Coming Ban for some Omega-3 Fat Claims

omega 3 claims

This is a guest blog post by Richard Perlmutter, MS

There is a big problem with determining nutritional requirements for omega-3 fats. Even though they are almost universally praised as promoting health and well being, it is not possible to define a level of consumption that could be considered inadequate. And that is because a deficiency simply does not exist among Americans. The only documented deficiency has been for those who have been sustained over a long time through tube feeding when the liquid food preparation contained no or almost no omega-3 fat.

And yet the packaging for some foods and beverages make omega-3 fat claims, such as “good source of ” or “excellent source of”. Often the fat is added because it is not naturally occurring in the product.

The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) made the determination for the daily intake values that are the benchmark for omega-3 nutrient content claims. Since there were no reports of deficiency among free living individuals, the Board looked at consumption data. It decided the typical level of consumption among adult men would be the recommended intake. That amount is 1600mg per day.

The IOM is one of the very few organizations that the federal government sanctions as a source for making nutrient content claims. The Institute, com- posed of experts in medicine and nutrition, acts as a consultant to the federal government.

Plant and Marine Omega-3 Fats Differ

The omega-3 fat in plant oils is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Three major sources are soybean oil, canola oil, and flaxseed oil. Two other omega-3 fats come from fish, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosopentaenoic acid (EPA). Using the same consumption data, the IOM reported that about 10 percent of the omega-3 fat in the American diet is these two fats.

Even though the derivation and importance of the recommended intake is less than compelling, some food companies have chosen to prominently feature omega-3 fat claims for their products. The science is lacking, but for marketing purposes omega-3 fats are regarded as “good” fats.

Please note the labeling for two brands of peanut butter that make omega- 3 fat claims. One does so for ALA, and the other does so for DHA and EPA. The % Daily Values are based on 1600mg for ALA, and 10 percent of that value, 160mg, for the combination of DHA and EPA. (As an aside − it looks unusual having fish-derived ingredients; anchovy oil, sardine oil, and talapia gelatin; in peanut butter.)

The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has defined “excellent source” as a product that contributes 20 percent or more of the Daily Value of a nutrient on a per serving basis. The product labels explain how each 20% Daily Value is calculated.

The FDA publishes a list of the 100% Daily Value for thirty-three nutrients. Food companies use these values to determine if their products qualify for nu- trient content claims such as “excellent source”. Omega-3 fats are not among the thirty-three nutrients. As a consequence claims for these fats are not allowed within the Nutrition Facts panel.

The Agency does not look favorably on omega-3 nutrient content claims, especially so for DHA-EPA claims. The 160 mg Daily Value is based on consumption data, and in no way was meant to be a measure of adequate intake.

Furthermore, 32mg, the minimum “excellent source” amount, is not very much. Three ounces of cooked farmed Atlantic salmon contains about 2000mg of DHA plus EPA.

Phasing out DHA-EPA Claims

In late April, the FDA announced the beginning of the end. In what it calls a final rule, DHA-EPA nutrient content claims will no longer be permitted, as of January 1, 2016. This date gives manufacturers a year and a half to adjust to the ban. The ban will apply to supplements as well as to food and beverages.

Nutrient content claims for alpha-linolenic acid, based on 1600mg as the 100% Daily Value, are not affected by the ruling.

Readers of this blog have read, over and over, about how long it takes the FDA to take action on issues within its jurisdiction.

The Agency proposed the ban on DHA-EPA claims in 2007. It took seven years.

Richard Perlmutter, MSRichard Perlmutter is the owner of Abington Nutrition Services LLC which prepares nutrition labeling for products manufactured by food and beverage companies. He also takes an interest in seeing that government nutrition policy is in line with nutritional science.

  • Nichole

    Good article. Thanks!

  • synthetic

    And greater trickery is most of these fats have been converted to transfats if you really read the label. Companies should be banned from labeling a product as healthy when it contains artificial ingredients.

  • John Forde

    Sounds real familiar…We at Turke’s Omega-3 Gourmet Foods, just received USDA/FSIS label approval for our new line of Turke’s Omega-3 DHA/EPA Enriched, Pennsylvania Amish, Gourmet Turkey Breast and Smoked Hams. However, just like the article states, Turke’s was not allowed to make any Health claims. We are only allowed to state the amount per 2 oz serving, which is 125 mg of Omega-3 DHA/EPA per 2 ozs.