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Fishing for the truth about fish oils

By David Coory

One of life’s frustrations for a natural health researcher like me, is the steady stream of misleading or false media reports on health issues.

Whenever a new scientific study comes out with a finding that’s at odds with previously accepted scientific findings, whether the new finding is true or not (often not) it becomes ‘hot news’ and gets reported widely and uncritically in the media.

Controversial New Zealand fish oil study

Not all media reports are false, but sometimes they can be confusing. For example, in 2015 media all around the world reported on a scientific study of 32 fish oil products on sale in NZ conducted by the Liggins Institute of the University of Auckland. This study found that only three met their label claims of omega 3 content (see Chart 1) and many were oxidised which is thought to commonly occur during the deodorisation process.

However, I found it hard to believe that so many manufacturers, both overseas and here in NZ were marketing such an inferior product. Had it not been for the fact that three manufacturer’s products tested OK, I would have assumed there was something clearly amiss in the study.

Australian TGA orders a re-test of the fish oils

I wasn’t alone in my concerns about the results of the study. The Australian Therapeutic Good Association (TGA) who strictly oversee the quality of health products in Australia, ordered the federal government agency for scientific research in Australia (CSIRO) to analyse the same fish oils, many of which were Australian, using the widely accepted British Pharmacopoeia (BP) standard. They tested 15 Australian fish oils (out of all the products on the market) but did not report the results publicly. They said the results are acceptable if they fall within 90% of the label claim.

However, the Australian Omega-3 Centre (an organisation that promotes fish oil) were critical of the methods used in the Auckland study and claimed that testing the oxidation of fish oils is complicated, and that while three of the products tested by the University of Auckland may have given a good result, the presence of flavourings may have interfered with the oxidisation test results. They then went on to test for themselves, using their own preferred testing method, 10 Australian brands of fish oil (although there are about 40 brands on the market). They reported that the omega 3 content in all 10 exceeded the label claim and that none were oxidised. The average omega 3 content they said was 109% above the label claim. See Chart 2.

Some doubt the claimed results

This Omega-3 Centre report seemed a little too good to be true to cynical observers, especially because of the small sample reported on. I suspect that only the results of the best tested brands were reported and I note that other independent fish oil tests around the world (especially in Canada) have also raised concerns about label claims and fish oil quality.

There has been much discussion worldwide about the test methods used in the NZ and Canadian studies and the fact that the results were not peer reviewed. However, the Auckland University vigorously stand by their findings.

Clearly, there’s still a lot of doubt about the quality of many fish oils, so the Global Organization for EPA and DHA (GOED) and the Council for Responsible Nutrition have begun a detailed study on the effectiveness of methods used to test fish oils for omega 3 levels and oxidation.

Health House Omega 3 Fish Oil capsules were not included in the NZ study

As far as we know, our own premium quality Health House Omega 3 Fish Oil capsules were not included in the original NZ study, and we do have independent tests done from time to time using reputable NZ testing laboratories. When we changed to double strength fish oil the laboratory found the total omega 3 levels to be 112% of label claim and both DHA and EPA 114%. They also tested for mercury and could find no detectable amount. We did not ask them to test for oxidation and are currently getting a new range of tests for both our fish and CoQ10 Omega 3 oil capsules.

We have confidence in our own Omega 3 Fish Oil capsules as we source our fish oil from a reputable producer in the UK. And as with all our Health House products, we insist on the highest possible standards.