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Prevention or Cure: Are all Fish Oils Equal? Part II

by David Taylor(more info)

listed in essential fatty acids, originally published in issue 124 - June 2006

In my last article (see Issue 117) I talked about what one should be looking for when buying Omega-3 fish oil, specifically its specification (what's on the box) and the differences between natural and synthetic oils. In this second part of my article I will be looking at three other aspects of Omega-3 fish oil that we should be concerned about, namely, how we take it, whether it contains any contaminants and lastly, how well it works.

Delivery Method

Understandably few have an appetite for the taste of fish oil and as more and more oils come on the market, there have been great moves to ensure the palatability of the product, especially for children. This is not such an issue with soft-gel capsules which are swallowed whole. One should, though, look carefully at the liquids, emulsions and chewable capsules that are now coming on the market.

Liquids are usually a blend with other oils and flavourings, giving stability to the formulation. Emulsions are different: effectively oil and water are blended together giving a creamy non-oily consistency to the product. Chewables typically have a soft capsule shell with a flavoured interior fill.

None should leave a fishy aftertaste, and in all of these preparations processing has been required to ensure product stability and palatability. The main issue of concern for a consumer is the degree of inclusion of additives to a natural product. Parents in particular will want to read the label carefully to see what exact elements of a synthetic or chemical nature have been added to ensure children will take the oils.

Environmental Contaminants

There is an association in the public mind between fish oil and pollutants as a result of many press stories. Unfortunately it is a fact of the world we live in that fish ingest compounds, some of them carcinogenic, that are the by-products of industrialization. The main ones of concern are dioxins, PCBs and heavy metals. Independent analysis of oils has found some manufacturers have elevated levels of these unwanted compounds, and if this is the case, that manufacturer will be in violation of food law.

Fortunately for us, there are processing methods that will ensure the virtual removal of these compounds; 'virtual' because it is always possible that a few rogue molecules remain. So manufacturers who say their product is 'PCB-free' may be being economical with the truth.

As consumers we should make sure that the manufacturer operates in accordance with the levels set by the World Health Organisation or the EC. These are very stringent rules that ensure an oil is of great purity. Also, a reputable manufacturer will be transparent about their oil processes and will no doubt be able to state with confidence that their product is clean. Next, it is a good idea to buy known brands of fish oils, rather than unknown brands. Operating in the retail environment is far more stringent as products are randomly tested by the Food Standards Authority, unlike web-based products which may be run by unaccountable operators.


Finally, and probably more importantly, how do we know whether the product works? Given the great variations in form, specification and quality it would be incorrect to assume that anything with 'Omega-3' stated on it will bring the same results. Big players are moving into the supplement sector, playing on our increased awareness of the benefits of Omega-3. In some products the amount of Omega-3 may be quite negligible, but still marketed on the basis of published research.

The gold standard for knowing if a formulation does work is the double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. That is, the formulation will have been used by researchers for a specific condition, in tandem with a dummy formula, and neither the researchers nor the participants know which is which. Also it is clearly better if the trial has not been funded by the manufacturer and has been conducted by a reputable body or university. It is also important that the data has been peer-reviewed and published in a known scientific journal. With these conditions fulfilled you can, in all probability, trust the result.

Consumer Checklist

When buying a fish oil, ask yourself:

  • Does it have an optimum formulation of fatty acids for the area that I am concerned with?
  • Is the oil form natural or synthetic?
  • What additives have been used to make it palatable?
  • Is the manufacturer reputable and are they transparent in how they process the oils?
  • Is the product in compliance with the WHO and EC safeguards on environmental pollutants?
  • Has independent research been done on this specific formulation to prove that it works?


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About David Taylor

David Taylor is a psychologist with a background in psychopharmacology and development. From working with children he developed an interest in the effects of environmental factors, particularly the effects of nutrition, upon mental and physical health. He is co-director of Optimum Nutrition North East in Durham City, with his wife Sandra, a health psychologist. They take a holistic approach to health and wellbeing focussing upon nutrition, stress and lifestyle. For more information about Optimum Nutrition North East and the services and products available Tel: 0191 3849088; E:; W:

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