If you’re unnerved by the idea that a typical package of hamburger might contain flesh from hundreds, if not thousands, of cows, you may be surprised to know the oil in your fish oil capsule may be derived from several different species, including sardines, herring, anchovies, tuna, cod, krill (a shrimp-like planktonic crustacean), and even farm-raised salmon. Furthermore, these fish, which get their omega-3 from eating micro-algae, may come from shallow waters near heavily populated shores—where heavy metals, toxins, PCBs, and other pollutants concentrate—not from cold, deep, and relatively unpolluted oceans.
The problem grew public last year when a lawsuit was filed in California (which requires labeling of products containing PCBs) against CVS Pharmacy, Inc.; General Nutrition Corp. (GNC); Now Health Group, Inc.; Omega Protein, Inc.; Pharmavite LLC (Nature Made brand); Rite Aid Corp.; Solgar, Inc.; and TwinLab Corp. The suit claimed that some of these brands contain at much as 70 times the level of PCBs as in other brands. Omega-3s are referred to as “essential” fatty acids because the human body is incapable of producing them. While they are available in both animals and plants, the medical industry generally agrees that animal-based sources like fish oil provide much higher levels of omega-3s than plants like flax seed meal, although many knowledgeable consumers make a point of consuming both. There is no question that omega-3 supplements are healthy; the problem is that the fish oil industry has grown exponentially over the past few years, and a sizable percentage of the manufacturers, both new and established, are purposely vague about their sourcing and methods.
The reason, of course, is money.
High-quality fish that have been treated well from the net through the time of processing are expensive. And, like olive oil, there are numerous ways to extract oil from fish, with some methods being much better at retaining the integrity of the oil than the heat, petrochemical solvents, and hydraulic presses that are commonly used in less-expensive oils. Unfortunately, terms like “ultra-refined,” “high potency,” “pharmaceutical grade,” etc., are marketing hyperbole. The industry as a whole has not agreed on definitions of purity or quality. To get oil that boasts the highest levels of omega-3 benefits with the fewest contaminates, you are encouraged to do your own research. Look for oils that have been tested for mercury, lead, dioxins, oxidation, and PCBs. Many cold-water fish species are valued for their oil, but the best are all wild. And “cold pressed” is arguably the best method of oil extraction. Also look for a bottling date and a batch number to ensure the oil is not overly oxidized. As is true with many products, the highest-quality fish oil will cost more.
Aside from the concern about pollutants, the world’s oceans also are suffering from overfishing. The good news is that stocks of anchovies, herring, sardines, and most other species fished primarily for oil are currently in good supply. Stocks of larger oil-laden species, like salmon, tuna, and cod, are watched carefully, and their oils are typically obtained from the fish remains after the more desirable cuts have been removed.
To help you track down the right oil, we contacted eight independent natural food stores around the United States and found that a handful of fish oil brands consistently appear on shelves. As a rule, the supplement buyers from these retailers do their own research and consult frequently with their customer base. Per their recommendations, check out the following four fish oil producers:
Nordic Naturals: nordicnaturals.com