Time to clarify omega-3 types for consumers

By Alex McNally

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Dha, Omega-3 fatty acid

A survey of omega-3 labels on foods sold in major supermarkets
found many were confusing to consumers.

According to consumer watchdog Which?​, some food companies were failing to distinguish to shoppers the different types of omega-3s; ALA, DHA and EPA. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are derived from marine sources such as oily fish, and DHA can also be derived from microalgae. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is derived from plant sources such as flaxseed. Finished products containing EPH, DHA or ALA can claim to be sources of "omega-3"​, yet EPA and DHA are significantly more bioavailability than ALA. The shorter long-chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA is a precursor to DHA, and has to be converted by the body before it can be used. While EPA and DHA are 20- and 22-chain chain carbons respectively, ALA is an 18-carbon. Some of the cognitive, heart health and antioxidant benefits are lost in the conversion process elongating ALA's carbon chain. In the group's November edition, Which?​ found some labels simply referred to just omega-3 without saying which type. In one example, an analysis of a product found it contained less than 0.002 per cent EPA and DHA. Other products failed to inform shoppers how much omega-3 they would need to consume to benefit from any positive effects. The results add to a need for regulators, including the European Food Safety Authority, to establish a recommended daily amount for omega-3 to help consumers. It is a situation which could also be addressed by the forthcoming European health claims regulations. Dr Alex Richardson told Which?​: "The type of omega-3 found in oily fish is the best kind. There's no question that EPA and DHA are vital for our hearts, brains and immune systems. "But some food labels are muddling together things that have different biological effects. Omega 3 from vegetarian sources is very different and does not have the same health benefits." ​ In 2004, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and Committee on Toxicity concluded that a minimum of 0.45g of long-chain fatty acids a day, or 3g a week, as part of a healthy, balanced diet, help keeps your heart in good shape. In an effort to let consumers know not all omega-3s bring equal benefits, 12 ingredients makers - including Cargill, Ocean Nutrition Canada and Martek Biosciences - last year joined forces to create the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED). GOED was formed out of the dissolution of the Council for Responsible Nutrition's omega-3 working group, and it aims to take on a broader mandate more suited to a trade association. The trade association formed to increase the EPA/DHA market and advocate regulatory approvals internationally for the fatty acids - concretizing an emerging movement to raise public awareness of the longer chain omega-3s and differentiate them from ALA.

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