Food and Behaviour Research

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25 Oct 2007 - Which magazine - Omega-3 claims confusing shoppers

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

This survey shows that many consumers are being seriously misled by claims about 'omega-3' on food labels - and the primary problem is confusion over what 'omega-3' really means.

In fact, there are different types of 'omega-3' fatty acids - but only the longer-chain ones, EPA and DHA (found in fish and seafood) have clear health benefits. Increased consumption of EPA/DHA from fish and seafood is associated with

  • a healthier heart and circulation
  • better vision
  • reduced inflammation (and better joint mobility)
  • improved brain function (most notably in the areas of mood and memory)

ALA is a shorter-chain omega-3 derived from plant sources (usually flax or canola oil). It does NOT have the same health benefits as EPA and DHA, but it is much cheaper. This means that unscrupulous companies can add ALA to their products and then boast 'omega-3' on the label.

To avoid being cheated in this way, consumers first need to check carefully that any product boasting 'omega-3' actually contains EPA and DHA (ignore the ALA).

They then need to check the actual quantity of EPA+DHA per serving. A daily intake of around 500mg (half a gram) of EPA+DHA is recommended to maintain a healthy heart and circulation - which could easily be achieved by eating fish and seafood a few times each week.

Omega 3 can have significant health benefits, but some food companies are cashing in by making confusing claims about the nutrient, says Which?

A survey of Which? members* found that 45 per cent are more likely to buy a product that claims to be high in omega 3 than the same food without a claim.

The best source of omega 3 is oily fish** but parts of the food industry are jumping on the bandwagon by adding it to a number of everyday foods such as bread, fruit juice, yoghurt and baked beans.

Which? examined a range of foods that are promoted as containing, or being high in, omega 3*** and found that:

  • Labelling on Asda's Healthy wholegrain bread made statements relating to omega 3 that were just plain wrong.**** Asda agreed the label may be confusing to customers and said they will withdraw the bread from sale while the packaging is redesigned.
  • The difference between plant-based and oily fish-based sources of omega 3 is all too rarely made clear on food labels. So Good Soya Essential Omega 3 drink, for example, doesn't make it clear that the nutrient in its product isn't the type that's proven to help keep your heart healthy.*****
  • Even products with added fish oil often fail to make it clear how much you'd have to consume to get a useful amount of omega 3. People would need to drink one and a half litres every day of Tesco's Healthy Living pomegranate juice to get a beneficial measure of omega 3.


Neil Fowler, editor, Which? magazine, says:

"Our research shows that many shoppers will snap up products that claim to be high in omega 3. A good many food manufacturers are riding the money-making omega 3 wave by adding it to all sorts of foods and failing to mention that it may not be the right sort of omega 3 - or enough of it - to be as beneficial as simply eating oily fish.

"We want to see food companies backing up the omega 3 health claims they make on labels, and the Food Standards Agency giving clearer advice on recommended levels."******

A full article "A mega or a meagre benefit?" appears in the November issue of Which? magazine. For further information, the full article or an interview, contact Martin Chapman.

Research Notes

* In May 2007, 2,405 Which? online panel members answered questions about omega 3.

** Omega 3 is a family of polyunsaturated, essential fatty acids, of which there are short- and long-chain types. Some foods contain more long-chain fatty acids such as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are the most beneficial for healthy hearts and have the greatest effect on the brain. They are found mostly in oily fish such as fresh tuna and sardines; tinned oily fish (except tuna) can be a good source of omega 3. Omega 3 from plant-based sources has more short-chain acids such as ALA (alphalinolenic acid), and does not have the same health benefits as omega 3 from fish-based sources which contains EPA and DHA. Our bodies can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but not efficiently, so omega 3 from plants is not as beneficial as that from fish.

*** In July and August 2007, Which? bought products from major supermarkets that were promoted as containing, or being high in, omega 3 on the front of packs and had 34 of them analysed by a lab.

**** Asda claimed to be "using special linseed which has been heated in order to liberate the beneficial oils". Linseed oil is from a plant source and does not contain the most beneficial source of omega 3, and exposure to heat can actually destroy the nutrient. The label also claims that four slices provide 31.3g of omega 3. But Which? tests revealed that this bread had just 0.009g of DHA/EPA per 100g, so you'd have to eat just over 11 loaves a day to get your daily amounts of EPA/DHA from this product. Asda admitted a typing error with the claimed amount of omega 3 in four slices.

***** It does acknowledge that the omega 3 in its product is from plant-based sources.

****** New EU laws will prevent food companies from making misleading health and nutrition claims on labels, but these will not be fully implemented for several years and they do not yet contain anything specific to omega 3. There is currently no recommended daily amount (RDA) or Dietary Reference Value (DRV) for omega 3, although some labels refer to a recommended daily amount.