Media watch: Discrediting DHA?


April Forristall, assistant editor

Published on
November 3, 2010

Fish oil is in the news this week, as the mainstream media reports on a study discrediting DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) as the widely beneficial omega-3 fatty acid it is widely believed to be.

A study conducted in Australia and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday suggested that DHA consumption has no effect on postpartum depression or infant cognitive development. The study was picked up by the mainstream media globally.

Headlines such as the International Business Times’ “Fish oil offers zero benefits to pregnant women: study,” ABC’s “Fish oil pills no help in pregnancy” and CNN’s “Fish oil doesn’t benefit new moms, babies” caught consumers’ eyes this week.

However, the study looked only at fish oil’s effects on postpartum depression and infants’ language skills and cognitive development, and furthermore it only examined fish oil supplements, not fish consumption in general.

So why does bad news about seafood and health spread like wildfire, while good news is often restricted to health journals and industry publications?

“When you’re on top, somebody wants to knock you off. Seafood is a nutritional darling, and we as an industry better be ready for any and all of that kind of negative press,” said Evie Hansen, founder of National Seafood Educators in Richmond Beach, Wash. “I don’t think we have to hang our head with one study — we have so many other attributes.

“Let’s just eliminate omega-3s and let’s go to vitamin D, let’s go to great sources of trace minerals, let’s go to low fat. Let’s talk about how we could have folks eating seafood with very few calories compared to other protein sources, and we haven’t even started,” added Hansen.

Many media outlets neglected to mention that the study’s authors do admit that direct fish consumption during pregnancy still leads to lower postpartum depression risk and better neurodevelopment among infants. The evidence for fish oil supplements has been less than unanimous and limited by methodological issues. Also absent from most coverage was that accompanying the study is an editorial written by doctors from Harvard University and Children’s Hospital Boston reiterating that expecting mothers should still consume the recommended daily intake of DHA via fish or supplements.

But not all of the coverage was lacking. Time magazine pointed out that the study’s results contradict previous findings in population-based studies that asked women about their DHA consumption after giving birth, showing that women who consumed higher levels of fish oil had a reduction in depressive symptoms compared to those who ate less. And a few sources highlighted the fact that at least one industry organization suggests that the trial was not reliable and did not consider other risk factors that could compromise the results.

Hansen doesn’t think the negative attention will do much damage to seafood’s healthful reputation.

“I get excited when there’s this kind of conversation going on because that means at least the conversation is open. It scares me if they’re not talking about us; it means nobody cares,” she said. “Of course they’re not going to tell the whole story, and so what? We know that there’s tremendous amounts of attributes way beyond omega-3s in seafood. I’m not going to back off telling pregnant women to eat it.”

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