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Monday, April 18, 2011

Fish Oil & Ethical Considerations

You’ve read the nutrition research headlines about omega-3s and seen your doctor about your health status and risk factors for disease. Perhaps you’ve even consulted a registered dietitian who may have wisely advised you that while a supplement will never make up for a poor diet, there is increasing evidence for a certain few nutrients that most Americans don’t consume enough of and some that the body can’t produce itself. From one or several of these sources you may have learned that about those omega-3 fatty acids, essential dietary fats that have been associated with reducing the risk of a number of health risk factors as well as promoting healthy aging of the heart and brain. Omega-3s have strong anti-inflammatory properties, and inflammation has been flagged as a risk factor for a host of chronic diseases from heart disease and diabetes, to Alzheimer’s and arthritis. So, you’ve made up your mind to go get a fish oil supplement, but as you will see among the virtual sea of choices, there are many fish-oils to choose from, making for a challenging against-the-current swim unless you know what to look for on the labels.

1. Purity is key: In deciding on where to spend your money and what you will or won’t put in your body, purity should be a foremost priority in choosing a fish oil supplement. Toxins, contaminants, and other impurities are a risk in farm-raised and wild fish today and the supplement industry has a unique opportunity—if not obligation, since it’s not officially required—to remove any contaminants that may be harmful to humans like dioxins, PCBs, and heavy metals such as mercury and lead. Molecular distillation is one method that is effective to remove contaminants and ensure purity that exceeds established limits. This process involves separating and removing the toxins and contaminants from the oil, resulting in a purified fish oil that is used in the final supplement. Look for a product that mentions the method of reducing contaminants.

2. Third party testing is a must: Responsible and ethical companies will voluntarily submit their products to be independently third-party tested to make sure that they exceed standards and have ‘no detectable levels’ for contaminants like mercury, lead, PCBs and dioxins. Respected international agencies include the World Health Organization (WHO), International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) and Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN). Look for the label to read (or similar language): Every batch is third-party tested, showing no detected levels of heavy metals, dioxins or PCBs.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) also provides an online rating system listing a growing number of fish oil supplements, giving certain products a rating of “Best Choice” (conforming to the strictest standards for safe levels of contaminants) if they have been third-party tested as safe and proven to be free of any detectable contamination. For example, the Nordic Naturals brand (which I'm familiar with since I serve as a scientific advisor), offers a whole line of fish oil supplements meeting the highest levels of purity, that are third-party tested and also rated “best choice” by the EDF (in addition to fitting criteria 3, 4, and 5 below.)

3. No repeats, freshness counts: That unappealing fishy aftertaste that many people experience with certain fish oil supplements is a result of oxidized fish oil in a product that is not fresh or was not immediately purified and made into the final product and sealed. Fish oil capsules should not ‘repeat’ and if they do, it’s a sign of oxidation and a product that is not fresh. Ideally consume fish oil supplements as recommended with a meal to minimize the potential for any unfavorable (or unFLAVORable) individual effects. Once opened, keep fish oil in the refrigerator for maximum shelf life, however a fresh, high quality product can actually stay in a sealed container in cool, room-temperature out of direct sunlight for several weeks without any problem.

4. Keep the ingredients simple: As a good general rule of thumb, stick with fish oils that provide simple ingredients without a lot of extras. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are the omega-3 fatty acids that come from fish. A fish oil supplement may also have plant-sources like borage oil and/or evening primrose on the label, but in most cases should not have other extras like vitamins, preservatives, fillers, or artificial colors. One such exception may be vitamin D, a fat soluble vitamin that can easily be paired with a fish oil supplement to minimize and streamline the number of supplements an individual may take. Check with your health care provider and a registered dietitian about your personal needs regarding vitamin D and any supplement or combination.

5. Feel good about your brand: Fish oils are sourced from our environmental resources, the very resources that we both threaten each day through how we live as a growing population but also rely on for our survival. A quality fish oil can be good for your body and mind and the environment too. Check to see that the company sources clean and plentiful fish from healthy and abundant waters and has a company philosophy committed to sustainability, renewal and respect for the environment.

So what’s ‘the catch’? A quality product that you feel good about if you do a little research and read the labels. And for the potential that fish oils offer to your heart, brain and overall health through a nutritious diet and selective supplementation, you can better know what to look for when it comes to safe and nutritious food and supplement options for your best health.

Source: Wendy Bazilian, MD


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