Popular once again, fish oil stirs debate

Pills: Some worry that the supplements may carry harmful toxins, but others say the threat has been overblown.

Medicine & Science

April 26, 2004|By Beth Daley | Beth Daley,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It was a dreaded ritual for generations of children: a dose of cod-liver oil, an amber and vile-tasting cure meant to ward off everything from bone disease to ear infections.

Now, after decades of being relegated to Grandma's medicine cabinet, fish oil is back in vogue. Fueled by health-conscious consumers looking for a quick boost of omega-3 fatty acids, U.S. fish oil supplement sales have almost tripled since 1997 to more than $131 million.

They're among the fastest growing supplements in the country, according to Nutrition Business Journal, a research and marketing company.

But the standard-setting United States Pharmacopeia, or USP, warned last month that fish oil pills may contain some of the same high levels of PCBs, arsenic and other toxins that accumulate in wild fish. Some scientists say lax regulations of all dietary supplements mean that the consumers can't be sure the pills are pure.

Fish oil supplements "are not subject to oversight and USP is very concerned about that," said V. Srini Srinivasan, vice president of the United States Pharmacopeia's Verification Program for dietary supplements. His nonprofit group is developing standards for toxins in fish oil that will take effect in about six months.

Equally worrisome, some nutrition experts say: Diners are using the pills as an excuse to give up nutritious fish meals, perhaps eating artery-clogging red meat instead.

The concerns come after years of hearing only good news about omega-3s in fish oil. A flurry of studies has shown that the fatty acids found in fish are a sort of modern-day elixir, helping prevent heart disease and perhaps also easing depression and complications from cystic fibrosis, among a host of other ailments.

Fish oil was once an industrial product, used to waterproof boats, illuminate lighthouses, make paint glide on easily and tan leather. The health benefits of fish oil - particularly oil derived from the livers of cod - were documented as far back as the 1750s. Back then, it was the benefits of vitamins A and D that were prized, not the fatty acids.

Humans are unable to manufacture enough of these fatty acids and must get them from cold-water fish, or a less-potent kind found in flaxseeds and dark, leafy, green vegetables. But many people don't eat enough fish high in omega-3s to meet dietary guidelines and so take pills instead.

Most fish oil pills currently come from small bony fish such as menhaden, whiting or anchovy - not cod livers.

Producers of some of the more popular brands of fish oil say their pills do not have high levels of contaminants because their fish oil undergoes a process that removes most impurities. Some scientists say the fish used in fish oil pills are not long-lived enough to accumulate toxins.

And Consumer Reports, a magazine that reviews product attributes and safety, recently tested several well-known brands and found that none contained dangerous levels of mercury, PCBs or dioxin.

In fact, some scientists expressed concern last week that the USP was too stringent in its warning, especially because the group mentioned mercury, which is normally found in the tissue of fish, not its oil, and because tested fish oil pills have not shown any dangerous levels of toxins.

"It was a little irresponsible," said David Schardt of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group.

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