India’s omega-3 deficiency a potential ‘public health crisis’

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Omega-3 intake in India is among the lowest in the world. ©iStock
Omega-3 intake in India is among the lowest in the world. ©iStock

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India’s “shockingly low” level of EPA and DHA intake is storing up a potential health crisis, especially because life expectancy and therefore the rate of chronic illness is forecast to rise considerably over the coming decades.

The Omega-3 market, both in terms of fortification and supplements, is still in its infancy in the country, despite there being “an overwhelming need”​ for them in terms of cognitive, cardiac and infant health.

So claims Mike Roberts from EPA and DHA manufacturers and marketers association GOED Omega-3, who has called on industry and regulators to help tackle the problem.

Speaking at the Fi India show in Delhi, he said efforts to establish a reference daily intake (RDI) for omega-3s in the country had stalled in recent years.

He added while most European nations, and China, had set RDIs of 250mg a day – with many in the research community pushing for double that – even the biggest consumers of omega-3s in India were getting only 50mg.

“If you take the 500mg figure, which many scientists recommend, only 800m of the global population is getting that. That leaves another 6.2bn,”​ he added.

“Now if we could get people in China, the US and India to get up to that level, we’d have solved the problem for half the world,”​ he added.

The latest data form GOED suggests that just $343m of the global $33bn spent on omega-3 products come from south Asia – with more than 60% of that figure been spent on fortified infant formula.

“What is even more shocking in India is that surveys on pregnant women show an average consumption of just 20mg a day – that’s just awful,”​ Roberts said.

Pre-term births

He cited research that showed that if every pregnant woman was to receive the recommended RDI, it would reduce premature births before 34 weeks by 58%, and any pre-term birth by 17%.

Twenty-four percent of the world’s pre-term births are in India.

“The fact that EPA and DHA intake is so low in India is a potential health crisis that needs to be quickly addressed,”​ he added.

“No-one is saying that EPA and DHA prevents all pre-term births, but it does reduce the risk just by adding small amounts to the diet.”

Despite the market’s low base, Roberts said there were, however, encouraging signs of industry growth.

Demand from 2013 to 2014 grew by 11% in value and, more importantly, by 12% in volume, “despite the fact there are not a lot of fortified foods in India.”

He suggested manufacturers of foods and supplements should target the emerging middle classes in the 24-35 age group. He said there was evidence they were open to health and wellness advances, and that they would be able to educate their young children along similar lines.

“Companies need to invest in education and awareness for people in this age group in India and globally. Traditionally this activity is focused on older people, but this is where a big opportunity lies.”

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