Where Will Future LC-Omega-3 Come From? Towards Nutritional Sustainability
LC-O3 and nutritional sustainability Photo credit: jonkriz via Visual hunt / CC BY
Photo credit: jonkriz via Visual hunt / CC BY

Professor Jack Winkler’s overview of Omega-3 deficiencies and the logistics of addressing them through nutritional sustainability is central to the research and campaigning work of The Mother and Child Foundation.

“Virtually all specialists agree that the best source of long-chain omega-3 (LC-omega-3) is fish, especially oily fish that contain the highest concentrations of DHA, and especially wild caught fish. But are there enough fish in the sea to provide the amounts we need? No.”

These words were written by Professor Winkler in Where Will Future LC-Omega-3 Come From? Towards Nutritional Sustainability (2013). As they are highly pertinent to our work, the main conclusions are worth quoting here:

  • “Can increasing [long-chain omega-3] production catch up with the increasing population? Probably yes. No single source will suffice, but some combinations might.”
  • “Much will depend on new policies being implemented competently and on technical developments proving effective, economic, acceptable, and sustainable. Pragmatic incrementalism is the realistic prospect.”
  • “Before policymakers act, an issue needs to get onto the political agenda. With LC-omega-3, this has not yet been achieved. Even those concerned with extreme malnutrition in developing countries usually do not recognize the deficiency.”
  • “The task of improving LC-omega-3 status is made more demanding because, in many parts of the world, poor and rich alike, intakes of fats are dominated by omega-6s. They effectively reduce the benefits people receive from the LC-omega-3 they consume. Therefore, additional policies to reduce omega-6 intakes would be desirable, in parallel with whatever actions we take to increase supplies of LC-omega-3. And that is an even greater challenge, because so many economic interests are invested in their production and use.”
  • “Even if we manage to raise LC-omega-3 supplies to sufficient levels, a major problem would remain: distribution… Available supplies are very unevenly distributed.”
  • “As amounts gradually increase, who among the deficient should receive them first? Whom should we prioritize? Distribution according to need? Many of the most deficient are very hard to reach – poor people living in remote rural areas of land-locked countries. Should we try? Or quite the reverse: should we deal first with the easy-to-reach, bringing improvement to many quickly, a cost-benefit approach that is also one kind of public health strategy? Or should we establish a biological pecking order, giving precedence to pregnant women and their babies, wherever they live?”
  • “Overcoming the currently large and widespread deficiencies in LC-omega-3 involves not just one-off policy decisions but also prolonged action to implement them. So obtaining sustainable supplies of LC-omega-3 will also require sustainable political commitment.”

Recent Developments Long-Chain Omega-3s – J T Winkler

Photo credit: eutrophication&hypoxia via Visualhunt / CC BY
Photo credit: eutrophication&hypoxia via Visualhunt / CC BY

Since publication, Winkler has published added further notes to bring the issues up to date. These underline “some significant developments that will affect future sources of LC-O3s”:

  • In 2012, South Korea adopted the highest dietary recommendation in the world for combined DHA/EPA, 2000mg/pp/pd.
  • Biomarkers for DHA and EPA have been developed which allow accurate measures of both short-term and habitual intakes.  However, they are based on blood samples and so may prove difficult/expensive to incorporate in national dietary surveys.
  • Aquaculture has become a larger source of supply than capture fisheries.  The gap is likely to continue to widen.
  • Capture fishing will be affected by climate change, particularly by the warming and acidification of the oceans.  Intensive research is underway on these developments, but it is premature to estimate the effects on DHA/EPA availability.
  • Plans for new forms of cultivating algae have included proposals for their use in producing biodiesel.  Food uses would be a by-product.  Nonetheless, if successful, they could affect the price of algae and DHA/EPA rich oils.
  • Oman and South Korea have reached agreement in principle to expand marine agriculture in their countries.
  • As Asian economies prosper, they are becoming major importers of fish.  This puts additional pressure on global supplies, raising prices and limiting availability in some parts of the world.
  • In 2010, China amended its food laws to allow DHA/EPA addition in all foods.  This has resulted in a surge in fortified products.
  • As a result, the number of DHA/EPA fortified foods has increased well beyond the 2500 cited in the paper.  A major piece of research is now underway to update the figures.
  • One DHA/EPA fortified food has broken through to become a mass-market product.  According to a recent survey, 87% of all infant formula sold in the world is now enriched with DHA/EPA.
  • Claims about brain health are the largest single category approved by the European Food Safety Authority.  These claims are not exclusively about DHA/EPA.  They include iodine and iron, for example.  But the availability of approved claims is likely to stimulate product development in both fortified foods and nutritional supplements.
  • Nestle, BASF and Danone have all recently acquired medical foods companies, specialising in DHA/EPA products.  Astra-Zeneca has purchased a company developing a new DHA/EPA drug.   Together these acquisitions are likely to lead to new drugs, medical foods and supplements at high dosages, targetted on specific health problems.
  • The EU has established a tolerable upper limit of 5g/pp/pd for supplemental DHA/EPA.  This has been received by the industry as not restricting current practices or likely developments.
  • Dosages of supplements have been rising.  Currently, DSM is seeking approval in the UK for products with a recommended intake of 3g/pp/pd.
  • Sales of nutrition supplements in China are rising sharply, involving domestically manufactured products.  This may lead in time to increased exports of Chinese-made supplements.

To quote from Winkler’s original paper, “We have sufficient knowledge… to reduce the immense injuries to mental and physical health caused by consuming too little LC-omega-3. As Michael Crawford said in his keynote lecture to the 2011 Global Omega-3 Summit, what we need now is action.”