Over the past year, omegas made headlines for a lot of good reasons, but there was some bad press, too. First, a California lawsuit called into question whether fish oil contained levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in excess of a “safe harbor” limit set by Proposition 65 legislation. Industry associations and companies involved in the case issued statements confirming that fish oil products are safe and within the federal PCB limits.
Nonetheless, the louder message voiced to consumers was that purity is a problem. Baldur Hjaltason, business development and sales manager at EPAX AS, Aalesund, Norway, calls the news on Prop 65 “misleading.” He states, “Almost all fish oil and fish oil concentrates have been purified and contain very low or non-detectable levels of pollutants. The amount of contaminants in fish oils is much lower than that found in fish. The lawsuit is based on the fact that there are no maximum limits of PCB for reproduction and, therefore, the marketing companies should have a warning on the label—regardless of the values.”
A few months later, Whole Foods Market said it would not sell krill oil until sustainability issues were sorted out. Again, though some industry companies feel the ban was unwarranted, it raised questions about the omegas supply.
Purity in Question
Freshness, purity and sustainability are very important in this category. One reason is that fish’s high mercury and heavy metal content can be harmful, especially for pregnant/nursing women and children. For this reason, manufacturers use sophisticated purification techniques to ensure that the supplements are as untainted as possible. “This is why the purity of fish oil supplements is of utmost importance, and we need to educate consumers about the variance of quality in fish oil,” says Steve Holtby, president and CEO of Soft Gel Technologies, Inc., Los Angeles, CA.
Again, the highest quality natural fish oils undergo substantial purification, which is part of the reason why fish oils sold in nutrition stores will cost more than the average drug store variety. But, as Michael Corrigan, consultant, formulator and educator for Life- Seasons, Copper Canyon, TX, says, “People will pay any price for really good remedies. If you can show the research is head and shoulders above all others, those items are not price sensitive.”
Here are some examples of what happens to fish oil before it lands on your shelf:
• Natural filtration like cold-press extraction.
• Molecular distillation to deodorize the oil and remove pollutants and oxidized matter.
• Specialized processing techniques to ensure the removal of heavy metals, PCBS and other toxic elements and keep product away from light, heat and oxygen.
• Storage of raw materials in a cool, oxygen-free environment.
• Bottling or encapsulation as soon as possible.
• Stabilization with certain antioxidants to prevent rancidity.
• Testing of raw materials.
• Following good manufacturing practices.
This list should encourage retailers to ask their fish oil manufacturers which steps they take to ensure a pure final product, especially because purity affects many aspects of fish oil supplementation. On the most basic level, an oxidized product will have an unpleasant taste and aftertaste.
It also affects efficacy. “Poor quality fish oil does not function in the body as well as high-quality fish oil most likely because it is oxidized and contains little omega-3 (which is why the price is low),” Holtby states, adding that high-quality companies will use refining and purification techniques to increase the finished product’s nutritional value.
If shoppers still are doubting safety, Kenn Israel, vice president of marketing at Robinson Pharma, Santa Ana, CA, suggests reminding them that the Prop 65 lawsuit affected only a few products under a poorly constructed law and “you can (and you should) be able to substantiate the purity of the products on your shelves should allay most concerns.”
Rancidity and Flax. Shoppers may wonder about rancidity with products such as flax. According to Kelley C. Fitzpatrick, nutritionist and spokesperson for beveri, Fitchburg, WI, nutrients in flaxseed are released during milling. “But, you have to be really careful about how you mill flax because you don’t want to alter the antioxidant matrix that’s already present in the seed,” she says, adding, “You don’t want to smash and bash the seed, as I call it.”
A careful flaxseed extraction process will take this into account and, in doing so, can extend shelf life. Illustrating this point is beveri’s assistant brand manager, Deirdre Murray. She states that the firm uses the patented process that removes immature and damaged seeds to prevent oxidation from occurring as quickly. A slicing technique is used to mill the seeds, which helps make sure the antioxidants remain intact and then a three-stage screening process is used to ensure the milled seed has a very fine texture. Fitzpatrick adds that “the oil is encapsulated within the antioxidant matrix of the seed, so you’re getting a stable product for up to two years without the need for refrigeration.”
Herb Joiner-Bey, N.D., scientific advisor to Barlean’s, Ferndale, WA, also comments on flax extraction, making the point that some plant-based omega supplements may offer a more consistent nutritional content and less rancidity than fish oil. He states, “The content of EFAs in plant oils is predictable...Plant oils are much easier to make; fish oil extraction is a much more complex process. Because they are less polyunsaturated, plant oils are less easily oxidized than fish oils.”
Sustainability. Again, the Whole Food Market ban underscored a concern about sustainability in the marinebased omega category. Some shoppers hold the belief that not choosing to use supplemental omegas is better for marine life because developing supplements dangerously depletes the supply of krill and fish.
