Food, glorious food
Oct 29th 2009
From The Economist print edition
BARELY a day seems to pass without a new study reporting the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. A high intake of omega-3s has been linked with reduced rates of depression, cardiovascular disease and homicide. In pregnant women the consumption of these wonder molecules has even been associated with an uplift of the IQ of their offspring. The food industry has responded to this bonanza of evidence by putting omega-3s into everything from baby milk to drinks to margarine in the hope of increasing sales while bringing health benefits to fat and sickly customers.
Behind the silver lining, though, looms a black cloud: not all omega-3s are created equal. The good ones (long-chain fatty acids) come from expensive sources such as fish. The far less beneficial ones (short-chain fatty acids) come from cheap plant oils like flax seed and soya, as well as from leafy green vegetables. No prizes for guessing which type of omega-3s some less-scrupulous manufacturers have chosen to put in their products in order to imply health benefits.
The problem of dubious nutrition and health claims for foodstuffs is now being addressed on both sides of the Atlantic. America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said on October 20th that it would overhaul the regulation of such claims on food labels and issue new standards early next year. In the European Union, meanwhile, a legislative process that began in 2006 is grinding towards its conclusion.
The European legislation in question is intended to create a framework for assessing nutrition and health claims. A nutrition claim is one where a product says that it contains calcium or vitamins, say, or is “high in fibre”. A health claim relates to the alleged consequences of a nutritional claim, such as that the calcium in it “promotes strong bones”.
The European Commission asked member states to gather information from across the union so that the range of nutrition and health claims being made for products could be assessed. Most of the nutrition claims were easy to handle, as they are based on well-established science. These were appended to the original legislation in an annex. But the health claims were such a big issue that they were passed to a review panel of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for evaluation before being included in the legislation.
On October 1st the EFSA announced its decisions on 523 of a total of around 4,000 claims. About two-thirds of its decisions were negative. In one, for example, the panel decided there was no causal relationship between the consumption of dried cocoa extract and the maintenance or achievement of normal body weight.
Headlines have also been made by the rejection of 180 claims for so-called probiotic ingredients, which are live microorganisms, such as bacteria, that are believed to be beneficial to health. In fact, only ten such claims were rejected outright. The other 170 could not be assessed because the panel had insufficient information to characterise the strains of bacteria used.
According to Miguel Fernandes da Silva, a consultant with European Advisory Services, a company that advises on the regulation of food products, this was unfair. At the beginning of the process half of the 4,000 original claims were judged to require further information—and time was given to provide it. That courtesy was not extended to many of the rejected probiotic and botanical claims (botanicals are plant extracts that are thought to have health benefits in foods) and so claimants were given no opportunity to provide the additional data the review panel needed.
Alpha and omega
There is also a row over how the European legislation is being applied to omega-3s. It is not every day that an international consortium of concerned lipid scientists gets upset, but just such a group, rallied by Jack Winkler of the Nutrition Policy Unit at London Metropolitan University, is on the warpath. The group says the regulation of omega-3s that has been adopted so far has no foundation in science, will legalise the deception of consumers and will make public health worse. The problem, in the group’s view, is that companies are now allowed to claim that a product is rich in omega-3s irrespective of whether these are long-chain or short-chain molecules.
Albert Flynn, the chairman of the EFSA panel, says this point will be resolved when a product requires authorisation for a health claim derived from its omega-3 content, as only those products containing long-chain omega-3s are likely to be able to provide any evidence to support such claims. The Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the European Union, however, seems to agree with the lipid biologists. It says that the labelling of omega-3s should be clear about which type is contained in a product. Where this is not already the case among its members, it said it would address the matter.
The lipid biologists have other complaints. One is that a product can now claim to be high in long-chain omega-3s, yet be of questionable value because it also contains high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6s are unsaturated fats found in, for example, maize and sunflower oils—large quantities of which are consumed in many countries in the West, as consumers reject the “unhealthy” saturated fats found in products such as butter and lard, and turn instead to margarines and vegetable oils (see Note to self).
Another issue is that manufacturers are keen to advertise the health benefits of their products, while keeping quiet about the disbenefits. The FDA is expected to address this in its review, and thus to put an end to cereals being advertised as full of wholegrains, whilst simultaneously being full of sugar. In Europe, the legislation specifies that not all foods may be permitted to carry health claims, and the intention is that foods of poor nutritional quality would not be eligible. However, Dr Flynn says the criteria for determining which foods will be eligible are controversial and have not yet been agreed.
Yet another problem the lipid biologists have is with the amount of long-chain omega-3s that the EFSA has recommended it is desirable to consume. This figure, 250mg a day, is, in the option of Dr Winkler’s group, too low. Dr Flynn argues that there is no agreement on the daily amount, so the EFSA has been conservative. Dr Winkler’s group says that the dose suggested by averaging the 15 studies on the matter that have been conducted over the past two decades is 566mg a day.
As the ingredients of food become ever more characterised and understood, and their links to human health established, the EFSA has a difficult problem applying a scientifically rigorous approach to health-related claims without assuming the weighty bureaucracy of a pharmaceuticals regulator. Ironically, it is precisely because long-chain omega-3s offer such large health benefits that scientists feel that they are obliged to stand up and challenge the authority, for this is a decision that could affect the health of a generation.
Research published in Nature this week reveals more evidence explaining how fish oil works. It turns out that the body converts it into a chemical called resolvin D2. This reduces the inflammation associated with many diseases, including strokes and arthritis, without suppressing the immune system. Such knowledge helps blur the distinction between a nutrient and a drug. Unfortunately for bureaucrats, that blurring also makes regulation harder.