East Jefferson General Hospital

Given the vast and growing body of scientific research proving the many health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, we know that fish oil is important in the diet. However, a recent lawsuit in California with regard to a state law about proper labeling known as Proposition 65 has cast a doubt in the public's mind on whether fish oil is really safe because these supplements could contain toxic contaminants. In this lawsuit, PCBs were singled out as the culprit.

To put things into perspective, PCBs are ubiquitous within the environment, which means that all fish, whether they are caught for food from the ocean or a river or are used to make fish oil, will contain at least trace amounts of PCBs. In fact, since whole fish filets are not purified before arriving at the store, there is a much greater chance that our fish dinner is higher in PCBs than our fish oil supplementation.

Fish oil is safe but some fish oil is purer than others. But how can consumers know that they are buying a high quality fish oil supplement?

When it comes to choosing fish oil supplements, whether in liquid form, soft gel or effervescent form, there is a wide range of quality markers and standards. There is one simple way for you to be confident that the product you are buying will provide the health benefits you are looking for and deliver the quality markers discussed above: third party testing. Any responsible fish oil manufacturer will commission an independent testing organization who does not benefit financially from the test results to test their product.

By comparing the test results for purity and freshness levels from different brands, you can differentiate lower quality from higher quality fish oil, thereby ensuring safety and efficacy.

Follow these guidelines to get to the basics:

  • Purity from contaminants and toxins is a top priority. Dioxins, PCBs, mercury and lead are a few of the contaminants that must be avoided in quantities that are harmful to humans. Though all food substances, including fish oil, could contain some level of these contaminants, look for brands that test to very refined levels and find no detectable levels. Some internationally-accepted quality standards include: CRN (Council for Responsible Nutrition), WHO (World Health Organization) and IFOS (International Fish Oil Standards).
  • Exceptional freshness levels are absolutely essential and ensure product integrity and biological efficacy. Oxidized (rancid) oil is not healthy for the body, and is the cause of the fishy smell, taste and burps that many people have experienced with fish oil. Companies have been known to try to mask smell by using flavoring, so check for third party test results for peroxide levels (current oxidation) and anisidine values (past oxidation).
  • Look for processing methods that do not include the presence of oxygen, excessive heat or chemicals. Processing the oil in a nitrogen environment and without oxygen will prevent oxidative rancidity. Mild heat is necessary, and as long as there is no oxygen present, heat does not pose a threat.
  • Great taste is important to ensure compliance. Exceptional freshness will ensure good taste. And be sure to choose a supplement with only natural flavorings and preservatives.

Since most packaging does not give the whole "fish" story, go to the website or call the customer service department to fill in the blanks. A quality company will go out of their way to make sure you have this information.