On the krill front, Rudi E. Moerck, Ph.D., president and CEO at Valensa, Eustis, FL indicates krill fishing is much more sustainable than the public knows. In fact, he calls it the “most sustainable source of marine-based omega-3s on the market today.”
The reason why is that just a few fishing vessels are licensed to work in the Antarctic oceans, and the harvesting is regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). This authority—which involves the governments of 26 countries—has strict guidelines for where, when and how to fish for krill so as not to deplete the supply. In fact, fisheries have restrictions on how much they can catch. According to Wael Massrieh, Ph.D., director of R&D at Neptune Technologies & Bioressources Inc., Laval, QC, Canada, “It is worth noting that for 2009–2010, the mean world catch [of krill] corresponded to only 1.9% of the new precautionary catch limit. This is only 0.03% of the total biomass,” which is about 400–500 metric tons. Plus, krill have a high reproduction rate, which quickly replenish the supply. Massrieh adds, “Based on the most accessible, recent and complete data from CCAMLR surveys, we can conclude that there is no major decline of Antarctic krill population as such.”
Companies are making other eco-friendly efforts, too. Aker BioMarine Antarctic North America, with worldwide headquarters in Oslo, Norway, is dedicated to eco-friendly fishing “with the greatest care, properly-licensed, and under the scrutiny of independent, third-party observers,” says Eric Anderson, the firm’s vice president of sales and marketing. Aker, he notes, is the only krill supplier certified by the nonprofit, independent Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a distinction earned earlier this year.
Adds Kaori Dadgostar, Ph.D., technical specialist for Jarrow Formulas, Los Angeles, CA, “Krill plays an important role in marine ecosystems, and it is critical to make sure that it is harvested in a sustainable way. Proper manufacturing companies like Aker BioMarine, Jarrow Formulas’ source for krill oil, strictly monitor and maintain the biomass of krill in association with organizations that promote sustainable ecosystems (e.g.,WWF).”
For instance, Aker has a patented system for Eco Harvesting in which the fishing net stays submerged. Says Anderson, “This specially designed trawl system collects and pumps the krill to the surface vessel and includes a special mechanism that singles out un wanted by-catch, releasing it unharmed. Traditional net harvesting uses an open net which is repeatedly drawn to the surface and greatly increase the chance of harming other marine and bird species. Eco Harvesting causes minimal environmental impact and prevents the krill from enzymatic degradation. This is the key to pre serve all the key nutrients in the end product.”
Another interesting aspect of Aker’s technology is that it can offer sophisticated traceability of the krill, enabling customers to know the exact physical location of where in the Arctic Ocean the krill were harvested by registering the longitude and latitude with a global positioning system.
The location of krill harvesting is important. Massrieh explains that unlike the Artic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean is not governed by CCAMLR. The United States recently banned the fishing of krill in its Pacific waters, “which is an entirely different ecosystem than the Antarctic,” say Massrieh. This ban may in fact have been the impetus for the Whole Foods ban, but krill suppliers like Neptune, Aker, Valensa and Enzymotec harvest their supply in the Arctic Ocean.
It should be noted that some industry insiders believe that the ecological impact of krill on marine life and other animals in their food chain should be considered before purchasing krill supplements.
Questions about sustainability have spilled over into the fish oil arena. According to Hjaltason, most fish oil is made of anchovies, sardines, mackerel and other small fish that quickly reproduce and are least likely to contain ocean pollutants. In addition, these fish are often caught off the coast of Peru. Says Hjaltason, “The Peruvian government issues a quota for how much fish can be caught based on status of the spawning stock of the anchovy in order to keep the fishing sustainable.” Other groups like Friends of the Sea help ensure fish are caught in a sustainable manner, and certify that plants like EPAX and its sister company meet environmental standards.
Like Peruvian fishing, there are regulations in place in the Norwegian waters, another main source of fish used to make fish oil. “Experts have raised concerns about the sustainability of sourcing krill or salmon, and many are concerned about the diminishing— or in some cases, collapsing—cod stocks of the Pacific Northwest, the North and Baltic Sea. Because of these concerns, Nordic sources Arctic Cod from Norwegian waters, which, according to the Institute for Marine Research, have numbers above safe biological limits and growing,” says Stuart Tomc, CNHP, national educator Nordic Naturals, Watsonville, CA, who adds that his company also uses oil from fish caught in the Pacific.
Like some krill suppliers, traceability is another technique that crude fish oil suppliers are using. According to Hjaltason, “EPAX provides documentation through the batch systems so the finished product can be traced back to the crude oil plant in Peru and certain fishing zones in Peruvian waters…There is an increasing demand for such oil and, so far, EPAX is among the very few companies that can provide the necessary documentation to show its oil is from sustainable origins.”
