Nothing fishy about this


What every mother should know: Is DHA from fish oil safe?

IN recent years, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) has become one of the hottest buzzwords in nutrition.

Food manufacturers are getting creative by fortifying DHA into food products to enable consumers to get the DHA they need. DHA can now be found in most infant formula milk, eggs (Omega-3), yoghurt, juices, etc.

As awareness of the importance of DHA grows, more attention is being paid to the fact that pregnant and breastfeeding women may benefit from getting more DHA in their diets.

This article will focus on the importance of DHA for the growing foetus and infant brain, eye, and nervous system development; the difference between fish sourced DHA and vegetable sourced DHA and how to choose a good DHA supplement for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.

DHA for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers
DHA is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that can be found in every cell in the body. DHA represents about 97% and 93% of all omega-3 fatty acids in the brain and eyes respectively.

Developing infants cannot efficiently produce their own DHA and must obtain this vital nutrient through the placenta during pregnancy and from breast milk after birth.

How much DHA the foetus gets depends solely on the amount of DHA passed on from his mother’s DHA intake. If the mother’s intake is borderline or low, foetal DHA levels will drop.

Studies have shown that expectant mothers who take DHA supplements gave birth to infants with significantly higher levels of DHA in their brains.

Hence, we can establish that maternal DHA supplementation during pregnancy and breastfeeding significantly enhances the level of DHA available to the foetus and infant. Studies have shown that maternal DHA supplementation improves infant developmental outcomes, such as:

  • Eye-hand coordination
  • Motor skills
  • Longer attention span
  • Higher IQ scores

Dietary sources of DHA

  • Algae – Certain algae are natural sources of DHA. And while most people believe that fish produce their own DHA, in fact, it’s the algae they feed on that make them a rich source of DHA
  • Fatty fish including anchovies, salmon, herring, mackerel, tuna, and halibut
  • Organ meat such as liver
  • Small amounts are found in egg yolk

The American Heart Association, United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have all issued advisories on the consumption of fish. These warnings come in response to findings that certain fish contain methylmercury, a contaminant that when present at high levels could harm the developing nervous system of foetuses, newborns, and toddlers, with negative effects on attention span, language, visual-spatial skills, memory, and coordination.

It is estimated that nearly 60,000 children each year are born at risk for neurological problems due to methylmercury exposure in the womb.

To minimise the risk of mercury exposure, the FDA recommends that pregnant, breastfeeding mothers, and young children eat no more than 340 grams of cooked fish per week and choose a variety of fish rather than a single type. They are to avoid consuming big fish like shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel, which contain the highest levels of methylmercury.

Breast milk DHA versus fish oil DHA
Fish oil is derived from the tissues of oily fish and it contains both DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). However, ordinary fish oil supplements contain fairly large amounts of EPA and moderate amounts of DHA. In adults, both are digested and absorbed. However, in infants and foetuses, EPA might compete with DHA for a place in the nerve cell membranes and this may be detrimental to the developing brain, eye, and nervous system. In human breast milk, the amount of DHA is four times higher than the amount of EPA – Mother Nature knows best!

Processing fish oil
Some manufacturers produce their fish oil via a process called molecular distillation to eliminate methylmercury and other toxins found in fish.

However, this process does not remove 100% of methylmercury. With the present day technique, there will still be traces of toxins, which may be below detectable levels. It all depends on the sensitivity of the testing equipment.

Vegetable (algae) source DHA – a safer alternative
DHA supplements derived from algae are now available. They provide a safer option for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers who want the benefits of DHA for their babies without having to worry about methylmercury toxicity or high EPA contents.

One company has managed to produce DHA from patented strains of algae grown in large-scale fermentation tanks located away from the sea using filtered water – under tightly controlled GMP manufacturing conditions. Farmed algae located away from the sea means that there is no exposure to oceanic contaminants. DHA from algae source is also free from other long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids like EPA, which is found naturally in fish oil.

Recommended dosage
Experts from the National Institutes of Health and the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (NIH/ASSFAL) have recommended an intake of 300mg of DHA per day for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.

Many prenatal and infant milk formulas contain DHA, but their levels are usually low. Additional supplementation is still recommended.

Additionally, some research suggests that adequate levels of DHA in the maternal diet may play a role in helping a mother’s emotional well-being after birth.

Enteric-coated DHA
DHA supplements made from enteric-coated vegetable capsules is also an added advantage. The enteric coating protects the capsule from stomach acids and thus ensures that the capsule is disintegrated in the intestines, not in the stomach. The absorption of DHA is better when it is absorbed in the intestines. Furthermore, there will not be any after-taste when burping. This is an important point for a pregnant woman because she may be overly sensitive to certain smells.

In choosing a good quality DHA supplement for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, ensure that the source is from vegetable (algae) because it does not contain any toxins or have any EPA which is prevalent in most fish-sourced DHA supplements.

Ensuring a healthy, balanced diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding is of the utmost importance for both the mother and baby. Apart from getting the daily dose of DHA, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers should also take their prenatal supplements with higher amounts of calcium, iron, and folic acid to support their increased needs during this time.