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FDA Recognizes Health Benefits of Omega-3

By Maureen Williams, ND

Healthnotes Newswire (October 14, 2004)—Adding to what appears to be a growing trend of acknowledging nutritional health benefits, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently announced that it will allow a qualified health claim to appear on the packaging of foods containing the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), nutrients that have been shown effective in reducing heart disease risk and other conditions.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in both men and women in the United States. It is estimated that as many as 500,000 people die from heart disease and conditions related to heart disease each year. By allowing this qualified health claim to appear on foods with EPA and DHA, the FDA is hoping to encourage consumers to make better food choices.

In a letter dated September 8, 2004, the FDA extended a previous decision by permitting a qualified health claim to appear on packages of foods containing EPA and DHA. The first qualified health claim for EPA and DHA was granted in October, 2000, but only pertained to supplements containing these fatty acids. The new claim states that, although the research is not conclusive, there is evidence to support a link between consuming EPA and DHA and a reduced heart disease risk. It goes on to give the amount of omega-3 fatty acids contained in each serving of the specific food. The FDA recommends that the total EPA and DHA intake not exceed 3 grams per day, and no more than 2 grams per day should be from a dietary supplement. Higher amounts are frequently used in the treatment of conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. People considering using EPA and DHA to treat specific inflammatory conditions should consult a nutritionally-oriented health care provider.

EPA and DHA are long-chain, polyunsaturated, omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish, such as tuna, cod, sardines, anchovies, herring, mackerel, sablefish, bluefish, lake trout, and salmon. These fatty acids make up about 30% of the fats from fish. Additionally, some margarine spreads are now fortified with EPA and DHA, and eggs from chickens given omega-3-rich feed are marketed for their omega-3 content.

Eating foods rich in EPA and DHA, and supplementing with these fatty acids, appears to reduce the risk of heart disease. Fatty acids from fish can improve the health of the blood vessels, reduce clot formation, lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels, and prevent dangerous abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias). Eating two or more fish meals per week, providing an estimated 1.2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per week, has been found to reduce the likelihood of heart attack and cardiac death. In one study, people whose diets provided about 2 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day and who took a supplement providing an additional 1,000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per day reduced their risk of death from heart disease by 30 to 45%.

The FDA has approved this qualified health claim because it has found the evidence supporting the link between EPA and DHA intake and reduced risk of heart disease to be credible, though not conclusive. The guidelines for permitting qualified health claims are outlined in the FDA’s “Interim Procedures for Qualified Health Claims in the Labeling of Conventional Human Food and Human Dietary Supplements.” This is the second time this year that the FDA has acknowledged the health benefits of certain foods. Packages of walnuts are now allowed to make similar qualified claims (see Healthnotes Newswire, July 29, 2004).

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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