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Home > Culture and Society

Something Fishy This Way Comes

8 September 2006

This week it was announced that around 5,000 secondary school pupils in County Durham are to be offered daily doses of fish oil to see whether it improves their exam results. This can only be a good thing: whatever the effect on exam results, children should be taught at an early age that life is cruel and deals unpleasant surprises, and what better way to demonstrate this than a daily spoonful of fish juice?

Actually things have moved on since the days of being force-fed cod liver oil, and fish oil supplements these days, in capsule or liquid form, are by all accounts quite tasty, coming in a variety of fruity flavours. But however palatable they may be, it seems that the benefits of fish oils have become an accepted fact in the general consciousness.

This is no doubt what has sparked the project in County Durham.
The county council's chief schools inspector Dave Ford believes that fatty oils can improve concentration and learning, and so all Year 11 pupils in the area will be encouraged to take the omega-3 pills until their GCSE examinations in summer 2007. However, not everyone is quite so convinced about the benefits of omega-3. The Food Standards Agency says: 'Evidence of the cognitive benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids is uncertain.' Meanwhile Professor Mike Lean, head of the department of human nutrition at Glasgow University, has commented: 'There have only been a couple of studies showing improvements in concentration with omega-3 supplementation. I find their results implausible and other studies have not produced the same dramatic effects.'

Other experts have criticised the lack of a control group in the County Durham experiment. Dr Alex Richardson of Food and Behaviour Research told the BBC that although properly conducted trials of omega-3 had benefited some children, 'the real burning question is whether they will help children in general. The Durham project is taking for granted that fish oils will help. There is no control and there must be a placebo. You cannot give omega-3 to every child and then say that the supplements have made a difference'.

And you don't have to be a psychologist to speculate that any benefits of giving children omega-3 might have a psychological, not physical, cause. Imagine you take a group of children and say to them 'These supplements are going to make you cleverer which will make you do better in school'. If you've got a group of kids who are sufficiently interested in the project, it's entirely possible they'll be enthused by it and start paying more attention in class because they're 'the clever kids'. You can see the same enthusiasm when kids are given any sort of project to do - like decorating a wall with a collage. And like making collages, it's questionable whether the enthusiasm will be sustainable.

Read up on omega-3, and again and again the same comment keeps coming up from people who are medically or scientifically qualified: 'More research is needed.' But as soon as there's *some* evidence that something has medicinal benefits, it tends to snowball. This is neatly illustrated by the fact that Boots sells something called 'Smart Omega 3 Fish Oils'. Note the use of the word 'smart'. The cognitive benefits of omega-3 oils are far from proven, but what can only be described as a 'buzz' surrounding them means that they're being marketed as somehow improving brain function.

We can't help but think that if schools or parents want to make their kids smarter, it would be more worthwhile to give them a few lessons about the basics of the scientific method than giving them get-smart-quick pills which, to say the least, are distinctly fishy.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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