Putting Fish Oil to the Test

DECEMBER 19, 2011
Laura Enderle, Associate Editor

Fish oil's popularity has soared in recent years, propelled by research that suggests consuming omega-3 fatty acids can ward off heart disease. And as Pharmacy Times columnist Yvette C. Terrie, BSPharm, RPh, noted in December's "OTC Focus" column, pharmacists play an important role in helping patients make informed decisions about fish oil and omega-3 supplementation.

But with hundreds of OTC options available (and labels claiming that the supplements treat everything from bipolar disorder to menstrual cramps) how can pharmacists distinguish between them to help patients make the best choice? To answer that question, Consumer Reports subjected 15 top-selling brands of fish oil supplements to a round of laboratory testing to examine their purity and quality.

Although the magazine reported that "some were not as pure as one might think, "their results suggest the best choice may well be any of the brands lining pharmacy shelves. In lab tests, most of the omega-3 supplements passed muster, according to an article on the findings published in the January 2012 issue of Consumer Reports. All the brands contained their labeled amount of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid--omega-3 fatty acids shown to reduce cardiovascular risk. Further, none exceeded the US Pharmacopeia's (USP) limits for lead, mercury, dioxins, or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Investigators did find measurable levels of contaminants in the brands that passed; however, the report's authors said in a statement that "the levels measured didn't exceed USP or European Union limits or raise health concerns."

Risks overstated?
Some of the supplements--about 1 or 2 samples in 4 of the 15 brands tested--contained amounts of PCBs that could warrant warning labels under California's Proposition 65, Consumer Reports noted. Enacted in 1986, the consumer protection law is not as permissive as USP standards when it comes to disclosing PCB levels in consumer products.

Nor is it a reliable indicator of the supplements' health risks, according to Duffy MacKay, ND, who commented on the study for MedPage Today. He told the medical news site that Proposition 65 has "nothing to do with healthrelated risk,"and that the Consumer Reports article put a negative spin on findings he says are "actually a positive assessment of the products."

Although the raw data allays concerns about the quality of most fish oil pills on the market, Consumer Reports urged patients to proceed with caution--and an appointment with a health professional. "Fish oil is not a cure-all,"said Ronni Sandroff, editorial director of Health and Family coverage for the magazine. "If you're considering a fish oil supplement, we recommend that you talk to your doctor first to find out if it's the right treatment for you."

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