The human brain develops rapidly during the first year of life, tripling in size by the age of one. Over 60 per cent composed of fat, the brain’s early development requires a good supply of polyunsaturated EFAs, which is why there are high levels in human breast milk compared to cow’s milk. Cow’s milk tends to be low in these types of fat but high in saturated fats, needed for rapid body growth – essential for survival in the wild.
Nutrients in breast milk have a significant effect on brain development in infants. Long-term breastfeeding is linked with higher scores in verbal, performance and IQ tests. Omega-6 arachidonic acid and omega-3 DHA are both important fats.
Attempts to alter the fat composition of cow’s milk to meet human requirements involved feeding cows fish meal, soya beans and flaxseed. Flaxseed produced a lower omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio but you could, of course, eat the flaxseed yourself and get better results!
Smart enough to be veggie?
According to Benjamin Franklin, the 18th century statesman and scientist, a vegetarian diet results in: “greater clearness of head and quicker comprehension.” Consider this – if fish oils really were the best source of EFAs then vegetarians would come bottom of the intelligence stakes. In fact the opposite seems to be true. In 2006, a team of veggies won the BBC’s Test the Nation IQ battle. The butchers came joint fourth – there was not a team of fishmongers!
The British Medical Journal provided more weighty evidence showing that intelligent children are more likely to become vegetarians. People who were vegetarians by the age of 30 had an IQ five points higher than average when they were 10. Perhaps not surprisingly, people with a higher IQ tend to be healthier – and vegetarians generally suffer less heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, various cancers, diverticular disease, bowel disorders, gallstones, kidney stones and osteoporosis.
If not eating fish was a serious threat to brain development, vegetarians would
generally fail at school, university and work. They don’t!
Fish oils for brainy kids?
The evidence that fish oil can improve brain power comes mainly from trials on children with behavioural problems and is largely anecdotal, not scientific.
The Durham- Oxford Study is the work usually quoted. Over 100 children with developmental coordination disorders (DCDs) such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and dyspraxia, were given a daily supplement of fish oils while others were given olive oil as a control.
After three months, there were significant improvements in reading, spelling and behaviour in those taking fish oil supplements. Perhaps not surprisingly, the conclusion was that EFA supplements are an effective way of improving the performance of children with these problems. At this time, Viva!Health asked the researchers in Durham if they would consider using flaxseed oil in future trials to see if similar results could be achieved without exposing children to potential toxins but our suggestions were completely ignored.
A follow-up trial in Durham was conducted more recently whereby three million fish oil capsules were given to 2,000 children over eight months to see if their GCSE results improved. Unfortunately the results were rather disappointing but this was not press-released by the County Council. In some very fast back-pedalling they said: “...it was never intended, and the County Council never suggested, that it would use this initiative to draw conclusions about the effectiveness or otherwise of using fish oil to boost exam results.” So it seems fish oil was not the magic bullet Durham Council was looking for.
Most children in the UK eat such appalling diets that nutritional deficiencies are inevitable. Correcting the deficiencies will, in many cases, improve performance of those kids. This is not the same as saying that fish oil will turn kids into geniuses, which is how the media interpreted the findings.
Publicity from this kind of research has encouraged companies to produce socalled functional foods, such as the St Ivel Advance Omega-3 milk. Adverts for this ‘clever milk’ implied that because of its fish omega-3 content, it may make children more intelligent. The Foods Standards Agency issued a short briefing which was prepared specifically in response to the St Ivel ‘clever milk’ campaign stating that: “the evidence on the cognitive benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which are found in fish oils, is currently uncertain.” Quite rightly, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that the adverts were misleading and the claims unproven, not least because results from trials involving children with learning difficulties could not be applied to all children. The adverts were withdrawn.
The Joint Health Claims Initiative operated between 2000 and 2007, checking the science behind health claims. During this period it approved claims for soya protein, oats and reduced saturated fat for their cholesterol-lowering effects and wholegrain foods for their benefits to heart health. It also approved health claims for omega-3 fats for healthy hearts. It did not approve any claims linking omega-3 fats to improved brain function.
In fact, fish oils may have no effect on cognitive ability at all and encouraging children to take them in the pursuit of cleverness may lead to far more serious health problems from toxic chemicals.