EFSA supported the role of these fats in fetal and newborn eye and brain development but said there was an adequate supply in breast milk. Their rejection of the need for supplementation did not please those that back omega-3 supplementation in infants and other population sub-groups.
These groups say that EFSA ignored intervention studies, and did not take into account the totality of evidence before it.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) confirmed that omega-3 fats benefit eye and cognitive development in babies, but stopped short of recommending additional supplementation. Their reasoning was that babies acquire most of the omega-3 fat DHA from breast milk, which appeared to contain an adequate supply of this healthy fat.
Typically I am completely in favor of obtaining your healthy fats, vitamins and other nutrients from the food you eat. However, animal-based omega-3's are one exception where I believe taking a supplement is very important.
There are two major reasons for this. First, the food source of omega-3, which is fish and other seafood, is not a safe option. Unfortunately, the vast majority of our fish supply is now so heavily contaminated with industrial pollutants and toxins like mercury, PCBs, heavy metals and radioactive poisons that I just can’t recommend it any longer.
Even the slow-to-react FDA and EPA have put out health advisories warning against certain fish and shellfish consumption for young children, women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, and nursing mothers.
The second major reason why a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat supplement is so important is because many people, including pregnant women, are deficient.
Omega-3 Fat Deficiency is Very Common
Omega-3 deficiency is likely the sixth biggest killer of Americans, and may be a significant underlying factor of up to 96,000 premature deaths each year.
Most women have major deficiencies of this fat as well, and given the statistics, it’s very possible you do too.
A study in March 1991 at the Mayo Clinic of 19 “normal” pregnant women consuming “normal” diets showed that all were deficient in omega-3 fats. Another study of Inuit (Eskimo) women, compared to Canadian women, revealed omega-3 deficiency in the milk of the Canadian nursing mothers.
Why is this important? Because animal cells cannot form omega-3 fats, a fetus must obtain all of its omega-3 fatty acids from its mother’s diet. A mother’s dietary intake and plasma concentrations of DHA directly influence the DHA status of the developing fetus.
Even the EFSA wrote:
“…while DHA can be synthesized in the human body from its precursor essential fatty acid ALA to a certain extent, the human fetus appears to be largely dependent on placental transfer of DHA from the mother derived either from her diet, from synthesis or from stores in adipose tissue.
The Panel also noted that most DHA is provided to the breast-fed infant via breast milk in which the DHA concentration is dependent both on maternal dietary intake and maternal DHA stores, while the contribution by synthesis is low.”
Since a fetus is dependent on the omega-3 fat from its mother’s diet, and a baby is also dependent on the omega-3 fat from this source as well (via breast milk), it’s essential that women have adequate supplies. Yet, most women do not get enough from diet alone.
Why Omega-3 Fat is So Important for Babies’ Development
Omega-3 fat and its derivative DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are so essential to a child's development that if a mother and infant are deficient in it, the child's nervous system and immune system may never fully develop, and it can cause a lifetime of unexplained emotional, learning, and immune system disorders.
DHA makes up 15 percent to 20 percent of the cerebral cortex and 30 percent to 60 percent of the retina so it is absolutely necessary for normal development of the fetus and baby.
Dr. Juliane Kleiner, head of EFSA's Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA), wrote:
“DHA has a structural and functional role in the brain and retina and maternal DHA intake can contribute to the early development of the eye and normal cognitive development in the fetus and the [breast]-fed infant.”
Omega-3s contain a powerhouse of nutrients to ensure that your baby will develop properly and reach its highest potential. These nutrients help to maximize the intelligence of your child, and protect your baby from brain injuries such as autism, pervasive developmental delay, and ADHD.
Studies have shown that sufficient levels of omega-3 fats optimize brain growth in children, especially during the third trimester.
Because the fetus depends on the mother’s DHA sources, the constant drain on a mother's DHA reserves can easily lead to a deficiency and some researchers believe that preeclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood pressure) and postpartum depression could be linked to a DHA deficiency -- just one more reason why it’s so important to maintain your levels during pregnancy.
Omega-3 is Also Essential for Preventing Premature Delivery
Aside from the benefits to your baby’s brain and eyes, optimizing your omega-3 intake will virtually guarantee that your baby will be full term. Prematurity is the leading cause of death during a baby's first month of life, and serious complications can occur later in life for preemies who survive.
Studies show that the earlier a child is born, the higher the risk of complications, including:
Respiratory distress syndrome
Bleeding in the brain
Less ability to fight off infection due to immature immune system
Vision and hearing loss.
The good news is that the DHA in animal-based omega-3 fats will prevent the vast majority of premature deliveries, as well as the other complications listed above.
What is the Best Source of Omega-3 Fat?
In my view, krill oil is your best option when it comes to obtaining important high-quality animal-based omega-3 fats. It contains essential EPA and DHA in a double-chain phospholipid structure that makes it far more absorbable than the omega-3s in fish oil.
Krill oil also contains vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin D and astaxanthin, which is a potent anti-oxidant. Research has shown the antioxidant potency of krill oil is, in terms of ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorptance Capacity) values, 48 times more potent than fish oil.
It is important to note that plant-based omega 3 fats do not provide the same benefits as animal-based, because most of us can’t convert the ALA in plant-based fats to the appropriate amount of DHA that is required.
So flax seeds, walnuts, and other plant sources of omega-3 should not be substituted for animal omega-3s. You simply will not receive the same benefits because they are not metabolized as efficiently. You will ultimately be relatively deficient in DHA and EPA if you rely completely on plant sources of omega-3, which have no EPA and DHA and must rely on your body to make the conversion of the ALA to the higher carbon chain fats.
If you want even more tips on how to optimize your baby’s healthy during pregnancy and beyond, please read my No-Nonsense Guide to a Naturally Healthy Pregnancy and Baby.