First, the BBC runs an article on its website with the title, “The cult of omega-3”, which left a very fishy taste in this reader’s mouth. On the other side of the pond, legal action was announced in a San Francisco court over allegations of excessive limits for the pollutant polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) in some omega-3 supplements.
And all this in a week that celebrated Omega-3 Awareness Day.
Magic versus science
The BBC’s article set out to examine if the reputation of omega-3 is worthy. If you haven’t read the article, I suggest you have a look. It starts with the statement: “Hardly a week goes by without a new health claim being made of eating oily fish. But is it really as magical as we are told?”
There is nothing wrong with the first sentence. I report on the potential benefits of omega-3 every week. The studies are published in high-quality, peer-review journals and come from good researchers at good universities. Indeed, such is the mass of omega-3 science, and the subsequent amount of reporting on the topic, that some of my colleagues suggest: “Every day is omega-3 day!”
And to answer the BBC’s question, nobody said it was magical. We’re talking about science here, not magic. If omega-3 had a voice of its own it may well echo Gandalf’s proclamation in Lord of the Rings: “Do not take me for some conjurer of cheap tricks!”
There is a mountain of evidence of over 12,000 studies supporting a role for omega-3's in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and boosting overall heart health, improving eye and brain development in our formative years, maintaining cognitive performance as we age, and improving mood and behaviour, even amongst the less well-behaved.
So what’s the issue? Omega-3 is one of the nutrition industry’s major successes, with the ingredients market valued at a whopping $1.6 billion by Frost & Sullivan. Omega-3 perfectly illustrates how an ingredient can be mutually and successfully developed by all of the players working together. It may come as no surprise that there are some that wish to “take it down a peg or two”, as we say in the UK.
There are always detractors in the world, and it is up to the industry and the scientists working in this field to defend omega-3. Now is the time for industry and academia to react to lawyers and journalists.
The only researcher interviewed in the omega-3 article is Dr Lee Hooper from the University of East Anglia, described by the Beeb as the “lead author of one of the most thorough studies on the apparent benefits of omega-3, published in the British Medical Journal in 2006.”
Hang on a minute! Is this the review that received so much criticism that the scientists went into damage control and released a statement saying: "We did not report that 'long chain omega-3 does not offer any protection from heart disease,' that 'omega-3 fats have no effect on total mortality, combined cardiovascular events, or cancer' or that omega-3 fats are of 'no benefit'”?
What they did write in the BMJ was, "Long chain and shorter chain omega 3 fats do not have a clear effect on total mortality, combined cardiovascular events, or cancer."
So, they did say it then.
The journals are overflowing with research from excellent scientists that supports the benefits of the fatty acids. The science supporting omega-3 is impressive, but the science is also ongoing.
Omega-3 benefits may also have huge public health implications. Some may say I’m over-reacting to articles such as the BBC’s and legal action in San Francisco, but industry needs to remain vigilant of potential sharks in their calm waters. I’ve seen Jaws, I know what can happen.
Stephen Daniells is the science editor for NutraIngredients, NutraIngredients-USA, FoodNavigator, and FoodNavigator-USA. He has a PhD in chemistry from the Queen’s University of Belfast and has worked in research in The Netherlands and France. He has been writing about nutrition and food science for over four years, and takes an omega-3 supplement every day.