NYT Tells Readers Not to Take Omega Supplements; Industry Responds

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Cod Liver Oil Capsules on wooden spoon

New York, NY—The New York Times published an article discouraging people from taking fish oil, in which they repeat the oft-made claim that the supplement industry is unregulated.

The Times doesn’t say that omega-3s aren’t useful; it recommends that people just “eat a few servings of fish a week, instead.” It notes that the VITAL study found that omega-3 supplements reduced risk of major cardiac events by 19% in those with low fish intake; it notes that African-Americans showed a 77% lower risk of heart attack, which is worth following up on in further research. And it notes that those with a history of heart disease or high triglycerides may see a benefit from omega-3s.

Where GOED takes issue is that the Times then begins promoting the claim that supplements are unregulated and unsafe. The author cites Dr. Pieter Cohen, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, who informed the author that “supplements aren’t regulated, [meaning] that production isn’t standardized so we don’t know what’s in them.” He adds that he has seen negative behavioral effects in some of his patients: “I have many patients who are like, ‘I’ll take my supplement and then I won’t worry about eating healthfully during the day.’ That’s really misguided. Because in this case we have absolutely no evidence that replacing a healthy meal of fish with an omega-3 supplement is better.”

The author also quotes Craig Hopp, of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, who says that “The caution always with supplements is that unfortunately, there are many examples of what’s on the label is not what’s in the pill. There can be things missing. Not having the amount of EPA and DHA that’s specified. Or there can be things added to them.”

The author adds further that the creation of fish oil supplements “contributes to the destruction of marine life balance” by removing small fish from the food chain and preventing larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds from eating the fish and thriving.

 

Industry Response

GOED sent out a statement to members regarding the article, noting that GOED’s PR agency spotted a teaser about the article the Friday before it was published, and reached out to the author to share positive omega-3 information. The PR agency sent a paper by VITAL co-author JoAnn Manson, an article published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, other information on omega-3 benefits, and an offer to interview Dr. Chip Lavie, a practicing cardiologist. The author did not respond in time for an interview with Dr. Lavie, and GOED notes that she did not take him up on his offer to answer questions via email or to wait until the end of his workday to talk to him.

The line about supplements being unregulated is, of course, an unfounded claim, but there have been adulterated products that made it to market, and Amazon has a history of selling products that do not match the labels. WholeFoods reached out to GOED to find out if the fish oil industry, in particular, has an adulteration problem. Chris Gearheart, Director of Member Communications & Engagement, responded: “Our monitoring of the omega-3 supplement market hasn’t spotted any adulteration of fish oil supplements. Additionally, our analysis of the top 50 omega-3 supplement products in the U.S. show that no products had contamination issues, and all met label claims for EPA and DHA content.” So while it’s always important to stock and purchase products from reputable brands, fear of fish oil adulteration doesn’t seem to be worth quitting a fish oil regimen.

And while overfishing is a problem, it doesn’t take much work to purchase a sustainable product. The World Sustainability Organization created Friend of the Sea, which audits restaurants, retailers, shipping lines, fisheries, and fish oil products for sustainability. Friend of the Sea works with nation states, the seafood and shipping industries, scientists, NGOs, and the public to promote sustainable use of the oceans and aquatic habitat conservation. Their mission is to protect aquatic resources by promoting sustainability. And they have a list on their website of the companies they have certified, which includes well-known Industry suppliers like Aker Biomarine and Epax Norway.

Individual companies often work to ensure sustainability beyond that, too: Aker Biomarine partnered with the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition and WWF-Norway to establish the Antarctic Wildlife Research Fund, which facilitates marine ecosystem research. Aker and other members of the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies have stopped fishing in areas around the Antarctic Peninsula, in order to protect Antarctic Wildlife. And Enzymedica hopped into the omega-3 market with Aqua Biome—and with every bottle sold, they donate to the Mote Marine Laboratory to help them rebuild the Florida Reef System.

If you’re interested in learning more about the omega industry and the science backing it, check out WholeFoods’ Omega-3, -6, -9 Update and the latest Vitamin Connection column, and keep an eye out: In the next Vitamin Connection column, Dr. Richard Passwater interviews Dr. William Harris about the latest studies and the most exciting upcoming research.

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