Innumerable studies in recent years have underscored the importance of omega-3s for health. Our bodies cannot manufacture omega-3s, so we must get them in our diet. The most common way that people consume omega-3 is by eating fish (read about other sources here). However, this guide will explain the problems with deriving omega 3 fatty acids from fish, and then will explain what to look for in fish oil supplements.
Fish No Longer a Safe Source of Omega-3
Before fish oil supplements, eating fish was the only way to get omega-3s in our diet. This was an effective method, but the realities of a post-industrial world means more water pollution. The end result is that fish have become contaminated with all kinds of toxins like PCBs, dioxins, arsenic and heavy metals. These contaminants contribute to a wide range of diseases such as cancer, blindness, birth defects and even death.
Fish Oil Supplements Also Contaminated
Because of these problems, more and more people are turning to fish oil supplements as a solution. However, fish oil supplements suffer from the same problems, despite the fact that many fish oil manufacturers claim that their products are pure. A recent study by the UK’s Food Standards Agency prompted the withdrawal of several fish oil brands (see lawsuit here) due to excessive levels of contaminants!
Furthermore, consider this video from Greenpeace about OmegaProtein, the largest producer of fish oil supplements in the world. Their investigative video shows that OmegaProtein’s fish oil products were found to contain toxic levels of flame retardants! Granted, perhaps we should take this news with a grain of salt considering Greenpeace’s ideological leanings, but if true it is very scary!
So now that you know some of the risks inherent in fish oil supplements, what can you do about it? Luckily, there are a few guidelines that make it easy to evaluate a fish oil supplement for potency and purity.
The Gold Standard: International Fish Oil Standards Program
The best way to know if a fish oil product is a safe, quality supplement is by choosing one that has been regularly tested by the International Fish Oil Standards program, or IFOS. The IFOS program is a voluntary third-party testing organization that evaluates fish oil supplements along 5 parameters:
- Passes All CRN/WHO Testing Categories
- Greater than 60% Omega-3 Concentration
- Oxidation Levels Less Than 75% of CRN Standard
- PCB Levels Less Than 50% of CRN Standard
- Dioxin Levels Less Than 50% of WHO Standard
These standards were chosen because the standards employed by the CRN (Council for Responsible Nutrition) and WHO (World Health Organization) were not strict enough to allow large doses of fish oil. To get the benefits of fish oil, one must frequently take more than just the 1 gram a day that has been typically recommended. The reason only 1 gram has been recommend, however, is due to contamination risks. This is obviously not a problem if you’re taking an IFOS-certified brand.
If you’re not taking an IFOS-certified brand, you are definitely more at risk for ingesting contaminants. Chances are, despite the fact that your fish oil supplement may claim to be purified by “advanced molecular distillation” (a marketing gimmick), it may not be safe to take. Since the IFOS program publishes the results of their tests on their website, you can look up the best brands of fish oil supplements available.