By all accounts, it's wonderful stuff, but what exactly is omega 3?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 2006, 12:00am

FYI: By all accounts, it's wonderful stuff, but what exactly is omega 3?

Trendy, that's what it is. Highly du jour. In this health-conscious world, nutritionists see omega 3 as a new king. Not quite the holy grail but at least a finely made drinking vessel you'd place on the mantelpiece.

Omega 3 is an 'essential fatty acid' because it's necessary for normal growth in young children and animals, but cannot be produced by our bodies - we have to eat it. In so doing, we apparently lessen the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer while inducing normal, and possibly even improved, brain functions, such as concentration. So hyped are omega 3's qualities, that it's viewed as a therapy for everything from dyslexia to attention deficit order, dyspraxia (learning difficulties) and various neurological conditions, such as autism.

Although humans need only about 1 per cent of our total calories to be omega 3, the substance is now largely depleted in the modern, processed western diet. Still, it's found bountifully in oily fish. The result? Fearful mums jousting in supermarkets for tins of sardines, anchovies, salmon, mackerel and herring, all rich in omega 3 (which explains why the Nobel Prize originated in the fishy heaven of Scandinavia). Organic milk and meat from grass-fed animals is thought to be much higher in omega 3 than their grain-fed counterparts.

Tests are being conducted the world over to verify the hype, usually on the seemingly most omega 3-deficient human form - young male offenders and feral schoolboys. Some schools in Britain are handing out daily supplements to pupils to gauge whether it influences academic performance. Early signs are positive. A British prison trial showed 37 per cent less offences committed by young internees fed omega 3 supplements than those receiving placebos.

There has been a backlash among some scientists, though, who claim many trials are 'fishy' (sorry) and that bad science is being conducted at the behest of drug companies. They say conclusions are suggestive, at best, but more often, highly inconclusive.

However, there's no debate omega 3 is taking the world by storm. It is, as cynical pundits claim, the magical marketing ingredient of the moment. Omega 3 is not just being used to fortify foodstuffs, it's being trumpeted on their labels. Products from fruit juice to yogurt and even chocolate now have added omega 3; or in marketing speak, are 'enriched' with the stuff. Even brand of brands Heinz is throwing in a bit to that nutritious treat tinned spaghetti. How long before we will be ordering omega 3-enriched burgers at fast food restaurants?

Even cod liver oil - that revolting spoon-fed 'medicine' grandma used to ram down your throat - is enjoying a renaissance, advertised on children's TV seemingly as often as its nemesis, crisps.

However, there is a downside. World fish stocks are dwindling from overfishing as it is and experts reckon that if food suppliers and governments were to add omega 3 as mass medication, the oceans would dry up of omega 3-rich fish within months.

And it's not just fish that are suffering. Spare a thought for vegetarians. With standard meat- free products such as tinned spaghetti and even Muller yogurts now with added fish oil, their menu

is fast shrinking.

How do they get fish oil into dairy products? Are they feeding animals with fish? In some cases, yes. Hardly part of the natural scheme of things. It may make you shudder but it's a small price to pay for your children's mental health. And have you ever sipped cod liver oil?