Building a better brain

by Eric Schroeder
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When it comes to brain health, omega-3s and other healthy fats aren’t simply playing mind games.

Research in recent years on omega-3 fatty acids, and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in particular, have shown promising results for heart and brain health. DHA is a nutrient found in algae, fish and human breast milk, and also is the main omega-3 fatty acid in humans’ brain and eyes.

While consumers have taken fish oil supplements and other capsules for years looking for a mental edge, more work is being done to identify what those benefits are and how they may be achieved through dietary changes.

Hope is high that a new study under way may help shed some light on omega-3s and their potential to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease. Using a pure form of DHA made from algae — no contaminants from fish — researchers at 51 universities and medical centers nationwide are conducting an 18-month study to test the effects of omega-3s in individuals in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, through a grant to the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study, 400 participants, ages 50 and older with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, randomly have been assigned to one of two groups. The first group consists of 60% of the participants who are receiving DHA in capsule form four times each day, for a total of 2 grams of DHA per day; the remaining 40% are receiving identical placebo pills containing no omega-3 fatty acids.

To help control the conditions of the study, participants will not be allowed to take additional omega-3 supplements and fish oil during the duration of the study, and have been urged to limit their consumption of cold water fish.

All participants will be monitored and assessed regularly as long as the study lasts. The study will measure thinking ability, memory and other attributes at eight points during the study. In addition, blood samples will be drawn to look for biomarkers related to Alzheimer’s disease.

R. Scott Turner, M.D., Ph.D., chief of neurology service for VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, is the specialist leading the study at the University of Michigan.

"There is much supportive preclinical data to support a clinical trial — from epidemiology studies (asking subjects about their diet to see if there are items that may influence memory decline), and from study of cells in culture and from mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease," Dr. Turner said of the study.

While the Alzheimer’s study is focused on omega-3s in capsule form, Dr. Turner said other areas of interest in regard to preservation of memory with aging by diet/compounds in the diet include curcumin, antioxidants found in fruits such as blueberries, and ginko.

"Once good treatments for (Alzheimer’s disease) are discovered, the next frontier will focus on finding those at highest risk of developing the disease, and prevention instead of treatment," he said. "One such category is subjects with MCI (mild cognitive impairment), or ‘borderline dementia.’"

Curcumin, which was mentioned by Dr. Turner as an area of interest, primarily has been valued for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. An active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin was identified in a study late last year as being able to help boost the immune system of specific Alzheimer’s disease patients.

The study, conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, said curcumin may support the body’s natural immune fighting function in directly helping macrophages clean away amyloid-beta.

A nod to nutrition

Nutritionists, too, have taken note of the stepped-up interest in research geared toward brain health. Christine Gerbstadt, M.D., R.D., a specialist in sports dietetics and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, said healthy fats are drawing the most interest when it comes to brain health. She pointed to antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, flax seed oil, phytochemicals, herbal teas and liquid "potions" as the principal areas of activity.

"Healthy fats are scientifically legitimate to support brain health, some of the ‘potions’ less so," Ms. Gerbstadt said. "The baby boomers are approaching late middle-age and the golden years and are desperate to try anything that can reduce loss of cognitive function, whether from stroke, tumors, inflammation, Alzheimer’s, etc."

She said a moderate fat diet derived mostly from plant oil sources may help reduce arteriosclerotic plaque buildup to reduce the risk of strokes, while antioxidants and phytochemicals may reduce inflammation, a harbinger of reduced cognition.

Another spokesperson for the A.D.A., Kerry Neville, M.S., R.D., said she sees maintaining a healthy body weight as playing a key role in protecting the brain.

"One long-term study of 1,500 adults found that those who were obese at middle age were more likely to develop dementia later on," Ms. Neville said. "People with high blood pressure and high cholesterol had six times the risk of developing dementia."

Looking ahead, Ms. Gerbstadt said she sees an even more in-depth examination of fats and their role in the diet.

"We will see more pan-partisan mention in the upcoming elections concerning healthier foods legislation, particularly in saturated fat and total fat," she said. "Trans fat is the tip of the iceberg. People are just starting to realize that trans fat alone makes little dent in the unhealthy food sources of fat available today."

New products in play

Looking beyond research to the companies hoping to make a larger dent in the market for healthy and environmentally friendly foods, Henry & Lisa’s Natural Seafood, Dover, N.J., recently launched a line of easy-to-prepare, sustainable seafood with an eye toward improving cognitive development, particularly for children.

