EU omega-3 levels must be higher, say UK academics

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Omega-3 fatty acid, Eicosapentaenoic acid

It will be too easy for omega-3 bearing functional foods to make content claims under a proposed amendment to European nutrition and health claims rules, according to UK researchers.

The amendment proposes levels at which foods can make ‘source of’ and ‘high in’ omega-3 fatty acid claims but Professor Jack Winkler, director of the Nutrition Policy Unit at London Metropolitan University, issued a statement today, calling for levels to be significantly raised – by almost threefold.

Professor Winkler said the recommended daily intake of 200mg of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) the levels were based on, should be raised to 550mg – an average of recommended intakes from various bodies around the world.

Raise the levels

Using this figure would mean minimum content to justify a ‘source of’ claim would be 82.5mg 100g/100kcal; the amount required to justify a ‘high in’ claim, 165mg.

The draft amendment to the 2006 nutrition and health claims regulation proposes levels of 30mg and 60mg for EPA/DHA and 300mg and 600mg for ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) to make the respective content claims.

Professor Winkler welcomed the fact progress was being made toward an EU-wide omega-3 standard, but said hastily introducing inappropriate levels could be damaging to both the omega-3 industry and consumer confidence in omega-3 foods.

“The Commission is right to propose regulations for nutrition claims for omega-3s and it is right to proceed swiftly,”​ he said.

“But the present wording would not achieve your objectives. It would institutionalise unfair competition between manufacturers. It would mislead consumers. It would not improve public health.

“The Commission knows better than anyone the effort required to change European legislation once it is established. So, it is essential to get the rules-of-the-game right at this point.”

ALA appraisal

He said the fact ALA, EPA and DHA were grouped together had the potential to mislead consumers even though the less potent and specific health benefit-delivering ALA must be included at 10 times the level of EPA/DHA to make any content claim.

ALA, which is usually plant-sourced as opposed to marine-sourced EPA and DHA, should be removed from the claim altogether, he said, to avoid consumer confusion that the proposed rule would “perpetuate”​ by giving “misleading claims a patina of legitimacy.”

“The ability of human beings to convert ALA into EPA is extremely limited and for DHA as good as non-existent. To obtain the health benefits of O3s the EPA/DHA must be included in products in a pre-formed state,”​ he said.

“The proposal should be amended to eliminate all reference to ALA in both the ‘Source’ and ‘High’ claims.”

In regard to content levels, the Professor noted some recommendations ran as high as 1100mg per day, with the level of 200mg employed in the draft coming in at the very low end of the spectrum.

“Effectively, the Commission is basing its draft regulation on the lowest possible definition of adequacy. The practical outcome is that it would be possible to make impressive-sounding claims on products that will deliver only small amounts of EPA/DHA to consumers.”

He cited omega-3 spreads as an example.

The draft amendment is to be discussed at a European Commission standing committee meeting today and a European Food Safety Authority working group is due to hand in its final assessment on omega-3 reference levels next week.

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