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BY Anne-Marie Chalmers, MD Jan 20, 2016

How the New York Times Is Right and Wrong about Fish Oil Supplements

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Finally, the media is making a stink about rancid fish oil. And it’s about time.

Yesterday, the New York Times, in collaboration with Frontline, aired a segment addressing the rampant rancidity issues in the fish oil industry. For those in the know, this is not exactly news. After all, it’s been seven years since Norwegian newspapers first started reporting on the overwhelming numbers of poorly manufactured, highly oxidized fish oil products on the market. And nearly three years have passed since New Zealand researchers wrote a similarly concerned report.

Still, as the co-founder of a company dedicated to creating fresh, full-spectrum cod liver oil, I was happy to see the mainstream American media finally pick up the story we’ve been sharing for years.

The segment, titled Is Fish Oil Helpful or Harmful, brings up many good points. It cites statistics on the high numbers of rancid fish oil products available to consumers (between 20 to 83 percent, depending on whom you ask). It demonstrates that breaking open and actually smelling what’s inside those fish oil capsules can be a way of assessing freshness. It speaks to the idea that rancid fish oil could do more harm than good.

However, the video misses the point when looking at the broader story of fish oil benefits.

The segment’s journalist Gillian Findlay says, “Improving the quality won’t address the other issue with fish oil: The growing questions about whether it prevents disease.”

It is true that fish oil supplements have received negative attention in recent years for not delivering the cardiovascular benefits expected in clinical trials. But if you read the reports from experts studying rancidity, they clearly state: Quality differences, and particularly the oxidative status of fish oils, could very well be the reason for those conflicting results.

Yes, let me write that again. The freshness factor could explain why some studies on fish and cod liver oil show exciting results while others come up short.

The problem is, we don’t actually know how the rancidity levels of different omega-3 products impact health outcomes because the data isn’t there. Researchers have not been concerned with the rancidity of the oils used in their clinical trials. With the exception of one study that did compare the effects of more and less oxidized fish oil on the triglyceride and cholesterol levels of women, we know little about the quality of the fish oils used.

What did the one study examining the differences between more or less oxidized omega-3 supplements find? The women who received the fresher supplements saw a positive reduction in circulating triglyceride and cholesterol levels. As for the women who received the rancid omega-3 capsules? They saw a negative effect.

Of the thousands of studies on omega-3 fish oil, the majority find benefits. As Adam Ismail, leader of Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED), commented, a good 1,166 papers conclude that omega-3 could be beneficial for a range of health issues. To name a few of the commonly cited benefits, they include lowering triglyceride levels and blood pressure, facilitating recovery from traumatic brain injury and stroke, and helping children with special needs stay focused.

Unfortunately, reports such as this New York Times piece jump to conclusions about the efficacy of fish oil for cardiovascular health before we have a complete picture. Furthermore, branding all omega-3 supplements as ineffective or harmful could hurt consumers down the road. After all, fresh fish and cod liver oil can provide consumers with a relatively inexpensive, safe way to improve their health compared to many types of pharmaceutical drugs and invasive treatment options.

To quote from the researchers who published their report on rancid fish oil on the New Zealand market, “We are currently in danger of concluding that marine n-3 supplements are ineffective in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, before they have been adequately investigated.”

That would be an unfortunate ending to a story that should ultimately be about improved quality control and transparency on the part of fish oil manufacturers and researchers.

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