There’s so much talk about DHA these days. Its added to infant formula and the more the merrier according to some mums. There is also much confusion out there as to whether DHA is the same as “omega-3”, “fish oil”, “cod liver oil” etc. What about omega 6 and omega 9, should we take some of that too just in case? And what’s this EPA thing? In this post, I try to provide a simplified form of the information mums need.
What is DHA
DHA is a form of Omega-3 fatty acids. There are many known and claimed benefits of DHA but in the case of children the most important one to mummies is that they are important for brain development.
I’ll start backwards: 9 is easily synthesized by the body and hence unnecessary as a supplement for most people who eat a normal roughly balanced diet. Omega 6 is an essential fatty acid meaning its not synthesized but deficiency is also rare as they are present in many common foods such as seeds and nuts and common vegetable oils. Even junk food contains them as they are present in the oils used to produce snacks or used to fry things. In fact, most of us consume TOO MUCH omega 6 and should reduce our concumption of them as they compete with omega 3. Which leaves us with Omega 3 as the critical item that we probably need to supplement because it is available in few food sources, and we simply do not consume enough of it in today’s diet.
These are all omega-3 fatty acids. ALA is the precursor to DHA and EPA, which are the forms that our body uses. Theoretically ALA can be converted to DHA and EPA, but our body does not do so efficiently. So eating things like flaxseed could help, but not as significantly as eating DHA and EPA. The best sources of omega-3 is widely believed to be fish oil. DHA can also be obtained from certain algae which vegetarians can also consume but these don’t contain EPA. I have found a spectrum of views on the importance of EPA but the bottom line is that it is a good thing, just not as good/important as DHA.
Choosing an omega 3 supplement
I start by saying that fish is a good source of omega 3. DHA and EPA is better absorbed by eating fish than from fish oil supplements. But mercury levels in fish is a concern so we tend to be cautious about going crazy on fish. If you prefer to obtain your DHA from natural food sources then pick fish with high DHA and low mercury levels like salmon. Eggs are another good source.
In supplements, fish sources are generally regarded as superior to plant sources. However, fish sources will carry concerns of mercury similar to eating fish itself. sources such as cod liver oil also contain a lot of vitamin A, which is toxic when overdosed. Hence, look out for the words “molecular distillation” and “pharmeceutical grade” on labels. Molecular distillation is essentially a process which removes impurities. Quite a bit of vitamin A will remain, together with other fat soluble vitamins like vitamin D, but almost all impurities like mercury will be removed. Best if the product is third party tested for impurities, which gives added protection.
Also, check the label for the DHA/EPA ratio. As mentioned, EPA is good but much lower on the importance charts compated to DHA. So pick one with a high DHA/EPA ratio and at least 200mg of DHA.
Freshness is also important as omega 3 oxidises easily. If you have a sharp nose, smelling the oil for fishy odours is the easiest way to determine freshness. However, if you are getting something with a certain “flavour”, this test is harder to carry out as the added flavouring’s smell will likely mask the fishy smell. Hence I do not recommend getting flavoured fish oil supplements. They are simply unnecessary if your oil is fresh. My daughter is happy to eat fish oil added directly to her cereal.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor/nutritionist/anyone with any professional expertise on this topic. My sources of information are wide and do encompass information on websites and books, some of which may not be the most accurate or may be written by authors with vested interest in promoting a certain view. Information here could be overly simplified in my bid to provide information that is easily understood by the average mum who has no time/desire to do extensive research or reading up on the topic.