A trial designed to evaluate the effectiveness of omega-3 on the learning and concentration of children is being held up by a shortage of funds as the Foods Standards Agency reviews existing evidence.
The delay comes as Dairy Crest was forced to withdraw claims in adverts that its omega-3 enriched St Ivel Advance 'clever milk' could enhance learning and concentration.
Dr Alex Richardson, a senior research fellow at Oxford university, said what was needed was a trial with at least 1,000 mainstream children. "The frustrating thing is that we have already designed such a trial, but there isn't the money to fund it. We need £1-1.5M. What seems incredible is that the government is even considering the massive expense of supplementing schoolchildren's diets with omega-3 without first establishing through proper research precisely what the cognitive benefits are for mainstream children."
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rejected as misleading claims that St Ivel Advance milk could enhance learning and concentration in some children. The firm agreed to drop the claims from its high-profile ad campaign featuring Professor Lord Robert Winston.
Richardson said she was "not remotely surprised" that the ASA had rejected the claims. "The ads go beyond the available evidence. The Oxford-Durham study, which I worked on and to which Dairy Crest refers to support its case, was specifically about the effects of omega-3 supplementation on children with developmental co-ordination disorders, not mainstream children."
She added: "What we need is a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with at least 1,000 mainstream children before we can make any claims about the benefits of omega-3 on the general population."
Dairy Crest said it would not appeal against the ASA ruling. "We maintain our belief that there is strong scientific evidence to support the claim. However, we will of course abide by the ASA's decision." The FSA said that "no clear conclusions" could be drawn regarding the cognitive benefits of fish oils from the available evidence.