Omega 3

Essential for children's development and our ongoing brain, heart and joint health. Are you getting enough?
 
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01 .Introduction

Omega-lead

There’s now enough evidence to warrant a push for Australians to increase their consumption of omega-3s – the long-chain varieties can prevent cardiovascular disease and may even protect against arthritis, mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

Clearing the confusion

There are two types of omega-3s:
Long-chain omega-3s include DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DPA (docosapentaenoic acid). DHA and EPA are found in oily fish and algae, with smaller amounts found in other seafood, eggs and meat. DHA and EPA maintain a protective function for the brain, eye and cardiovascular systems.
Short-chain omega-3s ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) are mostly found in certain nuts, legumes, canola oil, margarine, green leafy vegetables and linseed oil.

The health benefits of omega-3s are more prominent in the long-chain types. Your body can convert ALA to long-chain omega-3s, it doesn’t do so very efficiently. This is because omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete for enzymes to turn short chains into long ones, and the Western diet is dominated by omega-6 fatty acids found in meat, plant oils, nuts, seeds and processed foods. And while we do need omega-6s to maintain bone and reproductive health, regulate metabolism and maintain skin and hair health, it’s also vital to include sources of DHA and EPA in our diets.

How much omega-3 do you need?

It’s generally accepted by experts that you need 500mg of EPA+DHA a day for general health, or 1g for people with known heart disease. According to the Heart Foundation, you can achieve this quota by:

  • Eating two to three serves of oily fish a week
  • Eating foods enriched with omega-3s
  • Taking fish oil supplements

Oily fish provides other beneficial nutrients such as protein, vitamins and minerals. However only a small amount of Australians eat enough fish, making enriched foods and supplements potentially a significant source of long-chain omega 3s. The Heart Foundation’s recommendations may sound easy enough to follow, but CHOICE’s investigation found a couple of hurdles.

 
 

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You may remember a time when omega-3-fortified and enriched products seemed to be everywhere on supermarket shelves. Yet our search found just four fortified products for the adult market – bread, eggs, milk and tortillas. Many other products have been deleted, at least one of them due to poor sales.

“Australian Fresh Juice with Added Omega-3 was an innovation initiative tapping into the preventative health trend,” says National Foods corporate affairs director, Geoff Lynch. “However we focused our investment in other products, which is why it did not generate the sales volumes that might have secured it a permanent place in our range.”

Omega-3-fortified products continue to be culled from the adult market. When asked if consumers are rejecting additives in products, especially fish added to orange juice, Lynch argues that “our Dairy Farmers and Pura Kids Milk with Omega-3 DHA are selling very well and achieving very strong double-digit growth year-on-year”. Products designed for children still seem to be doing well, which could indicate consumer awareness around the need for omega-3 in children – but adults are being left behind.

The good egg

  • Omega-3 eggs, produced by hens fed with feed enriched with algae, provide a larger hit of DHA per serve than any other fortified product. A serve of enriched eggs, along with one standard fish oil tablet, will give you your 500mg daily requirement.
  • Some products that carry claims about omega-3 content are actually just highlighting naturally occurring omega-3s in the product. Gold’n Canola spread, for example, does contain ALA at 0.5g per 10g serve, but does not contain any of the hard-to-get long-chain omega-3s. Crisco Vegetable Oil and Uncle Toby's Omega-3 Lift Cereal with added linseeds are a similar story.
  • If a product makes a claim about omega 3 content, check the nutrition information panel to see what type is included – look in particular for DHA and EPA.

Two serves of oily fish costs around $10 a week, whereas a supplement costs just $2.30 a week or less; needless to say, fish oil capsules are growing in popularity. If your diet doesn’t contain enough oily fish, buy the one with the highest amount of EPA and DHA, or be prepared to take more than one capsule per day and/or supplement your intake with diet:

Note: Just because a product contains 1000mg of fish oil does not mean it contains 1000mg of EPA and DHA. Swisse Wild Salmon Oil contains 1000mg of salmon oil per capsule, but only 80mg each of DHA and EPA. This supplement contains the least omega-3s for its price, so always check the DHA and EPA content.

  • omega 3 supplementsNature’s Own Odourless Omega-3 Super Strength for Heart contains the highest amount of DHA and EPA (603mg) of all the supplements we looked at.
  • Blackmores Omega-3 Daily Odourless Concentrated Fish Oil is not the cheapest supplement on the market, but it does have a high amount of long-chain omega-3s (600mg per tablet) and has been deodorised.
  • You’ll need to take two tablets of the cheapest brand, Healthy Care, to get the same amount of DHA and EPA found in one capsule of the Nature’s Own product, but because it’s a budget brand, these two tablets still cost less than one Nature’s Own. It hasn’t been deodorised, so it may leave a fishy taste.
  • Many other supplements contain on average 180mg of EPA and 120mg of DHA, a total of 300mg per tablet. One tablet alone won’t meet your daily needs, so you need to supplement your intake with food, or take two tablets.

Vegetarians and omega 3s

Vegetarians and vegans have substantially lower levels of DHA in their bodies than meat and fish eaters. Supplementation with large amounts of ALA has been found to increase EPA levels but not DHA, which is needed in the brain and retina. As such, direct sources of DHA are needed.

