Misguided study distorts the facts on health and fisheries, authors oppose further spread of fish oil supplements
by Craig Weatherby
Last week, Canadian researchers published a paper that dismayed nutrition and fisheries experts alike.
Weirdly, the Canadians concluded that the health benefits of omega-3s are “insufficiently substantiated” to justify added pressures on fish stocks and render it irresponsible for doctors and others to recommend fish oil supplements (Jenkins DJ et al. 2009).
As they wrote, “Our concern is that fish stocks are under extreme pressure globally and that studies are still urgently required to define precisely who will benefit from fish oil.”
We certainly share their concern about overfishing, but their conclusions lack credibility. To reach them, one must ignore or mischaracterize the available evidence, which demonstrates two things:
- Most of the beneficial impacts of supplemental fish oil are broadly applicable.
- Even sharply increased use of fish oil supplements will not necessarily imperil fish stocks.
Let’s begin by addressing the Canadians’ assertion that the benefits of fish oil are “overdramatized” and that doctors and others shouldn’t recommend fish oil based on current evidence.
Fish oil benefits based on sound research
The Canadian team, led by David Jenkins, MD, of the University of Toronto, wrote that fish oil benefits are “overdramatized.”
This odd comment implies that expert medical bodies worldwide have exaggerated the positive impacts of fish oil on heart and brain health.
The heart benefits of fish oil are endorsed by the American Heart Association and virtually every heart-health agency in the world. And the AHA felt no need to make any distinctions, except to recommend that people with diagnosed cardiovascular disease take at least 1000mg of fish oil per day.
Second, the mental health benefits of omega-3s from fish oil were endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association in 2007, based on substantial evidence.
To be sure, the body of evidence that prompted these recommendations rarely reaches the level required of prescription drugs… though some of the cardiovascular studies meet or closely approach FDA drug-approval trial standards.
In fact, one (chemically modified) fish oil supplement very high in omega-3 EPA (and very low in DHA) already is an FDA-approved triglyceride-lowering “drug”.
(Note: This is not because the high-EPA product in question is proven superior, compared with any standard fish oil containing the same amount of EPA. The only real difference is that its maker was able to afford the hugely costly clinical trials needed to gain FDA approval as a drug!)
Instead, the health benefits of fish and fish oil stem primarily from very large amounts of positive epidemiological evidence (diet-health surveys), backed by voluminous lab research and a relatively modest (compared with some prescription drugs) but substantial body of clinical trial results.
We invite Dr. Jenkins and company to reconsider the medical literature that persuaded so many official authorities, and peruse a compelling report lead-authored by clinical psychiatrist Joe Hibbeln, MD, of the NIH, and world-renowned fatty acid researcher William E. Lands, PhD, which strongly correlates higher fish intake (and lower omega-6 fat intake) with reduced rates of major disease.
In cogent comments provided to trade publication NutraIngredients, Dr. Lands noted that the need for fish oil would be less were Americans to stop over-consuming the omega-6 fats in common vegetable oils and the processed and takeout foods made with them:
“Ironically, the call for ‘responsibility’ in the face of [overfishing] pressures is irresponsibly ignoring massive molecular pressures that current omega-6 intakes are making on the ability of omega-3 fats to maintain healthy balances in our cells and tissues.”
He went to say, “Unfortunately, the impact of excessive omega-6 intakes and actions on our personal tissue microenvironments is being ignored by some well-intentioned scientists concerned about the macro-environment. If we just lowered the current flood of omega-6 fats, sustainable amounts of omega-3 fats could manage our health.”
We couldn’t agree more!
While it makes sense to eat fish or take fish oil even if your diet is lower in omega-6 fats than average, very small amounts of omega-3s can have big benefits when your diet isn’t awash in excess omega-6s.
“Alternative” omega-3 sources can’t cut it
The Canadians suggested using alternative sources of omega-3s to ease the pressure on fish stocks.
Omega-3 fatty acids come in two distinctly different forms, which differ greatly in their ability to enhance human health.
The two kinds of omega-3s occur in two different groups of foods:
- Short-Chain “Green” Omega-3s (Alpha Linoleic Acid or ALA): Leafy green veggies such as spinach, walnuts, flaxseed, and canola oil, and foods fortified with ALA.
