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Taking a fish oil supplement? Misleading labeling is a common problem

Posted Feb. 24, 2014, at 11:25 a.m.

Last week I wrote about the benefits of flaxseed in lowering cholesterol. In keeping with the heart health theme, it is relevant to mention another source of omega-3s: fish oil supplements. This industry generated about $1.2 billion in sales just last year in the United States.

Millions of Americans take fish oil supplements for the heart and vascular health benefits, making them among the most popular dietary supplements on the market. Unfortunately, as is the case with the majority of supplements, they are mostly unregulated. Supplements are not considered a food, they do not have to be registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, nor do their makers have to provide proof that the liquids and capsules they sell contain the ingredients advertised on the label in the dose shown.

A nonprofit testing company, LabDoor, has looked at 30 of the top-selling fish oil supplements, only to find that six of the products contained, on average, 30 percent less omega-3s than what was stated on the label. Health officials and researchers alike say that mislabeling is a frequent problem in the supplement industry.

When LabDoor looked at levels of two particular omega-3s, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are promoted for brain and heart health, at least a dozen of the 30 products tested contained DHA levels that were on the average 14 percent less than advertised on the packages.

The researchers from LabDoor also looked at the levels of mercury and the extent to which the supplements showed signs of rancidity or deterioration. Samples were purchased locally as well as online from sites such as Amazon.com and the supplements were ranked according to quality and value. The supplements given the highest ranking were Nordic Naturals, Axis Labs and Nature Made.

Several products were found to test favorably compared to Lovaza, a prescription fish oil that can cost hundreds of dollars for a month’s supply. Lovaza, since it is a prescription drug, is held to strict manufacturing standards and subject to regular quality-control tests. Some of the products analyzed by LabDoor contained similar or greater levels of omega-3s at a fraction of the cost.

Many studies suggest that regular consumption of fish — two servings a week of fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids — is protective against heart disease. Some researchers believe it may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic diseases.

Omega-3s from fatty fish such as sardines and wild salmon is ideal, but fish oil supplements are looked at as an alternative. The American Heart Association promotes studies that show fish oil supplements help reduce the risk of cardiac events in people with cardiovascular disease. For people who are already being treated with statins, fish oil supplements may not offer any additional benefits.

Another point to keep in mind is that the supplement testing may be a snapshot in time and not necessarily a reliable indicator of the overall quality of a line of supplements. To see where different supplements stand at a given time, go to the USP Dietary Supplement Verification program at www.usp.org/usp-verification-services.

When a product is given the USP Verified Mark, it has undergone stringent requirements on a voluntary basis. Seeing the USP Verified Mark on a dietary supplement label indicates that the product:

  • contains the ingredients listed on the label, in the declared potency and amounts
  • does not contain harmful levels of specified contaminants
  • will break down and release into the body within a specific amount of time
  • has been made according to the FDA’s current Good Manufacturing Practices using sanitary and well-controlled procedures

The downside to this source is that it is a nonprofit group and many supplement makers do not take part in its program. Products that carry the seal are widely considered high quality.

Mom was right: eat your fish.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor. She provides nutrition consultant services through Mainely Nutrition in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.

 

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