No substitute for the health benefits of seafood

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 4th August 2008

Seafood platter

Two meals of oily fish a week can do as much or more to reduce the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia as many of the so-called “smart” pills which claim to improve brain function, according to a CHOICE report.

The benefits of omega-3 have been highlighted consistently over the past decade with many manufacturers looking to work omega-3 supplements into their food to capitalise on demand for functional foods. This has seen a wave of new products from yoghurt and ice-cream to even lip balm enhanced with omega-3. Seafood, nuts and some vegetables, however, are the primary natural sources in the diet.

The survey looked at the three most common active ingredients of the pills and found while the omega-3 long chain fatty acids found in fish received the most scientific backing – the evidence for other “brain boosting” supplements such as ginkgo and brahmi was far less convincing.

CHOICE found four of the 20 fish oil supplements tested had less than the dietary target of omega-3 in the maximum daily dose. Another three didn’t meet the target for men (630mg per day compared with 430mg per day for women).

However, research suggests three quarters of Australians don’t eat enough seafood to get sufficient omega-3s to lower their risk of chronic disease, which presents a golden opportunity to those in the seafood industry and possibly also to those manufacturers that can reliably and effectively add fish oil supplements to their products.

“Supplements or herbal products, which can set you back anything from $10 to $70 a bottle, are not the smart option. But eating more fish certainly is,” said CHOICE spokesman Christopher Zinn.

Australians spend almost $1 million a year on ginkgo biloba supplements, which are sold alongside claims they aid “mental alertness” and “enhance memory and concentration”. As a treatment for people with existing dementia or cognitive impairment CHOICE says the evidence is mixed and there’s little to recommend its use.

Likewise while the herb brahmi has been used in traditional medicines as a nerve tonic the results from good-quality clinical trials are mixed and the current evidence isn’t convincing enough to warrant paying for it as a supplement.