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12th June 2016

Forgettable science on omega-3 fats and memory?

A health claim that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) improves memory function is not backed by scientific evidence, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

A little more about EU approved health claims

A health claim in EU nutrition legislation is any statement about a relationship between a food/nutrient and health. The legislation was set up to ensure that any claim made on a food label, presentation or advertising in the European Union is clear, accurate and based on scientific evidence. EFSA is responsible for evaluating the scientific evidence supporting health claims. The European Commission authorises different health claims provided they are based on rigorous scientific evidence and can be easily understood by consumers.

Health claims for the long-chain omega-3 fat, DHA

In a recently published opinion, EFSA looked at the evidence submitted by a global nutritional product company for approval for a health claim related to DHA and improvement of memory function. DHA is an essential long-chain omega-3 fat found particularly in oily fish, but is also one of the most commonly consumed nutritional supplements.

No health claims for memory

There are currently nine approved health claims for DHA concerning normal brain function, vision, infant development, heart function and blood pressure. But there are currently no specifc approved claims for memory at all in Europe, with 28 submitted health claims for improved memory all having been rejected by EFSA so far.

A memory health claim for DHA was sought because it was felt that the approved claim on brain function was too generic to be meaningful to an ageing population where memory loss is a major concern. So a more relatable and useful health claim might be one that could be translated by consumers into better remembering, for example for practical things like names and numbers.

EFSA considered 11 of the human intervention studies submitted to support the claim. Out of these, two studies showed a beneficial effect of DHA supplementation on memory function, one study showed inconsistent results, one study showed a negative effect of DHA on memory function and seven studies did not show an effect of DHA on memory outcomes. In its review of these studies EFSA concluded that the majority of the human intervention studies have not shown an effect of DHA supplementation on memory, and therefore a cause and effect relationship has not been established between the consumption of DHA and an improvement of memory function.

Keep oily fish on the menu

But lets not forget that there is an approved health claim for DHA in relation to brain function, as well as a number of other health benefits so this shouldn‘t undermine the importance of oily fish on the menu. At the moment, however, there is insufficient evidence to encourage  people to use an omega-3 supplement in the hope that it may prevent or alleviate memory loss.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing. Use of this material is subject to your acceptance of our terms and conditions.

Ayela Spiro

Nutrition Science Manager, British Nutrition Foundation

Ayela is a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, where her role involves providing expert advice on nutrition and health issues to a number of key audiences including consumers, health professionals, charities, the media and the food industry. At the heart of her work is the communication of nutrition science that promotes understanding of nutrition and health and contributes to the improved wellbeing of all.

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