The message that we need to ‘increase our omega-3 intake’ is one that most of us are aware of. We regularly hear how fish oils, can help protect our heart and reduce cardiovascular disease, offer hope to dementia patients, or in some cases even propose the possibility of a future treatment for cancer. These are however, related to conditions that are well established and, in some cases, take years to develop; rather a case of ‘shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted’. Indeed, as adults we focus on repair, but by introducing omega-3 into the diets of our children before these conditions develop and take hold, we can offer them better protection against the risk of developing many chronic diseases. Given that intakes of polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially long chain omega-3, in children and adolescents do not currently meet nutrient intake goals recommended by the World Heath Organisation (WHO) for prevention of chronic diseases (WHO/FAO, 2003), we should be taking more responsibility for our children’s health by ensuring their needs are met.
Also known as polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function as well as normal growth and development. Both families of fatty acids are considered essential, as they must be consumed in the diet. Infants who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids from their mothers during pregnancy are known to be at risk for developing vision and nerve problems. Furthermore, if children continuously fail to consume adequate amounts of omega-3 in early years and on through childhood, they stand a significant chance of developing a severe deficiency, with symptoms that include: fatigue, constant infections (coughs/colds) poor memory, attention difficulties, cognitive difficulties, dry skin, frequent urination and difficulty in sleeping, amongst others. In fact, the increasing incidence in a variety of childhood-related neurodevelopmental disorders, including ADHD, autism, dyslexia and dypraxia, are being directly associated with omega-3 status and are indicative of a massive deficiency problem. Research shows that increasing omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce many of these symptoms, as well as the symptoms associated with neurodevelopmental disorders, by normalising fatty acid status.
The concept of supplementing with EPA as a fish oil is far from new. In fact, the idea originated with the introduction of cod liver oil into children’s diets over a hundred years ago. Our knowledge of omega-3, and the importance of the individual fatty acids EPA and DHA has advanced dramatically in this time, with purified EPA acknowledged as far superior in health benefits to those of the unpurified cod liver oil taken previously.
Cod liver oil was first used by the fishing communities of Scotland, Iceland, Norway and Greenland to protect them from the intense cold. During the 1890s, it began to be used to treat malnourished children, with daily doses also advised to relieve rheumatism, aching muscles and stiff joints in adults. During World War II, and through the 1950s, children were routinely given cod liver oil to supplement what was considered to be a meagre diet. However, as rationing ceased, concerns were raised about the high content of vitamins A and D (toxic in high doses) , diets improved and supplementation stopped.
The post-war period saw major changes in our eating habits, with the increasing availability of processed and refined foods, the introduction of concentrates, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, colourants and preservatives, all aimed at improving taste, shelf life and affordability. However, what were considered to be advances in food technology methods have now progressively impacted on the type and quality of the fat consumed, with a severe impact on omega-3 status. Whilst deficiency can occur through the increased consumption of omega-6 (upsetting the balance within the body), the confusion for the consumer about the type and different sources of omega-3 means that many adults are under the misconception that they, and their children, are consuming adequate amounts. Many children do not eat fish regularly, and for those who do, cod (fish and chips/fish fingers) and tinned tuna, whilst common favourites, do not provide as much omega-3 as oily fish such as salmon or sardines. Furthermore, there is often confusion regarding products that claim to be fortified with omega-3. These products, such as milk and bread are not fortified with long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, but with omega-3 derived from seeds and grains, and do not offer the same benefits as EPA. Indeed, not all omega-3 are born equally.
WHO/FAO (2003). Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases: Report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation. WHO Technical Report Series No. 916. World Health Organization: Geneva.