NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Fortified juice could offer an alternative to fish for boosting levels of healthy omega-3 fats in children, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that orange juice fortified with the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) was able to raise blood levels of DHA in 31, 4- to 12-year-olds who drank the juice for six weeks.
The findings indicate that souped-up juice is one effective way to deliver the fatty acid, the researchers report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
What's still unclear, they say, is whether there are health benefits to doing so.
DHA is one of the essential fatty acids, meaning the human body does not synthesize it and it must be consumed through food. DHA is abundant in the brain and retina, and is believed to play an important role in early brain and eye development.
Fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel, are the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids. However, with the exception of breaded fish sticks -- which are not made from omega-3-rich fatty fish -- children tend to shun fish.
So finding kid-friendly alternatives is important, according to Keli M. Hawthorne of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, the lead researcher of the new study.
"Fortifying juice with DHA is a realistic approach to helping children increase the amount of DHA in their diet," Hawthorne told Reuters Health.
There are already a couple such juice brands on the market, and certain other foods -- such as eggs, cereal, bread and even chocolate -- are available with added DHA.
But this is the first study, Hawthorne noted, to show how effective such foods may be at increasing children's blood levels of DHA.
For their study, the researchers used orange juice fortified with DHA derived from algae. They randomly assigned 31 children to drink juice containing either 50 milligrams (mg) or 100 mg of DHA every day for six weeks.
At the end of the study, children in both groups showed increases in their blood levels of DHA, on average.
The remaining question is whether those increases translate into health benefits. Still, Hawthorne said, parents who are concerned that their children are not getting enough DHA could try juice or other foods enriched with the fatty acid.
"Although we are still not certain what the direct health benefits are in children," she said, "it is clear that most children do not meet the recommended guidelines for fish intake that would provide DHA."
The study was funded by the Coca-Cola Company, which provided the DHA-enriched orange juice.
SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, April 2009.