Omega-3 supplements can also come from microalgae, a plant source that’s acceptable for vegetarians and vegans. However, we couldn’t find a microalgae supplement, even after speaking to a pharmacist and contacting manufacturers. Until they become more available in Australia, vegetarians and vegans need to rely on the conversion of ALA or import microalgae supplements from the UK or US.

What about our oceans?

Getting long-chain omega-3s from fish or fish oil supplements has environmental implications. Commercial fishing has sucked more than 90% of the world’s predatory fish from the oceans, resulting in a fish stock crisis, while farmed fish rely on wild fish for food through fish meal and oil. Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) principles are in place for Australian Fisheries agencies and industry groups to guide and support sustainability.

“At the moment, we do not advise people to restrict their fish intake due to sustainability issues,” says Andrea Mortenson, executive director of the Omega-3 Centre. The Dietary Guidelines for Australian adults is currently under review, and CHOICE expects the outcomes will help consumers make healthy and sustainable choices.

Oily fish is the best source of omega-3s. All it takes is two or three fish meals a week to reach your recommended does of 500mg EPA+DHA a day. A serve of rainbow trout and one of silver perch, for example, will provide 3555mg of long-chain omega-3s, which equates to 508mg a day.

To get your long-chain omega-3 requirement without fish, even if you consume all the fortified products available on the market plus a great deal of other food, you’ll still be shy of the 500mg DHA+EPA recommendation. Check the table below to see how many meals you’ll need to eat just to get the same amount of omega-3s as you would from two serves of fish a week or a daily dose of fish oil supplements.
Key
Dark blue
: Fish and seafood sources
Light blue: Fortified and enriched products
Yellow: Meat and other animal product sources

Omega-table-1                          Omega-table-2

Table notes 
Nutritional data obtained from NUTTAB 2006 (www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumerinformation/nuttab2006/) or packaging. Omega-3 content calculated based on recommended serving size or serve as per commercial products. If a product makes a claim, check the label. * Look for tuna containing higher amounts
of EPA and DHA – some products contain levels lower than stated in this list.

Much has been publicised about the effects of omega-3s on the developing brain and the health of children. Studies suggest that long-chain omega-3s, in particular DHA, are important for normal development of the brain, eyes and central nervous system in younger children, however after the first few years of life the message around omega-3s is unclear. There is plenty of confusion from parents around how much omega-3 their child should be having, and when a supplement is necessary.

What the research says

There has been a lot of research around using omega-3s for treating children with behavioural and learning problems such as ADHD and dyslexia. Increasing omega-3 content may improve symptoms of these conditions, however more research needs to be done on whether healthy children, devoid of these problems, benefit from supplementation. The latest research, while inconclusive, suggests some children and teenagers may experience increased concentration and higher cognitive performance. A healthy diet for your child should include long-chain omega-3s.

How much do they need?

While we know children need omega-3s for normal development in early childhood, researchers don't know exactly how much is needed throughout growth to adulthood. For children 14+ the Heart Foundation recommends a daily intake of 500mg a day, the same as for adults. For children younger than this, the recommendations get a little hazy. It has been suggested that the 500mg should be adjusted for the lower weight of children in this category, however there are no guidelines around the best way to calculate this, or evidence to say it is appropriate.

The Government Nutritional Reference Values (NRVs) say children need between 40mg-70mg per day depending on their age. This recommendation is based on the average intake of this group. It has been shown that children only consume small amounts of long-chain omega-3s so it can be assumed this may not be the optimum intake.

Fortified food

 As with adults, fish is the preferred source of omega-3s, however, it can be difficult to get children to eat certain foods, and fish often fits into this category. At present milk and yoghurt products are the primary focus of omega-3 fortification, and these also come packaged with protein and calcium needed for growth and development. Vaalia has a yoghurt for infants, a yoghurt for toddlers and one for school-aged children. There is also Dairy Farmers Kids' Milk. Because there is no set dose for children beyond the NRVs, it is difficult to say whether the amount found in these products will have any therapeutic benefit.

Supplements

 There are numerous omega-3 supplements now available for children, coming in many flavoured chewable capsules. For a healthy child, taking a fish oil supplement is generally considered safe and the child may even experience some benefits; however due to the haze around how much long-chain omega-3s they need it can be confusing trying to decide on the best product. The bottom line is, as with an adult supplement, look for the one containing the highest amount of DHA and EPA. The best one we found was Heron Vita Minis for Kids Omega Smart Capsules, which contain 225mg of EPA and DHA per tablet. For children it is not recommended to exceed the dose listed on the label.

Verdict

It is the position of the Royal Children’s Hospital that long-chain omega-3s are important for eyes, learning and mental development, and should still be a part of your child’s diet. Research shows mixed results so their effectiveness is unclear, especially for healthy children. Each child is different and the addition of supplements and fortified foods may or may not be beneficial. You should not feel like a bad parent if you don’t include these products in your child’s diet.Fish should be encouraged as a part of a healthy diet, however.
If your child doesn’t like oily fish, try some milder flavoured fish such as bream, gemfish or flathead. Tuna in a pasta sauce, or otherwise flavoured to disguise the fishy taste, is also a good way to encourage your child to eat fish.

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