Omega-3 Fatty Acids Get New Health Claim

Fish, Other Products With Omega-3 Fatty Acids to Tout Their Heart-Healthy Benefits

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 8, 2004 -- Coming to a fish market near you: "Tuna tackles heart disease," and "Salmon saves lives."

Well, not exactly, but under a new qualified health claim announced today by the FDA, shoppers can expect to see a lot of new food labels and advertisements that tout the heart-healthy benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.

The FDA now says it will allow foods and supplements containing eiscosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3 fatty acids to carry a qualified health claim that says eating the product may reduce the risk of heart disease.

"The FDA has concluded that while these particular fatty acids are not essential to the diet, they may be beneficial in reducing coronary heart disease," says acting FDA commissioner Lester M. Crawford, MD. "It is our hope that this new health claim will assist consumers as they work to improve their diets by selecting the right foods to improve their health."

DHA and EPA are omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, lake trout, and herring, and in algae. The new qualified health claim does not apply to other types of fatty acids, such as those found in plants and olive oil.

In approving the qualified health claim, the FDA says there is good scientific evidence to support the claim that eating products containing omega-3 fatty acids reduces the risk of heart disease, but the evidence is not entirely conclusive.

It's the second qualified health claim the FDA has approved for a conventional food. Last year, it allowed a similar heart-healthy qualified health claim to be included on packaging and advertisements for nuts.

The FDA introduced qualified health claims in 2003 as a part program that ranks scientific evidence behind health claims of food products. Under the new system, the FDA allows food and supplement manufacturers to make qualified health claims about their products as long as they contain an appropriate disclaimer.

New Health Claim Headed to Grocery Stores Soon

In its decision, the FDA has approved the following language for qualified health claims that may appear on the label or in advertisements for foods or supplements containing EPA or DHA:


"Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. One serving of [name of food] provides [x] grams of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. [See nutrition information for total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol content.]"

The label must state how much of the omega-3 fatty acids the product contains, but the FDA did not set a minimum level of omega-3 fatty acids that the products must contain in order to carry the qualified health claim.

"In our review of the science that's available for this qualified health claim, we determined that we couldn't really set a minimum amount," says Barbara Schneeman, PhD, director of the FDA's Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements. "We felt it was more important that consumers just be informed of how much they would be consuming in a particular product."

The new qualified health claim also applies to dietary supplements, but the FDA recommends that total daily intake of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids not exceed three grams per day with no more than two grams per day from a dietary supplement. Getting more than that may lead to slower blood clotting and bleeding problems.

Fitting Fish Into a Healthy Diet

Although fish oil supplements or foods fortified with omega-3 fatty acids will be allowed to carry the qualified health claim if they meet the FDA's requirements, experts say it's usually best to go straight to the source in order to reap the most heart-healthy benefits.

"I'd rather see people eating fish than taking fish oil capsules unless they are recommended by a physician," says registered dietitian Nelda Mercer, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

"When you eat fish, you're not only adding the health benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids, but you're subtracting saturated fat by substituting fish for other food sources that are higher in saturated fat, like steak," Mercer tells WebMD.

That means that how you eat and prepare fish is also important.


"If you laden it with fat, deep-fat fry it, or add a lot of butter, then you are taking away some of the benefits because you're adding saturated fat," says Mercer.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults eat at least two, 2-3 ounce servings of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids per week in order to reduce the risk of heart disease.

According to the AHA, studies in people who have had a heart attack or heart disease show that getting from 0.5 to 1.8 grams of EPA and DHA per day either from eating fatty fish or taking supplements significantly reduces the risk of death from heart disease and other causes.

Fish richest in omega-3 fatty acids are fatty, large fish such as salmon and tuna. Other types of fish contain much lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Here's a list of omega-3 fatty acid levels in the top 10 fish and shellfish eaten in the U.S, according to the AHA:

Item:Omega-3 fatty acids
(grams per 3 ounce serving)
Canned tuna (light)0.26-0.73
Salmon (fresh, frozen)0.68-1.83
Flounder or sole0.43

Mercer says fish should be a healthy part of people's diets, but women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should avoid fish containing high levels of mercury, such as shark, tilefish, and swordfish.

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SOURCES: FDA. Lester M. Crawford, MD, acting director, FDA. Barbara Schneeman, PhD, director of the Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements; FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Nelda Mercer, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. American Heart Association.
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