Speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia ahead of the upcoming summit, Dr Femke Hannes, DSM Nutritional Products APAC's regional lead for Nutrition, Science and Advocacy said much could be done on the policy front, such as setting recommendations for intake, especially for the prevention of preterm births.
She then referred to a recent cost-benefit analysis that had been conducted in the US and Australia, saying: "The researchers found that if an omega-3 supplement were provided to every pregnant woman during her second and third trimesters, in the US alone, they would save US$6bn in healthcare expenditure.
"In Singapore, this would also be significant. The annual preterm birth rate is around 9.5% — about 4,000 babies — and there is currently no primary prevention strategy against preterm birth.
"But with this compelling evidence, putting this into practice would mean a huge step forward in terms of public health benefits."
Improved communication, increased compliance
Hannes, who will be speaking at the summit about the protective effects of omega-3 against preterm births, said industry could do more to raise awareness and increase compliance among consumers, especially in the areas of scientific evidence and product innovation.
"Awareness is still lacking, especially with regards to the risk of preterm birth (before 37 weeks of gestation) and early preterm birth (before 34 weeks of gestation).
"A recent Cochrane review has brought some compelling science to the foreground, which says women who have a high intake of DHA and EPA during pregnancy have a much lower risk of preterm or early preterm delivery.
"Industry can do more to raise awareness among consumers by bringing this science to healthcare professionals like obstetricians and gynaecologists. Improving communication with consumers will lead to increased compliance."
She added that sufficient maternal consumption of EPA and DHA would lead to long-term cognitive health benefits and lower risk of developing allergies in offspring.
She also stressed that it was near impossible to achieve this through diet alone — in addition to consuming fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, supplementation was required, especially to ensure the recommended daily intake of 500mg of DHA.
"Compliance rate is low partly because omega-3 pills and capsules tend to be very large and off-putting to most people. So if industry can bring new applications to the foreground that make it easier for people to increase their intake, compliance will improve."
Hannes then went on to explain what consumers should know before purchasing omega-3 supplements: "In the short term, there might be a difference in bioavailability among different types of supplements, like triglycerides and phospholipids, but in the long-term, you don’t see the effects.
"It's important for consumers to know this and to buy only high-quality omega-3 products. There are different products with different omega-3 concentrations, and choosing a supplement that delivers the recommended daily requirement is key."
Sourcing and testing: What's next?
More science and innovation around non-fish sources of omega-3 have been emerging of late, and DSM itself has explored this area extensively.
The company has an omega-3 portfolio consisting of several alternatively sourced omega-3 products, including life'sDHA (an algal source of omega-3 rich in DHA) and life'sOMEGA (an algal source of EPA and DHA said to have heart health benefits).
In relation to this, Hannes explained that EPA and DHA derived from fish come from the algae they consume, making vegetarian- and vegan-friendly marine sources of omega-3 no less viable than fish sources.
However, Hannes said consumers looking for omega-3 supplements suitable for vegetarians and vegans should know the fundamental differences between algal omega-3 sources, and non-marine sources such as chia seeds and flaxseed oil.
"People must find sources that bring them an optimal form of EPA and DHA. Ingredients like chia seeds and flaxseed oil may provide some form of omega-3, but it's actually a precursor to preformed EPA and DHA.
"In the human body, the conversion from this precursor to preformed EPA and DHA is very low, which is why I would not recommend replacing marine sources of omega-3 with plant sources. The latter is nice to have as an additional supplement, but is not a suitable alternative to omega-3 derived from fish or algae."
DSM, a diamond sponsor at the upcoming first-ever NutraIngredients Omega-3 Summit, will also be unveiling a new personalised testing kit at the event.
Developed by one of the firm's industry partners, OmegaQuant, the test is meant specifically for pregnant women, and uses the finger-prick method to measure DHA levels so expectant mothers know if they are consuming sufficient omega-3.
The NutraIngredients Omega-3 Summit will be held from February 20 to 22 in Singapore. Register as a delegate here.