percent.
Kathy Brownlie, an industry analyst from Frost & Sullivan, explained omega-3 has such growth potential because of the health benefits it is regularly purported to bring.
"Increased media coverage and product availability have helped differentiate omega-3 and omega-6 PUFAs from saturated fats, promoting omega-3 PUFAs as 'good fats', which are an essential part of the diet," she said. "Most industry experts agree that more omega-3 PUFAs need to be incorporated into our diets."
Scientific evidence is growing to substantiate the role of omega-3 PUFAs not only for protecting heart health but also prevention of cancer and other diseases.
The ingredient has moreover seen support from low-carb diets such as Atkins, which promotes omega-3 fatty acids as part of their eating plans.