Last, several fish oil makers are engaging in eco-friendly efforts beyond just sustainable fishing. Mary Ann Siciliano, national sales manager of Arista Industries, Inc., Wilton, CT, says her company not only uses farmed fish from the open Fjords of Norway that are caught in nets (which eliminates the need for a power source to control temperature and water circulation), but also “the by-product or waste removed from the marine oils in the refining process are used as a source of bio fuel, fertilizer and animal feed. They are considered valuable sources as raw material substitutes and have numerous environmental benefits.” The firm has donated gallons of oil to biofuel research companies that are investigating ways to make cleaner, natural fuels.
Arista is not the only oil company concerned about the environment. Many firms are happy to share information about their sustainable process. Nordic Naturals and EPAX, for instance, have dedicated Web sites with specifics about this work (www.planetnordic.com and www.epax.com/ecovision).
The Next Step for Omegas
Part one of this article, published last month, highlighted numerous research articles on the health benefits of omega- 3s. One may have noticed that some omegas were typically associated with certain advantages over others. For instance, EPA is often linked with heart health while DHA is recommended for pregnant and nursing mothers because of its benefits for healthy brain and eye development, says Brenda Watson, president and founder of ReNew Life, Clearwater, FL.
One recent and noteworthy advance in the supplemental omega market has been in fish oil formulas that adjust the DHA:EPA ratio to suit certain clientele. “Condition-specific ratios have some robust substantiation and specific products have demonstrated significant benefit in human populations,” says Israel. “This may well be one of the next frontiers in omega-3 EPA/DHA supplementation.”
Retailers who understand the importance of the DHA/EPA ratio for specific individuals may be able to offer important advice to shoppers. “When choosing a fish oil supplement for specific benefits, look for formulas that offer different EPA:DHA ratios for different needs,” Tomc states. He uses some of his company’s offerings as examples: “Nordic Naturals offers EPA and EPA Xtra with a higher ratio of EPA to DHA for cardiovascular health, and their Prenatal DHA and DHA formulas have a higher ratio of DHA to EPA to promote neurological development and health. Finding the right formulas with the appropriate ratios can help to achieve optimal results.”
Nonetheless, stores shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that a standard fish oil doesn’t have its own purpose. Says Joiner-Bey, “The natural ratio of EPA to DHA in extracted fish oil is about 3:2—that is, three parts EPA to two parts DHA. For the vast majority of health issues, this natural ratio is quite satisfactory. Fractionating fish oil into its constituent omega-3s may be warranted under certain special circumstances.”
And, Jolie Root LPN, LNC, education consultant at Carlson Laboratories, Arlington Heights, IL, reminds us that there are many subtleties in the DHA/EPA market. “Studies are beginning to tease out some of the unique benefits of either EPA or DHA, but a consensus on the ideal ratio for any given benefit or health issue has not been reached,” she states.
Evidence of this can be found in antiinflammation research. While Resolvin E1 (produced from EPA) may lessen inflammation in studies, Root notes that neuroprotectin D1 (from DHA) may enhance neural cell survival and reduce inflammation in the brain. And, she adds that “both EPA and DHA are linked to heart health with the expected benefits being linked to reduction in inflammation, protection from unwarranted clotting, normalization of blood pressure, stabilization of heart rhythm and reduction of elevated triglyceride levels. Of these benefits, EPA is associated with the inflammation resolution and the clotting benefit. Both EPA and DHA support normal blood pressure and triglyceride levels, and DHA is associated more strongly with normalizing heart rhythm.”
Given the importance of the DHA:EPA ratio, one may wonder about the benefits of algae-based DHA, beyond serving the need for vegan/vegetarian options. According to Udo Erasmus, omega expert/innovator, author and formulator of Udo’s Oil 3-6-9 Blend from Flora Health, Lynden, WA, there are pluses in terms of the environment. He states, “The algae are grown in tanks and are, therefore, sustainable. It is even lower on the food chain than krill; therefore, it has less toxins. Grown in tanks, there is control over the environment, and so algae oils are free of industrial toxins.”
Of course, algae-based DHA has enabled some companies to develop unique products that offer the benefits of DHA in a form other than traditional capsules. Says Israel, “Algae-based DHA has been a huge success as an additive to infant foods and may provide some very important benefits for this population.”
Companies like Nordic Naturals and Barlean’s are pushing the boundaries of delivery methods in the fish oil market. This year, Nordic Naturals launched an effervescent fish oil supplement and Barlean’s continues to advance its smoothies form of omega supplements (which includes fish oil, algae-derived DHA and plant-based omegas).
Firms like Nordic Naturals are also launching unique combination products like fish oil–probiotics or adding fish oil to joint/heart health products.
Enzymotec has developed a Phosphatidylserine (PS)–DHA conjugate that is said to benefit cognitive health. The PS in the Enzymotec product, unlike others on the market, is soy free. And, the firm will soon launch an Omega-Sterol conjugate, which combines DHA and plant sterols.
As innovations come to market, one industry insider warns us of a supplement that could be on its way: genetically modified algae that can produce both EPA and DHA. Of course, retailers should have their eyes peeled for any advances that go outside the boundaries of natural. WF
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, October 2010.