Growing Pains

April 21, 2005
Daniel Schatzman

Two new studies are shedding some light on how omega-3s affect the developing nervous system. These studies, along with many others, are part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that the omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) provide significant benefits to the eyes and brain.

 

Two new studies are shedding some light on how omega-3s affect the developing nervous system. These studies, along with many others, are part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that the omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) provide significant benefits to the eyes and brain.

Yet, despite the new research, some consumers remain in the dark about omega-3s. In fact, recent surveys have shown that many Americans, including women of childbearing age, are cutting back on their consumption of fish-their primary source of DHA and EPA.

For instance, in a survey conducted in 2004 by ICR Research Group (Media, PA) for Pronova Biocare (Lysaker, Norway), which supplies EPAX fish oil, only 34% of respondents reported eating fresh fish over a one-week period. Almost half of those surveyed said fear of contaminants was their top reason for avoiding fish.

Ocean Nutrition (Dartmouth, NS, Canada), which produces the microencapsulated fish oil ingredient MEG-3, conducted a similar survey in 2004. The company found that while there is a relatively high awareness of the term omega-3 among the public, consumers are less familiar with the specific health benefits of DHA and EPA. However, when the health benefits were explained using consumer-friendly language, consumers were more likely to want to purchase an omega-3 product.

“Consumers are aware that fish is healthy and that omega-3s are good for them, yet they do not fully understand why,” explains Ian Lucas, vice president of marketing at Ocean Nutrition. “The technical side of the nutritional chemistry is difficult for the average consumer to understand. When the right messages are presented in a common-sense manner, people learn the health benefits and understand the importance of regular consumption of EPA and DHA. The result is a dramatic change in attitude toward intent to purchase.”

The challenge for marketers is to explain the benefits of omega-3s in a way that consumers understand without creating unrealistic expectations. The following studies may provide further opportunities for educating the public about omega-3s. More information about the studies can be found on www.fatsoflife.com, a Web site operated by DSM Nutritional Products (Parsippany, NJ), which supplies ROPUFA omega-3 fatty acids.

DHA AND THE BRAIN

In the first study, which was published in the January 2005 issue of Pediatric Research, researchers from the National Institutes of Health’s (Bethesda, MD) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that when dietary sources of DHA are lacking, the developing brain obtains DHA from existing body stores of omega-3 fatty acids.

Normally, the body uses dietary sources of DHA to fuel the growth of neural tissues. However, the body can also convert alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) into DHA. The researchers wanted to find out how the presence or absence of DHA can affect this conversion.

The researchers gave lab animals a diet containing either ALA labeled with deuterium or ALA labeled with deuterium plus DHA. The deuterium enabled the researchers to track the conversion of ALA into DHA. After 20 days, the team analyzed the liver and brain tissues of the animals using gas chromatograms.

At the end of the study, the researchers discovered that the amount of biosynthesized DHA was much less in the animals that were fed DHA along with ALA than in the animals that received only ALA. Specifically, the team found that 40% of the DHA acquired from the ALA group was unlabeled. “Because there were no unlabeled omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, this DHA must have been derived from body stores of fatty acids,” wrote the researchers.

Conversely, 90% of the DHA in the ALA plus DHA group was unlabeled, indicating that most of the DHA was obtained from the diet or existing body stores.

Although the results of a small animal study don’t always apply to humans, the data imply that consuming sufficient amounts of omega-3s is important for proper brain development. Moreover, the study also suggests that existing stores of DHA in the body will become a mother’s primary source of DHA if her diet contains inadequate sources of omega-3s.

DHA AND VISUAL ACUITY

New Products at Expo West Address Needs of Early Childhood

 

 

Although formula products dominate the infant nutrition market, manufacturers have come up with some novel ideas for their youngest consumers. At this year’s Natural Products Expo West show, held in March in Anaheim, CA, several new products for kids took their first baby steps into the marketplace.

Gripe Water, a natural remedy for colicky and teething babies marketed by Wellements (Phoenix), contains a blend of ginger, fennel, and chamomile, and is free of alcohol, sodium, and sugar.

“It’s exciting to offer a product that will help parents reduce the stress of colic, crying, and a newborn’s health concerns,” says Keyvan Taheri, president of Wellements. “Because many of us here at Wellements are parents ourselves, we take particular care in creating a formula that is effective, but most importantly, safe, for all babies. Everyone deserves a good night’s sleep, and Gripe Water can help provide that.”

