Current recommendations on essential fatty acid intake vary between counties and populations, but are around 4% of energy for linoleic acid (omega-6) and 0.25% for alpha linolenic acid (omega-3).
Gert Meijer, vice president of Unilever Nutrition, told FoodNavigator.com that recent scientific consensus on the role essential fatty acids is shifting from disease prevention to optimal development. With new FAO/WHO recommendations based on the most recent scientific consensus in the works, he believes recommendations could go up to 10% of energy for linoleic and 2% for alpha linolenic acid.
Moreover, recommendations are expected to be set for docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, an omega-3) as it is now considered an essential fatty acid, which was not the case before.
Meijer said it is very difficult to get the ideal nutrient levels from food sources, such as nuts and fish, without unbalancing the diet in other areas. For instance, eating enough nuts to meet new essential fatty acid recommendations would mean exceeding energy recommendations.
“While it is recommended to eat more essential fatty acids, it is not necessary to increase energy intake,” he said. Current efforts to curb obesity include attention to energy (calorie) intake.
In processed food products, Meijer identified two main strategies for increasing essential fatty acid levels without affecting energy. One is increasing essential fatty acids at the expense of refined carbohydrates, which increase coronary heart disease risk; the other, applicable in non-carb containing products like margarines, mayonnaise and dressings, is replacing saturated fatty acids or monounsaturated fatty acids.
Symposium on latest science
This week Unilever held its 9th annual nutrition symposium, which was attended by about 90 external experts, over 100 Unilever nutritionists based around the world, and around 100 Unilever employees with other functions, such as product development and marketing.
Meijer said the two-day event fosters interaction between internal and external experts and the people who devise food products. The discussions will feed into product development strategy, as for the last 30 years Unilever’s nutrition policy has involved continuously monitoring and acting on scientific developments.
“Nutrition is a developing science, those developments have consequences for all of our products’ compositions,” he said.
“We share our ideas with external experts, to see whether we are on target, and whether they endorse our conclusions. Do our conclusions reflect scientific conclusions worldwide?”
The first day of the event looked at recent reviews in the areas of pregnancy outcomes, cognitive function, cardiovascular health, immune health, and data on high essential fatty acid intake by children.
In particular, evidence from the STRIP study in Finland (Special Turku coronary Risk factor Impact Project) is interesting because it might indicate that essential fatty acids intake in childhood is connected to reducing cardiovascular disease risk later in life. The STRIP study began over 20 years ago, and recent results indicate that blood lipid profiles look better in the group with higher essential fatty acid intakes. It is too early to draw conclusions on impact on cardiovascular disease, however, as the participants are still in their 20s.
Meijer said it is important to have a multi-channel, multi-tier approach to attaining optimal essential fatty acid intakes. Even when scientific consensus is reached “nothing will happen automatically”.
“Policy makers do not automatically transfer scientific conclusions into policy and it is not necessarily executed in the right way.”
Joint efforts are called for between the food industry, governments, NGOs and other stakeholders, in particular for increased awareness.
“Most consumers are interested in health, but their view of health does not necessarily match what a nutrition scientist considers to be healthy foods,” Meijer said. “It’s not the fault of consumers, but there is need for better communication and guidance.”
“We need to be crisp and clear in terms of messages. Claims are important but have to be easily understood.”