- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), are long chain Omega 3 fatty acids – essential for heart, vascular and other physiological aspects of our health but also absolutely essential to the proper functioning of the brain and our mental health.
- The best way for humans to access them is via fish as by consuming fish, we get the fats ‘preformed’ or in the condition in which we can access the essential nutrition they provide.
(Although DHA and EPA can also be derived from vegetables [via ALA/alpha-linolenic acid] humans are very bad at making the conversion from ALA to DHA/EPA so very little of the Omega 3s that we ingest from seeds etc is actually converted by our bodies into DHA/EPA.)
- Dietary recommendations for the consumption of EPA/DHA run from 2,000mg per day in South Korea to 200mg a day in the USA.
- Our current consumption of DHA/EPA is so far below even the lowest recommendation that, ‘in the formal language of nutrition’, we would be said to be ‘malnourished’.
- A recent trial which gave one high-street EPA/DHA supplement to pregnant mothers in the midlands (cost 8p per day) reduced pre-34-week births by over 30%. (Cost of caring for very premature babies, pre 34 weeks, runs to many thousands of pounds per baby.) Do the maths….
Why does ‘someone’ (governments, health authorities, policy makers) not ‘do something about it’?….
Because, it would appear, long chain omega 3 fatty acids and the crucial role they play in our mental and physical health, have not yet appeared on the radar of governments, health authorities and policy makers. So while they require foods to be fortified with iron, iodine, vitamin A and zinc, DHA/EPA do not feature in any government health programme.
Yet, someone has got the message as, after multi-vitamins, EPA/DHA are the most widely purchased supplements in retail and on line supplement stores.
Even if governments, health authorities and policy makers did get the message and took active steps to increase population-wide uptake of DHA/EPA to even non-deficiency, let alone optimum levels, is there enough DHA/EPA in the world to achieve this?
This was the burden of a fascinating talk given by Professor Jack Winkler at the AGM of the McCarrison Society in London last week – and you can read the article on which the talk was based here on the FoodsMatter site – along with some further notes bringing the paper totally up to date.
Dr Winkler’s view was that, probably, with sufficient public health commitment, it would be possible to breed/grow/manufacture enough DHA/EPA to bring world consumption up to non-deficiency, if not optimum levels. However, this could not be achieved through the use of fish alone (the best source) as, even if we were to stabilise and increase stocks, eliminate waste and develop fish farming, we could never produce enough. We would also need to use sea plants, such as algae that deliver high levels of LC-omega 3s but at a high cost, and possibly even land plants genetically modified to product LC-omega 3s instead of/as well as omega-6s.
However, even assuming that we can produce enough, getting it consumed by enough people is a separate issue as, rightly or wrongly, most people are not that keen on eating either fish or algae! Is food fortification the way to go, or should it be supplementation, ‘a mainstay of nutrition policy in developing countries for decades’ and obviously the preferred choice the health aware?
If these questions interest you, do read Professor Winkler’s paper in full. It is a number of pages long but very accessible – and take in his addenda which include interesting insights on China and data on infant formula – the one area where supplementation with DHA/EPA is now all but standard.