Fish Oil Supplements: Is the Brand You're Taking Safe?

March 30, 2005

Contact: Kathleen Goldstein, Environmental Defense, 202-841-0295
(March 30, 2005 - New York, NY)  Environmental Defense today released the results of its fish oil supplement survey, which determined the best and worst choices based on company responses concerning removal of environmental contaminants. More than two-thirds of the companies contacted comply with the strictest standards, which is encouraging since consumers are increasingly taking fish oil supplements for their beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and want to know that the products are safe.

“Fish oil supplements are a great way to reduce your risk of heart disease, but all supplements are not created equal,” said Environmental Defense scientist Dr. Rebecca Goldburg.  “Consumers should be aware of potential risks from environmental contaminants such as PCBs and dioxins.”

Sales of such omega-3 supplements have more than tripled since 1998, reaching $190 million in 2003.  However, unpurified fish oil supplements can contain unsafe levels of environmental contaminants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The presence of pollutants is a widespread problem, not just in oils but also in popular fish such as tuna, swordfish and farmed salmon as well.   

“Environmental contaminants like PCBs and dioxins are potent developmental and neurological toxins,” said Environmental Defense health program director Dr. John Balbus, MD, MPH.  “People take supplements to be healthy, but if they don’t choose the right ones they could be sabotaging themselves.”

Environmental Defense surveyed 54 major producers and suppliers of fish oil supplements in the United States to see if and how they are addressing health risks from environmental contaminants.  They evaluated standards from a number of U.S. and foreign government agencies.  Since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and State of California (Proposition 65) limits were the most protective of human health, they used these standards as the survey’s baseline. In addition, the Council for Responsible Nutrition - a trade association comprising many of the companies surveyed - has established voluntary standards equal to or more stringent than those set by EPA and California’s Proposition 65.  

“We are encouraged by the number of companies that voluntarily cooperated with Environmental Defense’s efforts to make this information public,” said Council for Responsible Nutrition President Annette Dickinson, Ph.D.  “We are pleased, too, that so many companies are taking care to manufacture fish oil supplements that rate high in purity and quality.”

More than two-thirds (37) of the 54 companies contacted verified that they met the strictest U.S. standards for contaminants. These companies use highly effective purification processes - molecular distillation and steam deodorization - to separate pollutants from the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.  Nine companies’ responses were incomplete, and eight companies did not respond.

Overall, fish oil supplements are an ecologically acceptable as well as healthful choice for consumers.  But, in the future consumers will ideally be able to choose fish oil supplements that are not only properly purified, but also derived only from well-managed, ecologically sound fisheries.  

To learn more or view the survey chart, visit