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19 June 2008

Fish Oil


IAN HENSCHKE: For decades the public has been told that all fats and oils are not the same, especially when it comes to human health. And there's one fatty acid that has stood out and captured more and more attention. And that's Omega 3. It's found in dark green vegetables like broccoli and salad leaves and of course in fish and in fish oil. And in recent years, fish oil has been put forward as the wonder food for treating everything from dyslexia to depression.

DR CHRIS PEARSON, HEAD OF GENERAL MEDICINE, WOMEN'S AND CHILDREN'S HOSPITAL: People are always looking for the magic bullet which will solve the problem. It's not something where taking a few capsules a day is going to solve the problems.

DR DAVID TOPPING, CSIRO FOOD FUTURES: And a lot of work has shown, a very substantial body of work has shown that the Omega 3 fats found in fish oils are protective against coronary disease, against heart disease, and also against inflammatory diseases and certain cancers.

IAN HENSCHKE: A paper published this month in the UK found almost three quarters of children's performances in school were improved after taking fish oil for nine months. It's prompted the government there to consider giving children fish oil pills en masse. The State Government here says it's open to the idea as well. Now a new local study has discovered some dramatic results by using fish oil on children suffering from ADHD and other learning disorders.

NATALIE SINN, UNI SA SCHOOL OF HEALTH SCIENCES: But the parents of the fish-oil group reported these improvements. Personal comments that were made included comments like "He's just received his first good letter home from the school" or "He's now reading for an hour whereas before he couldn't concentrate for five minutes".

IAN HENSCHKE: Natalie Sinn from the University of South Australia's new Research Centre For Metabolic Fitness says her 30-week PhD study involved 132 children. Almost half showed marked improvement in behaviour but a lot more research funding is needed if we are to fully understand what's happening when we eat fish or take fish oil supplements.

NATALIE SINN: It's very difficult to get funding to do nutritional research as opposed to, for instance, drug research is funded by drug companies, so there's been a lot more research done on the drugs.

MOTHER OF ADHD CHILD: I have placed him on the medication and I can see a totally different little boy.

IAN HENSCHKE: The drugs used to treat ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are Ritalin and Dexamphetamine. Although the use of these stimulants has been controversial, these drugs, like the fish oil, have produced dramatic results and similar parent testimonials about their child's improved behaviour and performance.

MOTHER OF ADHD CHILD: Now he has the concentration to sit there and complete the tasks of his homework and do it beautifully.

IAN HENSCHKE: Dr Chris Pearson is the Head of General Medicine at the Women's and Children's Hospital and one of Australia's leading experts in ADHD. He's seen good results from the use of prescription drugs and he's sceptical about the remarkable results being ascribed to fish oil.

DR CHRIS PEARSON: There is an American study which shows that there was no benefit. This is a Japanese study which shows that there was no benefit.

IAN HENSCHKE: So I take it from what you're saying that a mass dosing of children through government schools would not be on your agenda?

DR CHRIS PEARSON: Not at this stage, I don't believe there's sufficient evidence.

IAN HENSCHKE: He even has a word of warning especially after the recent quality problems that poisoned people and closed the natural medicine company Pan Pharmaceuticals.

DR CHRIS PEARSON: We know, for instance, that fish accumulate pesticides and heavy metals and it's incredibly important that if this approach is to be followed that we are absolutely certain that there are no contaminants in the oil.

IAN HENSCHKE: So if you had young children, would you go out and buy fish oil capsules and start feeding them to them?

DR CHRIS PEARSON: Not at this stage, no.

IAN HENSCHKE: Do we eat enough fish though?

DR CHRIS PEARSON: Probably not, but it seems a much more logical and natural way to go to increase the fish in the diet rather than to be taking more capsules and pills.

IAN HENSCHKE: So while there's argument over ADHD and fish oil capsules, there's no argument about the health benefits of eating fish. But that poses another problem. With world fish stocks already depleted and declining the CSIRO says if everyone ate the amount of fish they're meant to there wouldn't be enough fish to go around. It believes the only answer to supply world demand for Omega 3 would be to modify canola to make it produced a land-based Omega 3 oil, a sort of fishola oil, and it's already working on it as part of its Food Futures Flagship program.

DR DAVID TOPPING: We're spending about $2 million a year to see if we can actually engineer the supply of oil that people are going to require. In the United States, for example, we know that certain companies are putting fish oils into dog food because it leads to improvement in the health of the pet. I mean, that's an extra demand on these diminishing stocks.