Refining the omega-3 ‘policy gap’ that feeds global deficiencies

By Shane Starling in Bruges

- Last updated on GMT

Refining the omega-3 ‘policy gap’ that feeds global deficiencies
The omega-3 industry must devote more resources to lobbying and educating government, health care professionals and the general public to help plug a ‘policy gap’ that is contributing to a growing epidemic of cognitive disorders, a congress has been told.

The two-day omega-3 summit in Bruges, Belgium, had a scientific and sustainability focus but UK-based independent researcher, Dr Jack Winkler, from the Nutrition Policy Unit, noted in his presentation that the long-chain omega-3 message remained, “criminally under the radar”​ among global policy makers.

Dr Winkler echoed the calls of veteran omega-3 researcher, professor Michael Crawford, who 30 years ago predicted that humanity was in danger of becoming, “a race of morons”​ if long-chain DHA and EPA omega-3 dietary intakes were not increased, a prediction Crawford lamented was in danger of coming true as rates of depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and other cognitive disorders spiral in the western world.

“There are many scientific congresses but what we need to do is work on solving the problem about the actions required to increase long-chain omega-3s in the diet,” ​Dr Winkler said, noting industry and consumers had to look beyond under-threat fisheries for oil supply to include controversial options such as genetically modified plants and fish.

“The fact is most policy makers think fish is about protein. The understanding of the man on the street and even those who work in research institutes is extraordinarily low. That can be a criticism of the omega-3 industry. We haven’t lobbied hard enough in the corridors of power so that is what we will be doing more of.”

“You mean there are different fatty acids?”

The congress heard that while such cognitive disorders had surpassed heart problems in public health costs in the UK, pushing through €120bn per year, and estimated at more than €400bn across the European Union, ignorance of the fatty acids remained high among health policy officials and the medical profession.

Examples were given of high-ranking health policy officials in the UK National Health Service and the US National Institutes of Health who when presented with omega-3 data remarked, “You mean there are different fatty acids?”

The long and short of omega-3

Dr Alex Richardson, a senior research fellow at Oxford University and founder of UK charity, Food and Behaviour Research, joined the call and warned that confusion over varying omega-3 forms was contributing to the problem.

“These problems are costing governments more than heart health and cancer combined but there remains a lot of confusion about omega-3, especially between ALA and EPA and DHA,” ​she said referring to EU-wide recommended daily intakes that did not discriminate between the long and short chain fatty acids.

ALA (Alpha-linolenic acid) converts to the heart and brain usable long-chain fatty acids like EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) but at low, some say, negligible rates.

However plant-based ALA suppliers at the meeting said the real issue was reducing consumption of omega-6 oils, that blunted the bioavailability of omega-3 forms.

That debate is one that has raged for a long time and was part of the reason the Global Organization for EPA and DHA omega-3s (GOED) was established in 2007, to clarify the differences in the way different fatty acids function in the body, but the Salt Lake City-based group counts ALA suppliers as members.

Omega-3 consensus

Indeed as NutraIngredients went to press a consensus document from stakeholders and academics was produced by attendees of the conference that emphasised the need for education along with:

  • Reducing LA (omega-6) and increase ALA in human and animal diets
  • Increasing the availability of LC-Omega-3 (especially DHA) for human consumption in a sustainable, environmentally responsible way
  • Having the omega-3 index confirmed as a validated biomarker and public health targets and promoting the message that omega-3 indexes between 8-11 using highly unsaturated fatty acids would protect 98 per cent of global population against omega-3 deficiencies.

While raising the profile of omega-3 remains a key challenge, other challenges remain, with one large infant formula manufacturer noting DHA fortification continued to present formulation issues in both taste and shelf life.

A German government report that raised the issue of adverse reactions due to over-consumption of omega-3s was also noted, a report Dr Winkler said was out of step with omega-3 science that is the second-most researched substance after aspirin, according to GOED executive director Adam Ismail.

Ismail noted the success of omega-3 fortified foods, of which there had been more than 3000 since the first in 1988, while Martek-DSM representatives noted Martek DHA featured in more than 450 foods and drinks with more than 75 per cent still on-market.

Ismail valued the global DHA/EPA raw material supply at around €1bn.

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