There was no big drama, just a long and arduous road

Norman Salem

The milk of human kindness

Back in 1973 a young grad student was shown the molecular structure of a then largely-ignored omega 3 acid called DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). “I knew immediately that what I was looking at was beautiful, elaborate and different from any molecule I'd ever seen,” says Dr Norman Salem of DSM.

Norman Salem

Today, DHA is a staple of infant milk formulations and can be found in everything from sports drinks to supplements – largely thanks to its ability to increase human brain and eye function, as well as immunity to disease. And Norman has been there every step of the way…

“Although sourced primarily from oily fish like mackerel, DHA is also found in incredibly high concentrations in human breast milk,” he explains. “I didn’t know much about nutrition back then but it occurred to me: ‘What happens to all those children who aren’t breast-fed? How do we ensure they get their DHA?”

For the next 30 years, Norman championed the cause of DHA as a nutritional supplement through his work at the National Health Institute in the United States. The big breakthrough came through a series of supplementation and deficiency studies in 80s and 90s. “We began to realize that memory and learning really were significantly affected by DHA,” he recalls. “There was no big drama, just a long and arduous road.”

Job done? Not quite. With DHA firmly established on supermarket shelves, Norman could have forgiven for taking comfortable retirement – until in 2007 he was persuaded to join the commercial sector, developing a second generation of DHA. “I decided I wanted to finish the job I started all those years ago.”

Today, Norman and his team at DSM are perfecting new ways to produce DHA, from both algae and oily fish. The new process for algae-based DHA will be more efficient and thus more affordable for young mothers and other consumers; and just as importantly it will have no impact on the world’s dwindling wild fish stocks.

“I got into this branch of science to improve public health. But now we’re discovering entirely new ways to benefit society,” says Norman.

Some 43-years later, scientific curiosity still hasn’t got the better of him…

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