- Long-Chain “Marine” Omega-3s (EPA and DHA): Oceanic and fresh-water foods such as fish, shellfish, and algae, and eggs from hens fed extra DHA.
Experts agree that the long-chain “marine” omega-3s found in fish and fish oil are far more potent and beneficial to human health.
This is why the FDA-approved heart-health claim for omega-3s applies only to foods or supplements that contain long-chain omega-3s, extracted from fish or algae.
Just last week, the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL)—the premier scientific association in this field—confirmed that plant-derived ALA offers far less nutritional value than marine omega-3s.
The Canadians’ suggested alternatives included algal-sourced DHA, as well as short-chain ALA from plant sources:
“Until renewable sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids—derived from plant, algae, yeast, or other unicellular organisms—become more generally available, it would seem responsible to refrain from advocating to people in developed countries that they increase their intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids through fish consumption” (Jenkins DJ et al. 2009).
But as we’ve just said, plant-source omega-3s just aren’t the same, and while DHA from algae is fine, people get more benefit from fish oil, which contains both of the two key long-chain omega-3s: that is, omega-3 EPA as well as omega-3 DHA.
We know that EPA and DHA have distinct effects and roles, with complementary interactions likely.
Virtually all of the evidence that establishes the benefits of omega-3s comes from studies involving fish or fish oil rich in both of these omega-3s.
And there is no basis to assume that plant-form omega-3s or manipulated fish oils with grossly unbalanced EPA-DHA proportions—that is, supplements consisting mostly or exclusively of EPA or DHA—are just as good.
Sustainability concerns? Real, but not imminent
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization just released its annual report, which concludes that 27 percent of the fisheries they assessed are over-harvested or fully depleted.
But it is clear that for the foreseeable future, demand for fish oil is unlikely to place any fisheries at risk.
In contrast, most fish oil comes from small wild “bait” fish, with an increasing share coming from farmed salmon.
More than 80 percent of the fish oil in supplements comes from regulated and apparently sustainable anchovy, sardine, and mackerel fisheries in Peru, Chile, and Morocco.
And the fish oil used in supplements accounts for only about six percent of the oil extracted from fish in these fisheries, with the remainder going into industrial applications and to feed farmed salmon.
This means that sales of supplemental fish oils could grow 15-fold or more before raising sustainability concerns.
Wild Alaskan salmon oil offers sustainable supplementation
We agree with a blog entry by Environmental Defense Fund scientist Tim Fitzgerald, posted recently in response to the Canadian study:
“To provide a secure supply of seafood for future generations, recommendations for consuming fish and fish oil must weigh the proven benefits of omega-3’s against the harm done to ocean ecosystems from taking unsustainable quantities of fish from the sea” (Fitzgerald T 2009).
We were gratified to read his recommendations, which support our wild Alaskan Salmon Oil: “Fish (and fish oil) lovers weighing these questions on a personal level can help by choosing sources that are fished or farmed responsibly, that are high in omega-3s and low in environmental contaminants … sablefish (aka black cod), wild Alaskan salmon, sardines … and West Coast albacore tuna are some of the choices that are safe to eat and safe for the environment” (Fitzgerald T 2009).
Our fish oil comes from wild Alaskan sockeye salmon: a certified-sustainable fishery.
The sustainable-fishery origin of our whole, unrefined Vital Choice Sockeye Salmon Oil is certified by the respected Marine Stewardship Council, based on ongoing chain-of-custody audits.
Standard fish oil is chemically distilled to remove contaminants, and “deodorized” at high temperatures to remove rancid elements.
But our gently processed, unrefined oil is naturally pristine, and certified safe and pure by the world-renowned NSF labs.
Vital Choice oil also presents the natural blend and proportions of fatty acids and other lipids in salmon fat… we’d rather not mess with the natural “formula” that makes salmon so healthful!
- Fitzgerald T/Environmental Defense Fund. Is Eating Seafood Regularly Really Such a Good Thing? March 27, 2009. Accessed online at http://sustainablog.org/2009/03/27/environmental-defense-fund-is-eating-seafood-regularly-really-such-a-good-thing/
- Jenkins DJ, Sievenpiper JL, Pauly D, Sumaila UR, Kendall CW, Mowat FM. Are dietary recommendations for the use of fish oils sustainable? CMAJ. 2009 Mar 17;180(6):633-7. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.081274