Fish is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to promote good heart health – among other things. For individuals who don’t eat fish regularly, fish oil supplements are a convenient and popular alternative. Omega-3 fatty acids can still be incorporated into your diet by taking supplemental capsules or pills. Fish oil supplements are available in the vitamin section of many major supermarkets and drug stores, as well as at nutrition stores like GNC. For years, fish oil has been flying off the shelves of these retailers, but a recent California lawsuit could soon change all that.
The lawsuit claims that many fish oil supplements contain a toxic substance called PCB, which stands for polychlorinated biphenyl. (And you thought mercury poisoning was the only thing you had to worry about!) So what are these mysterious PCBs? They are a synthetic chemical primarily used to produce things like electrical equipment, certain adhesives, and even paint. So far, that doesn’t sound like anything you’d want to eat. Unfortunately, the air, soil, and water can all be polluted with PCBs that have seeped out of old discarded electrical equipment, such as transformers dumped in landfills. Fish feeding in polluted waters can end up consuming this contaminant and passing it on to us because PCBs are easily absorbed by animal and fatty tissues (www.greenfacts.org).
Studies were conducted by Consumer Lab on more than 50 different brands of fish oil supplements of varying prices. Other organizations, such as Consumer Reports, have also looked into the presence of PCBs in fish and fish products. At present, the preponderance of evidence available to the public suggests that fish oil supplements are relatively free of PCBs, containing only trace amounts of the toxin, if PCBs are even present at all. And a Wellness Report issued by U.C. Berkeley adds that most supplements undergo processing methods intended to minimize PCB and mercury levels so that fish oil capsules are safe to consume. The Environmental Defense Fund surveyed numerous manufacturers of fish oil supplements and reached a similar conclusion. Yet, the environmental group (Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation) filing the California lawsuit insists their own research demonstrates the opposite.
Despite the data suggesting fish oil supplements are safe, the group behind the lawsuit feels otherwise. They believe that many labels mislead consumers into thinking that PCBs are not present or have been completely removed from fish oil products by making statements like “screened for PCBs” and “treated to remove PCBs.” The lawsuit seeks to improve fish oil labeling, as well as require manufacturers to disclose all levels of PCBs present above zero (Millstone). The point is to allow consumers to make fully informed purchasing decisions.
With this seemingly mixed evidence, what’s a person to do? Eating fish rather than taking supplements won’t eliminate the risk of exposure to PCBs, mercury, and other contaminants. And for many, fish oil capsules are a more realistic option for obtaining those all important Omega-3s. So how can you be sure you’re fish oil supplement of choice is safe? For starters, you can review Consumer Lab’s report. Keep in mind, though, the primary focus of the study was to compare Omega-3 levels across supplements. So while the study did also examine contaminant levels in fish oil products, that wasn’t the main objective. On the other hand, the research being cited by the foundation filing the lawsuit did specifically test for PCBs and other toxins. However, tests were done on only 10 different brands of fish oil supplements so that leaves many other untested brands in question.
The bottom line is this: Fish oil supplements likely do contain at least small levels of PCB toxins, but these levels fall within recommended safety guidelines and should not pose a serious risk to most consumers. Currently, most companies seem to be in compliance with FDA (Food & Drug Administration) standards at a minimum. Many even adhere to stricter standards, such as those proposed by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). But if you consume fish oil supplements and you’re at all concerned, there is an alternative that still offers beneficial Omega-3s without the risk of PCBs. Instead of fish oil capsules, you can try plant oils like flaxseed, canola, and walnut. Cook with either canola or walnut oil to boost your Omega-3s or try adding a little flax oil to your salad for another option. In the end, it’s your call how you want to incorporate Omega-3 fatty acids into your diet, but for better heart health it is recommended that you get those Omega-3s somehow.
American Heart Association. Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Online: http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4632.
Environmental Defense Fund. Fish Oil Supplements. Is the Brand You’re Taking Safe? Online: http://www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=16536.
Green Facts Scientific Board. Scientific Facts on PCB’s. Online: http://www.greenfacts.org/en/pcbs/l-2/1-polychlorinated-biphenyls.htm.
Gumz, Jondi. Lawsuit claims PCBs found in 10 fish oil supplements; product labeling sought. Mercury News, March 2, 2010.
Millstone, Ken. Lawsuit: Disclose PCB Levels in Fish Oil. Group Finds Amount of Contaminant Varies Greatly Among Popular Supplement Brands; Vague Claims on Labels Seen as Deceptive. CBS Interactive, Inc., March 2, 2010.
O’Connor, Anahad. The Claim: Fish Oil Supplements can Contain Mercury. The New York Times, March 23, 2009.
University of California, Berkeley. What You Need to Know About Fish Oil Pills. U.C. Berkeley Wellness Alerts. MediZine, LLC, 2010.