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UPDATED: November 29, 2010 NO. 48 DECEMBER 2, 2010
Fish, But Not Mac
Scientists highlight the benefits of the traditional Chinese diet

CARE FOR HEALTH: Nutriment rich in DHA is popular in China (CFP)

In October this year, the Chinese Ministry of Health issued a draft regulation for comments on a standard for nutritious additives in food, which said DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, content should not be higher than 0.5 percent of total fatty acids. This particular provision attracted wide attention from parents who questioned whether DHA, sometimes known as "brain gold," is useful in brain development or not.

DHA is a component of brains, particularly synaptic junctions between nerve cells. It is mostly found in fish and other seafood.

Chinese supermarkets sell a variety of milk powders, some of which are not for babies but for pregnant mothers. People born in the 1980s and enjoying relatively affluent life have a whole new mindset when it comes to raising a baby. They believe a child must have the best of everything from the embryo phase onward.

Milk powder companies now heavily promote milk powder formulas which they claim have special elements for pregnant mothers. The element they most like to brag about in the powder is DHA.

In 1990, Michael Crawford, Director of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition of London Metropolitan University (LMU), raised the concept of DHA, and underlined its significance in stimulating brain development.

As Crawford said, about 70 percent of brain cells divide before a baby is born. Brain development needs good fats, or to be exact, fish fats. In the last third of pregnancy, 70 percent of all energy that comes from the mother goes into brain development.

Wang Yiqun, a researcher of brain chemistry at LMU, said people's brains develop the fastest during the embryonic period and will gradually stop growing when they are 2 years old. The size of the brain of a baby is similar to the size of his/her parents, but other parts of the body, like the hands or feet, are much smaller than the size of an adult's.

Therefore, Wang said the maternal and infantile intake of DHA is critical for a person's brain development.

"DHA-supplemented milk is not as good as eating fish alone. Fish has the best package you can get," said Crawford in an interview with Beijing Review on the sidelines of the 2010 International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization Annual Conference in Beijing on October 25.

In China, DHA is often referred to as "brain gold," after its significance in enhancing brain and visual activity development was accepted by the Chinese people a few years ago.

Hu Ruomei, a nutrition expert from Tianhe Hospital in Tianjin Municipality, said the human body cannot produce DHA by itself, and must get it through food. She said pregnant women should eat more fish to get DHA instead of turning to supplements.

Hu said DHA intake is also good for senior citizens as it helps prevent dementia, reduces the chance of cardiovascular disease. Scientists have discovered the fish eye area is rich in DHA.

Crawford also promoted the idea of marine agriculture. He said there is no such thing in China or England or Europe at present. Marine agriculture is agricultural production in the sea, or in other words—farming the sea. Marine agriculture is still not popular on China's coastline, even though there are huge marine pastures in the coastlines around the world.

The government has to start marine agriculture, and companies would follow suit. The government has to take serious measures to prevent pollution of estuaries, which destroys the place where the fertility of the land feeds the sea and starts the marine food chain.

"If you kill it with pollution, with heavy metals, with mercury, lead, toxins, then you kill a very important part of the marine food chain, and you are sabotaging the livelihood of the fishermen and people who live around the estuaries," Crawford said.

Marine agriculture needs to expand beyond oyster farming to crabs, lobsters and to fish the way the Japanese are doing.

In spite of the many virtues of DHA, Hu said it was never good to take excessive amounts of any nutritive element. "DHA easily becomes oxidized and it certainly does no good to our health if we take oxidized DHA," Hu said. Research shows excess intake of DHA can result in digestion problems for infants and might decrease their immunity. Adults and children with normal blood-fat levels might experience falls in those levels if they take too much DHA.

Hu said people should stop eating over processed fast food in preference for a healthy food package of "fish, vegetables, fruit and rice." Eating meat on occasion was important for iron intake.

At present, diabetes and obesity are gradually coming down due to people's increasing awareness of those diseases. The next big thing that will plague the world, especially the Western world, is mental health, said Crawford.

"If mental health illness continues to rise this century as heart disease did last century, it would be the end of humanity," he said.

"The Chinese people have a good diet. But now traditional diet is being undermined by importation of Western foods, not just hamburgers, but the whole thing—sausages, potato chips, ham and so on," said Crawford.

Bad fats have been a major cause of the increase in deaths from heart disease which were a rarity at the beginning of the 20th century, but by 1970 had become the number one killer.

"The brain will be the next to be damaged by bad fats," said Crawford.

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