On October 1st, the European Commission voted on Omega-3 labelling proposals for the food industry that, according to an international group of scientists, will allow food manufacturers to deceive the public and be extremely harmful to the public health. Although representatives of many nations – including the UK – abstained from the controversial vote, the proposals passed. They will now be handed over to the European Parliament, which has until January of next year to decide whether or not to make them law.
On July 15th the (SCFCAH) Standing Committee of the Food Chain and Animal Health met to discuss claim proposals for products containing EPA, DHA and ALA (eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid and alpha linoleic acid), as well as short and long-chain fatty acids, and the possibility for products containing these essential fatty-acids to display either ‘source of’ or ‘high in’ claims on product packaging.
The SCFCAH failed to reach a conclusive decision as products with traces of EPA, DHA and ALA could potentially make claims to be a ‘source of’ or ‘high in’ Omega-3 without being strictly true, therefore causing a level of confusion, and as some scientists of this petition would argue, deception towards consumers.
Comsumers typically have a misconception regarding the sources of Omega-3 (more specifically EPA, DHA and ALA), which originates from two natural sources; marine based and plant based.
Marine-based sources stem originally from natural algae in oceans, where EPA and DHA begins. Typically humans get their dietry intake of EPA & DHA from fish oils, whereby fish convert EPA & DHA consumed from marine algae into Omega-3. Omega-3 is also naturally found in plant-based sources, particularly flax oils, seeds and nuts. Recent research has shown that plant-based sources of Omega-3 such as flax seed oil doesn’t convert into DHA as well as marine based sources of Omega-3, and such information forms the ground for potential misconception which scientists worldwide are looking to address.
Professor Jack Winkler, Director of London Metropolitan University’s Nutritional Policy Unit, is among the 21 scientists who have banded together and campaigned vigorously against the proposals. He expressed his outrage at the EU vote in no uncertain terms:
This is an insult to consumers. It is a defeat for public health. It is also a denial of science.
Though the proposals were based on information provided by them, the Food Standards Agency seemed to express misgivings about the way their information was used. “We want any claims agreed at EU level to be supportive of Government dietary advice and not mislead consumers,” an Agency spokesman said after the vote was announced.
Meanwhile, representatives of the food industry hailed the EU’s vote as a step in the right direction.
Major manufacturers in the food industry point out that no governments in the world have, to date, regulated Omega-3s as a necessary nutritional source. They claim the proposals are beneficial because they set Dietary Reference Values (DRV) for Omega-3s. These DRVs were given to the EU by the Food Standards Agency. In previous years, the FDA has recommended RVAs that were considered to be far too low. The agency raised them slightly in the current proposals and, though representatives from the food industry say the DRVs are still too low, they represent “progress” towards the establishment of correct DRV.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said the senior public relations manager for industry giant Martek Biosciences, “and will serve to minimise industry and consumer confusion.”
What makes the controversy confusing is that the food industry and the scientists are not talking about the same thing. In their open letter to the EU, the scientists offered no opinion about DRVs. They are concerned, instead, with labelling standards that do not discriminate among various types of polyunsaturated fats.
“We are in favour of regulation,” said Winkler. “We just want it to be based on the proven health benefits.”
The group of scientists point out that the only omega-3s that have significant health benefits are marine-based. But the proposals approved by EU do not distinguish between marine- and plant-derived Omega-3s. If a product meets the DRVs of plant-based Omega-3s or other fatty acids, manufacturers can label it as being “high in” or “a source of” Omega-3s. Consumers reading the label would believe the product offered great health benefits. If the fatty acids are plant based, this may not be the case. And plant-derived Omega-3s can actually be harmful – even toxic – to certain people.
But plant-derived Omega-3s are much less expensive to produce. The scientists believe this is what makes them desirable to food manufacturers.
“They cut costs and raise prices,” explains Winkler. “Great business, facilitated by the European Commission, at consumers’ expense.”
There is universal agreement in the scientific community that Omega-3s are not only beneficial, but essential to human health. Three fatty acids that contain Omega-3s are at issue in the proposals. Two of them – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are marine-based. The other, alpha linoleic acid (ALA) is derived from plant life.
Scientific research indicates that marine-based fatty acids enhance brain development and protect against heart attacks. They are also thought to be extremely beneficial to pregnant women, promoting healthy development of the fetus and preventing miscarriage.