Another product unveiled at the show, SimplyH’s (Los Angeles) Toddler Health, is intended as an alternative to sugary drinks. Toddler Health is a low-sugar beverage that contains essential vitamins and minerals, protein, immune boosters, antioxidants, prebiotics and probiotics, and DHA.

David Visser, MD, CEO of SimplyH, notes that childhood obesity is on the rise and that many parents have difficulty finding healthy substitutes for high-sugar beverages. “This drink mix is ideal for children with milk and soy allergies, and serves as a nutritious and natural alternative to boxed juice drinks,” Visser says. Visser adds that a recent study published in the March 17, 2005, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine found that rapid increases in childhood and adolescent obesity, which may be fueled by exposure to sugary drinks, could shorten future life spans by 2–5 years.

“Childhood obesity is becoming more and more prevalent worldwide,” Visser says. “This is a pandemic that will define our children’s generation.”

Older children needn’t feel left out of the new product launches. Yummi Blast, a line of powdered supplements from Hero Nutritional Products (San Clemente, CA), is available in five formulas: multivitamin, vitamin C, whole-food concentrate, probiotic, and immune. Yummi Blast can be mixed with 8 oz of water to create a beverage, or can be eaten dry from the package, which resembles a Pixy stick. The Yummi Blast multivitamin formula provides 100% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins A, C, D, B6, B12, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin, and comes in a sour-apple flavor. Meanwhile, the Yummi Blast immune formula contains 100 mg of ImmunoLin, a source of immunoglobulins and immunoproteins supplied by Proliant Inc. (Ankeny, IA). Hero’s probiotic formula offers 100 mg of probiotic strains such as L. acidophilus and S. thermophilus.

“Yummi Blast offers kids variety in how they take their vitamins,” says James Studer, vice president of marketing and sales at Hero Nutritional Products. “They can either mix it with water or pour it directly on their tongue, depending on what they want to do that day.”

Finally, there are products for new moms. In March, Country Life (Hauppauge, NY) launched Prenatal Omega Mom and Postpartum Omega Mom. Prenatal Omega Mom contains DHA from fish oil for healthy fetal development, including the neurological system, brain, eyes, and bones. In addition, the product supports the mother’s skeletal, cardiovascular, and immune systems. Postpartum Omega Mom provides DHA for mood support, calcium for structural support, and borage oil GLA for breast milk production.

 

In the second study, researchers from the Anderson Vision Research Center (Dallas) examined the effects of supplemental DHA in solid foods on the visual development of breast-fed infants.

The center’s research team randomly assigned either regular baby food or baby food supplemented with DHA-rich egg yolk to six-month-old infants who had been breast-fed for at least four months. The team then assessed the visual development of the infants after three months, and again after six months. The results of the trial were published in the September 2004 issue of the Journal of Nutrition.

According to the researchers, DHA levels decreased among the control group and increased by 34% in the test group. Moreover, visual scores among both groups increased, but the group receiving supplemental DHA experienced an improvement equivalent to 1.5 lines on the eye chart better than the control group. The researchers noted that between 6 and 12 months of age, blood levels of DHA typically decrease “due to diminished maternal DHA stores and the introduction of DHA-poor solid foods displacing human milk as the primary source of nutrition.” The data, wrote the researchers, support the need for “an adequate dietary supply of DHA” throughout the first year of life for neural development.

Like the first study, the second trial suggests that intake of omega-3s-either through diet or supplemental sources-can produce significant benefits for infant neural development.

SINK OR SWIM?

When Tommy Thompson, former U.S. secretary for Health and Human Services (Washington, DC), unveiled new dietary guidelines for Americans early in 2005, he called on consumers to increase their intake of DHA- and EPA-rich fatty fish to at least two 8-oz servings per week. Will consumers heed his call? It’s still an open question.

Robert Orr, president of Ocean Nutrition, notes that data presented at last October’s Prepared Foods New Products Conference in Scottsdale, AZ, showed that nine of the top ten consumer food choices remained unchanged from 1990–2000. And most Americans still consume less than 100 mg of DHA and EPA per day-a fraction of the recommended 500–900 mg. But he adds that newer omega-3 ingredients address the taste and purity issues that have prompted some Americans to cut back on fish.

“Consumers now have the option for food products possessing the health benefits of fish without the need to change their diets,” Orr says. "

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