Is there something fishy in your supplements?

Concerned about contaminants in your fish oil supplement? You should be.

One of the most popular supplements on the market is unfortunately the least understood. The humble fish oil varies hugely in price, potency and purity, and it is almost impossible for the consumer to make a wise choice. It benefits many chronic conditions including heart disease, arthritis, auto-immune diseases and mood disorders.

Fish oils, in capsule or liquid form, may contain heavy metals including mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic. They can also contain dioxin, a carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) which is an industrial pollutant that finishes up in waterways. Supplements may state 'mercury tested' on the label which implies they are mercury-free when they are not. An analysis of one such brand shows it to contain 10 times more mercury than a purified product.

The reality is that all fish oil supplements in Australia have to be 'mercury tested' to meet the Australian government standard of mercury levels. This level is not stringent, and one well-known brand contains 100 times more mercury than a purified supplement. But this level is considered 'acceptable'. One problem with 'acceptable' levels of heavy metals is that one person may benefit from one capsule daily, whereas another person with a particular health problem may need to take 6 to 10 capsules daily. There is no government requirement that fish oils be tested for levels of dioxins, leaving the possibility that high levels will not be detected.

A further problem with contaminants is that most capsules described as 'reflux-free' or 'enteric coated' contain traces of plastics in the coating.Best to ask a qualified practitioner who is aware of which brands are purified to remove heavy metals and dioxin, and manufactured free of plastics.

Supplement choice is also confusing because of variations in potency. Different brands may contain 1000mg per capsule, but one brand may contain twice as much active ingredient per capsule as another. The amount of EPA and DHA (active ingredients) added together may be only 300 mg per 1000mg, or it may be 500-600mg for the same size capsule. This at least will be shown on the label.

High dosages are necessary for an anti-inflammatory action. This applies when treating arthritis, allergies, auto-immune disease, and cardiovascular disease. In adults, six high-potency capsules per day are recommended for anti-inflammatory action, which brings much improved pain relief. Many people take only one or two capsules.

Treatment of ADD, ADHD, behavioural problems (of all ages) and mood disorders also require high doses. It is crucial to avoid the toxic overload of mercury on the liver, brain and immune system when treating these conditions.

One or two purified high potency capsules aday is the recommended dose for cardiovascular health and general wellbeing.

Unsurprisingly, the purer quality, high potency capsules are more expensive. This can be offset by the fact that half the dosage is needed. Unfortunately price is usually an indicator of quality with fish oil supplements, because of the additional processing involved to ensure the purity.

With all these problems, you may well ask whether we should bother with fish oil supplements. My answer is a resounding YES, because the benefits are great, and all the toxicity issues can be avoided with careful choice of the product.


Trish Clough has been a practising herbalist for more than 30 years. The information in the column is meant for general interest only and should not be considered as medical advice. You can follow her blog at traditionalmedicinals

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