The right foods can improve reading skills and even increase IQ. Jane Feinmann picks out the ingredients that will boost brain power and give your child a head start in class
"Could do better" was the mantra that regularly appeared on Elliot Best's school reports - and so it proved. Three years ago, he was eight years old and headed for educational mediocrity: apathetic at school, he found reading "boring", and at home he preferred to lie on the sofa and watch TV than to do his homework.
In the space of a few weeks in 2002, however, all that changed. Elliot became a bookworm who tore through Harry Potter and developed a passion for classical music and a talent for story-writing. Within three months, his reading age advanced 18 months and he gained top marks in his SAT tests at the end of the last school year. "His teachers are predicting a great future," says his mother, Sheila. "It's wonderful."
The catalyst for this apparently miraculous change was half a gram of fish oil, delivered daily at Elliot's school by researchers undertaking probably the largest ever investigation into the link between intelligence, behaviour and nutrition. Elliot was one of 117 underachieving children, aged between five and 12, from 12 Durham schools who participated in the groundbreaking study to test the impact of a daily dose of omega-3 rich fish oil. Omega-3 is known to be essential for brain development and function, and largely missing in modern diets.
Half the children were given the supplement for three months while the other half received a placebo. During this time, measurements were made of their motor skills, IQ, spelling, reading and behaviour. The results, published in the US journal Pediatrics in May this year, were unambiguous: they showed an average increase of between 9.5 and 13.5 months in reading age when children were taking the supplement, with similar improvements in behaviour and spelling.
Independent scientific guidelines now recommend the half-gram dose generally for cardiovascular health, and for developing and maintaining cognitive performance and IQ. So, with the new school year upon us, should parents stock up on fish-oil supplements as well as shiny new school shoes?
Sadly, even for low-achieving children, fish oil does not appear to be a panacea. Experts are still divided on the subject and parents are confused. For many psychologists, previously the sole source of therapy for behavioural and learning problems, there is still not enough evidence to suggest that fish oil supplementation is anything other than a "quick fix", designed to persuade gullible parents that struggling children can improve academically without the hard work. Preliminary evidence may seem persuasive, warns Professor Eric Taylor, a child neuro-psychiatrist at King's College London, "but we cannot say yet that this is a recognised therapy".
Part of the unease, perhaps, is due to the fact that the research received extensive TV exposure before the results were even in. BBC 1's The Human Mind, starring nine-year-old Elliot and the rest of the Durham children, was transmitted in October 2003, long before the codes to establish which group had been on the fish oils and which had been on the placebo had been broken. A year later, the series Child of Our Time focused on the impact of fish oil on two four-year-olds: aggressive James and uncommunicative Ruben, both of whom were seen to benefit from treatment - anecdotal evidence, seen on screen by millions, that was both unscientific and hugely persuasive.
Both programmes prompted parents to clear shelves in health food shops and pharmacies of fish-oil products; manufacturers were at one point claiming a 3,000 per cent increase in sales over a 12-month period. "I'm interested in trying my three-year-old on those fish-oil tablets 'cause he's a right handful at the moment," was a typical posting on the BBC's online message board the week after Child of Our Time was transmitted.
But the lead researcher in the Durham study, Alex Richardson, is doubtful that good TV and good science go together. Dr Richardson, a senior research fellow at Oxford University, who funds her studies exclusively through independent grants and charities such as the Dyslexia Research Trust, has watched with concern as supplement companies "make fortunes" from research to which they contribute nothing, or jump on the bandwagon with high-profile, inaccurate advertising campaigns for products that claim to be "omega-3 rich" - "an orange juice that claims to be rich in omega-3 fat while containing barely a trace, for instance", says Dr Richardson.
While the original Durham study was as rigorous as any pharmaceutical trial, more recent "research" has involved little more than monitoring groups of children taking supplements. In June, research on pre-school children taking the supplements showed "dramatic" behavourial improvements in 60 per cent of disruptive toddlers when given fish oil. A Horizon programme, to be screened this autumn, has filmed the impact on 200 children taking the supplements. Yet without the rigour of a properly controlled trial, comments Dr Richardson, "the chances are that you'll simply end up with a record of what happens when you place children and their parents in front of a TV camera."
Yet with fish consumption at historically low levels, the growing consensus is that it is essential to supplement the daily diet to ensure a healthy level of omega-3 fats. What's more, new evidence is showing up what components of the oil are most important. For several years, researchers believed that DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) was the important fatty acid, as it is found in the structure of the brain. Increasingly, however, evidence points to EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) as playing a greater role in brain development and function. "EPA improves blood-flow to the brain, but it also helps to manufacture hormones that boost brain function - and, probably most importantly, acts as a natural anti-inflammatory agent, boosting the immune system," says Dr Richardson.
Green leafy vegetables, along with flaxseed and walnut oil, and fortified eggs, contain small amounts of a simpler omega-3 fat - a vegetarian source of EPA, albeit not an efficient one. By far the best source of EPA is oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, pilchards, anchovies, herring, sardines and tuna - challenging tastes even for children with adventurous palates. Sadly, tinned tuna, a mainstay of packed lunchboxes, is significantly, though not entirely, defatted in the canning process. "The smell is too strong," explains the nutritionist Suzannah Olivier, author of Healthy Food for Happy Kids. She recommends mashed sardines on toast as a regular tea-time snack. "Introduce it early on, at two or three," she advises. "If you leave it until later, they may decide they don't like it."
Dr Richardson recommends always getting nutrients from diet as far as possible. Where supplements are needed, however, you should choose products clearly marked as marine fish oil with higher levels of EPA than DHA. The Durham trial used Eye Q, but Dr Richardson's latest trials use MorEPA, which is sold on the internet through Healthy and Essential Ltd (healthyandessential.co.uk) and requires only two capsules daily instead of Eye Q's six. Other products aimed at this market include Efamol's Efalex (although this contains more DHA than EPA) and OM3junior from Isodisnatura.co.uk.
Meanwhile, a product launched today is a sign that business is waking up to the evidence that we're all going short of omega-3s. ProBrain from Seven Seas is one of the first omega-3 products aimed at adults who feel that they, too, could do better.
Need to know
The following menu, devised by the nutritionist Suzannah Olivier, provides your child with omega-3 oils, fibre and slow-release energy, for optimum alertness and school performance.