Wild Alaskan Fish Nuggets, made from Alaskan Pollock, contain no trans fat and provide 230 mg of omega-3s per serving, making them a "serious source of brain food" for children, according to Henry & Lisa’s.

"Our goal is to provide a product that offers a solution," said Henry Lovejoy, founder of Henry & Lisa’s Natural Seafood. "All of our products contain healthy omega-3s, are easy to prepare, have no antibiotics, chemicals, hormones or preservatives."

In addition to the new line of nuggets for children, the company offers single servings of Teriyaki Wild Alaskan Salmon and Caribbean Mahimahi, as well as Natural Cooked White Shrimp.

Another company active in omega-3s is Ocean Nutrition Canada Ltd., Dartmouth, N.S. Ocean Nutrition supplies MEG-3 omega-3 EPA/DHA food and dietary supplement ingredients to a number of companies, including Danone Canada Inc., which in mid-July announced it has expanded its Danino Go line to include a drinkable yogurt.

The new Danino Go Drinkable is the third yogurt product Danone Go has launched containing

MEG-3. Each 93-ml bottle of Danino Go Drinkable contains 20 mg of MEG-3 DHA omega-3 and is available in four flavors: banana, strawberry, raspberry and strawberry-banana.

"We’re excited to expand the Danino brand from traditional yogurts to drinkable yogurts, both containing the MEG-3 brand of DHA," said Calvin Hwang, director of marketing for Danone Canada. "Now kids have two delicious ways to contribute to their daily requirement of both dairy and DHA to help them reach their full potential."

Martek makes major moves

Martek Biosciences, a maker of DHA omega-3, made news with its announcement it has entered the school food service market for the first time. The Columbia, Md.-based company will feature its patented, vegetarian form of DHA omega-3, life’sDHA, in Ricos cheese sauce.

Sold to schools across the United States, the cheese sauce will provide 32 mg of DHA per serving in the standard food service packaging of No. 10 cans, 15-oz cans and 140-oz pouches. A 3.5-oz single-serve cup, which contains 50 mg of DHA, also will be offered, Martek said.

A week earlier, Martek made international news with its announcement it has received approval from the Ministry of Health in China to use the company’s life’sDHA as a novel food ingredient.

Since 2001, Martek’s life’sDHA and life’sARA (arachidonic acid), an omega-6 fatty acid, have been used in infant formula throughout China, but the latest approval will allow Martek to include its ingredient in foods, beverages and supplements in China in persons older than 12 months.

Martek’s life’sDHA is made from microalgae free of contaminants that may be present in certain fish or fish oils. Microalgae are the only vegetarian source of DHA omega-3, which is key for brain and eye development and function.

"There is a large and growing body of scientific evidence demonstrating that people of all ages, from infants to aging adults, benefit from an adequate supply of DHA omega-3 in their diets," said Martek, which earlier this year opened a representative office in Shanghai. "Scientific reviews have noted the importance of DHA omega-3 in proper brain and eye function, and there are studies currently under way to investigate its role in decreasing the prevalence of certain neurological disorders."

Global group for EPA and DHA omega-3s grows

In a little less than a year, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s, or GOED, has grown to include more than 40 companies.

GOED was founded last October by 12 companies with the common goal of helping maintain the growth of the markets for omega-3 products by educating consumers, health care professionals and governmental bodies about the benefits of the fatty acids.

"In nine months we have grown very rapidly and have already been able to provide significant value to our members by working on issues like European health claims and import regulations, U.S. intake references, and international market research," said Adam Ismail, executive director of GOED. "The diversity of our membership is an exciting part of GOED’s work. Our membership includes multinationals and small privately owned companies, companies from five different continents, and ingredient and consumer product companies, all united in growing and protecting the category by improving product quality and maintaining high standards."

Newest members to GOED include Unilever, NourishLife and Nutrition 21, joining a roster of member companies that already includes Cargill, DSM Nutritional Products, Martek Biosciences, Monsanto, Ocean Nutrition Canada and The Solae Co., among others.

Robert Orr, chairman of GOED, said the association will launch several initiatives in the coming months, including the founding of an omega-3 education center with a leading American university. In addition, the group plans to establish a web site with exclusive content and research for members, publish white papers on important omega-3 topics, and develop an editorial program to spread the word about omega-3s.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, September 4, 2007, starting on Page 27. Click here to search that archive.

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