Last Updated on March 10, 2010 by Jimson Lee
This is Part 1 of a 2 Part series.
When reading fish oil supplement labels:
- Make sure the type of fish from which the fish oil is extracted is listed.
- Look for terms “coldwater,” “deep water” and “wild” as opposed to “farm-raised.”
- In what ocean or hemisphere was the fish caught? North Atlantic, deep, coldwater is said to be the most nutritious.
- Make sure the fish oil is molecularly distilled, which better ensures the absence of PCBs, heavy metals and other contaminants.
- What parts of the fish were used? Fish oils extracted from fish liver may be higher in heavy metals and contaminants.
- What fish oil extraction method was used? Cold or modified expeller pressing means that the oil was produced without damaging temperatures or unnecessary pressure.
Marketing claims that have no defined meaning in relation to fish oil supplements, and which often mislead consumers, include:
- Professional grade
- Pharmaceutical grade
- Highest quality
Essential fatty acid health benefits and risks
Few argue the benefits of fish oil and essential fatty acids in the diet. Clinical studies have demonstrated that the omega-3 fatty acids can benefit cardiovascular health and that “good unsaturated fats” derived from vegetables and fish are far more nutritious than “bad saturated fats” which come from red meat, animal products and dairy. The cardiovascular benefits to balancing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the diet include lowered serum cholesterol, decreased serum trigylcerides and reduced platelet aggregation. Although many fish oil supplement companies claim that fish oil supplementation may aid brain function and strengthen the immune system, a complete body of evidence has yet to be produced.
Along with the health benefits of fish oil come some risks, most associated with taking too high doses of fish oil or having dangerously high levels of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids in the blood. Some of these risks can include:
- Thinning of the blood and reduced ability of the blood to clot.
- Increased risk of bleeding.
- Too large doses can increase glucose levels in persons with already elevated blood sugar levels.
- In excess, fish oil may suppress the immune system.
- Increase the occurrence of nosebleeds and easy bruising.
- Upset stomach, nausea, diarrhea and belching.
- Poisoning from heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and pesticides.
Experts and nutritionists are convinced that the health benefits of fish oil far outweigh the risks. However, many warn that fish oil shouldn’t be taken with blood-thinning medication such as warfarin or aspirin and shouldn’t be taken by anyone with bleeding disorders or uncontrolled hypertension. It is highly advisable to consult a physician before supplementing a diet with fish oil.
EPAs, DHAs, efficacy and the FDA
In September of 2004, the FDA announced they would allow a qualified health claim for reduced risk of coronary heart disease for conventional foods that contain EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids as outlined in FDA’s “Interim Procedures for Qualified Health Claims in the Labeling of Conventional Human Food and Human Dietary Supplements.” Notwithstanding inconclusive research at the time of release, the FDA said it would exercise its enforcement discretion with respect to the following qualified health claim:
“Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. One serving of [name of food] provides [x] grams of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. [See nutrition information for total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol content.]”
In 2000, the FDA announced a similar qualified health claim for dietary supplements containing EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids and the reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). The FDA recommends that consumers not exceed more than a total of three grams per day of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, with no more than two grams per day from a dietary supplement.
1. Supplement from the sea: the fat from fish oil can benefit your heart, eyes, joints, and brain. Tom Weede. Natural Health. Oct 2007 v37 i9 p105 (2).
2. Omega medicine. Is fish oil good for what ails you? Bonnie Liebman. Nutrition Action Healthletter. Oct 2007 v34 i8 p1 (5).
3. The government’s big fish story: Pick the perfect fish oil supplement. Men’s Health. July-August 2007 v22 i6 p158.
4. Fish oil and brain development. Alan R. Gaby. Townsend Letter: The Examiner of Alternative Medicine. Oct 2007 i291 p49 (2).
5. Effects of fish oil supplementation on myocardial fatty acids in humans. R.G. Metcalf, M.J. James, R.A. Gibson. Alternative Medicine Review. Sept 2007 v12 i3 p307 (1).
6. Essential fatty acids. Douglas Dupler and Teresa G. Odle. The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Ed. Jacqueline L. Longe. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 4 vols. Updated July 1, 2006.
7. Mighty omegas (ways to score more essential fats). Nancy Duncan. Women’s Health. Dec 2006 v3 i10 p47.
8. Essential fatty acids and eicosanoids: their role in preventing inflammation, cardiovascular disease and cancer. James Meschino. Dynamic Chiropractic. Dec 3, 2007 v25 i25 p28(3).
9. Fish oil. Mai Tran and Teresa Odle. The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Ed. Jacqueline L. Longe. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2005. 4 vols. Updated July 1, 2006.
10. On call: Fish oil revisited. Staying Healthy from the Faculty of Harvard Medical School. August 21, 2006 pNA.
11. By the way, doctor: How much fish oil should I be taking? Staying Healthy from the Faculty of Harvard Medical School. August 21, 2006 pNA.
For more information on Essential Fatty Acids and Fish Oil, visit www.VitaCost.com/EFA.