Plant-based fatty acids do not have nearly the same levels of health-promoting properties. Moreover, some fatty acids – such as those found in flaxseed oil – can be toxic to the heart. They have also been found to be harmful to pregnant women. They can lead to miscarriage or hinder the baby’s development.
The labelling recommendations approved by the EU call for 250 mg EPA, DHA, and/or ALA. The “and/or” is what is concerns the scientists. If all polyunsaturated fats are lumped together as Omega-3s – or if all of these fatty acids are implied to be of equal value – the consequences to public health could be disastrous.
Moreover, complain the scientists, the proposals that the EU has approved set a DRV of 10 mg for Omega-6 fatty acids. The inclusion of Omega-6 acids has received little attention in the media, perhaps because it further confuses an issue that is already rather complex. But the Omega-6 problem, separated from the question of marine- and plant-derived Omega-3s, is relatively simple.
Nutritionists are in virtually unanimous agreement that most people get too much Omega-6 in their diet and not enough Omega-3. Studies show that 20 percent of the general population’s diet derives from soybean, which is rich in Omega-6. While Omega-6 is health-promoting, it competes with Omega-3 in the body. A healthy diet, therefore, needs to balance Omega-3 and Omega-6 so that they work in tandem instead of cancelling each other out. By lumping them together as polyunsaturated fats, the proposals at issue could allow consumers, in total ignorance, to increase their already high Omega-6 levels unwittingly and negate the value of any Omega-3s contained in the same product.
From the scientists point of view, the 10 mg DRV for Omega-6 that the EU approved is troublesome. But they seem to feel that, because the general population does not eat enough fish – which is the source of the most health-promoting Omega-3s- the Omega-6 issue is not as high a priority and thus has not gotten as much press.
Consumers should be aware that health-promoting, marine-based fatty acids need not be taken directly from the meat of fish. In light of how pollution has tainted fish meat and alterde its nutritional value, algae-derived Omega-3 may be the purest form of the fatty acid on the market. This is why we say Nuique’s vegetarian Omega 3 supplements derived from algae are superior to non-marine-based Omega-3s.
The group of protesting scientists will follow the proposals to the European Parliament. “We will not give up our campaign to improve this Regulation,” declared Winkler. “We will now present good science and common sense to all MEPs, asking them to oppose the Regulation.”
The scientists wrote a letter of appeal to the EU prior to the October 1 vote. The list of signatures to the letter is impressive, featuring doctors, professors and researchers held in high esteem around the globe for their contributions to public health.
Peter Clough is the technical director of research at Efamol Limited – a company that was, ironically, created in the 1950s to study plant-based fatty acids.
Professor Stephen Cunnana works in the Research Centre on Aging at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada.
The Director of University of Oxford’s Food and Behaviour Research Centre, Dr Alexandra Richardson, is among the protesters. Three other University of Oxford scientists are on the list: Professor of Neurophysiology John Stein; Dr Peter Sullivan of the Department of Pediatrics and Professor of Nutritional Anthropology Stephen Oppenheimer.
The list includes specialists in children’s health and development. Dr. Pauline Bennett works for the University of Bristol’s Centre for Child Development and Adolescent Health. Professor Emeritus Jean Golding conducts research at the same university’s Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology Department. Amanda Kirby is the Professor of Developmental Disorders at the University of Wales.
Michael Crawford, who has been a particularly outspoken member of the movement, is Director of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition. Commander Joseph R. Hibbeln is the Acting Chief for the Section on Nutritional Neurochemistry for the US National Institutes of Health. Dr Dianne LeFevre is a psychiatrist in Basildon Hospital’s Mental Health Unit.
Professor Margaret Rayman teaches Nutritional Medicine at the University of Surrey. Andrew Sinclair is Professor of Human Nutrition at Deakin University in Australia. Possessing unique knowledge of the properties found in marine-based Omega-3s, Gordon Bell is a professor at the University of Sterling’s Institute of Aquaculture.
Brazil is represented by Dr Allain Amador Bueno from the University of Sao Paulo, Italy by Claudio Galli, Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Milan. Representing American academia is Professor Emeritus of Biological Chemistry William E.M. Lands from the University of Michigan.
Possessing knowledge of how marine-based fatty acids promote heart health while some plant-based ones interfere with it, Professor of Preventive Cardiology Clemens von Schacky from the University of Munich also signed his name to the letter.