Health check to identify omega-3 gap

The newly developed Omega-3 Index can identify a nutritional shortfall that can be easily addressed – with seafood

By Catherine Norwood

Omega-3 Centre logo

The importance of omega-3s in our diets is poised for a major public awareness boost with the development of a simple blood test that can accurately determine the levels of long-chain omega-3s in the body – in a similar way that tests already identify iron deficiencies or high cholesterol.

The test will allow medical practitioners to recommend dietary changes, such as consuming more seafood, to correct any deficiencies.

For the newly appointed executive director of the Omega-3 Centre Inc., Terri Albert, the introduction into Australia of the Omega-3 Index and the related blood test is an exciting and scientifically grounded opportunity to promote omega-3 consumption.

The Omega-3 Index relates to the risk of heart disease, which research shows is lowered with regular long-term intake of long-chain omega-3s, specifically eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acids (EPA + DHA; 20:5w3 + 22:6w3).

Terri Albert says it is a simple, finger-prick blood test that individuals can do on their own or in conjunction with their doctor and send for analysis.

She says rather than just recommending two to three serves of oily fish a week, the Omega-3 Index puts scientific rigour into the process of identifying how much is enough.

Terri Albert joined the Omega-3 Centre in 2015, bringing significant international experience in senior roles in innovation and R&D within the natural health and pharmaceuticals sector with a specialised focus on omega-3 developments.  

She says she is keen to strengthen connections with the seafood sector. “Supplements and fortified foods are good as an alternative for those who don’t eat seafood, or who don’t have access to it, but research continually shows that eating fresh seafood provides one of the best sources of omega-3s,” she says.

“We are actively supporting the seafood industry by sponsoring several key scientific gatherings, including the ANZ Marine Biotechnology Symposium held in April, and also the NZ Fats & Oils Seminar in November.

“We have also organised a joint Omega-3 Centre–Complementary Medicines Australia one-day symposium in Sydney on 14 September 2016, where William Harris, the professor who developed the omega-3 blood test, will present the benefits of his Omega-3 Index in detail,” she says. Other international and Australian experts will present on the day.

Joint initiative

The Omega-3 Centre is a joint Australian and New Zealand initiative, established in 2006, with the vision to help people to optimise their health through a desirable intake of long-chain omega-3 (≥C20) polyunsaturated fatty acids, reducing overall healthcare costs. The FRDC is one of the founding members, with a particular interest in the long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA most readily found in fish and considered essential in our diets.  

Terri Albert says the centre focuses on the health benefits of long-chain omega-3 regardless of the source, but predominantly from fresh oily fish, with the Heart Foundation restating the benefits of consuming seafood in 2015.

Long-chain omega-3s are widely researched for many specific medical and general health benefits. Some of the most broadly understood benefits to consumers are cognitive function, joint health, heart health including cholesterol management, and the importance of DHA in infant development, from pre-conception through to breastfeeding in maternal health.  

The Omega-3 Centre published Realising the Public Health Benefits of Long Chain Omega-3s in 2011, which summarises the Omega-3 Centre Scientific Consensus Meeting held in 2010. The booklet contains important messages including how to meet daily intake targets. The National Health and Medical Research Council suggests dietary intakes of 610 milligrams per day for men and 430 milligrams per day for women older than 14 years.

To achieve these levels via food, the target is two to three serves of good-quality oily fish per week, such as (but not limited to) salmon, trout, barramundi and canned sardines.

Members of the Omega-3 Centre encompass government organisations, such as the FRDC and CSIRO, seafood researchers and producers, raw material manufacturers and distributors, branded food marketers, infant formulation producers, dietary supplementation manufacturers and brand marketers. Universities and research bodies are also heavily involved.

Terri Albert says the centre aims to address the confusion that consumers face, especially given negative messages often raised in the media. She says in the US, articles warning of fresh fish “contaminated” with heavy metals such as mercury and pesticides resulted in a decline in seafood consumption. Pregnant women especially avoided eating fresh seafood, but the impact has flowed through to the dietary supplement markets as well.

Consumer concerns also exist in Australia, although there have been no reported cases of mercury poisoning from seafood consumption in Australia. These concerns have led the government advisory agency SafeFish to review the potential mercury risks for consumers, compared to the benefits of omega-3s in seafood (see Balancing the benefits of seafood).

FRDC Research Codes: 2010-313; 2015-212

More information

Terri Albert,

Omega 3 Centre