Analysis of the omega-3 fatty acid content of South African fish oil supplements: a follow-up study

Cardiovasc J Afr. 2013 Sep;24(8):297-302. doi: 10.5830/CVJA-2013-074.


Introduction: Globally the omega-3 (n-3) fatty acid supplement industry is expanding rapidly while consumers are becoming more aware of the health benefits of n-3 fatty acids. Our group conducted a survey in 2009 on 45 commercially available fish oil supplements on the South African market. The aim of the study was to determine the fatty acid composition and content of supplements for comparison with the claimed contents on the product label. The survey was repeated in 2012 on 63 supplements.

Methods: Sixty-three commercially available n-3 fatty acid supplements were analysed using gas-liquid chromatography to determine their fatty acid composition and content.

Results: This analysis has shown an improvement in the accuracy of EPA content (44% in 2009) declared on supplement labels compared to the 2012 (52%) survey. It was also evident that a higher percentage of supplements (13% in 2009 vs 35% in 2012) contained DHA levels higher than declared. In 2009, 64% of supplements cost R2.01 to R5.00 or more to achieve a daily intake of 500 mg EPA + DHA, compared to 81% in 2012. Forty-four per cent of supplements were found to be in the early stages of rancidity [conjugated diene (CD) levels] compared to 73% in 2009. More than 80% of supplements had peroxide levels higher than the recommended content as specified by the Global Organisation for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED). The majority (81%; n = 51) of the supplements under study in 2012 had a 1.1-1.5:1 EPA-to-DHA ratio or less, compared to 56% in 2009. Almost a third (32%) of the supplements in the 2012 survey contained ethyl esters (EE) or a combination of ethyl esters and triglycerides.

Conclusion: Although the results of the 2012 versus the 2009 analysis were encouraging in terms of the accuracy of EPA declared on the supplement labels, the high peroxide levels found in the supplement oils are of concern. High peroxide levels are associated with potential health implications. EE were present in some of the supplements, even though the safety of EE has not been confirmed in vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and children.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Chromatography, Gas
  • Consumer Product Safety
  • Dietary Supplements / analysis*
  • Dietary Supplements / standards
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / analysis*
  • Docosahexaenoic Acids / standards
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / analysis*
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid / standards
  • Humans
  • Product Labeling
  • Quality Control
  • Risk Assessment
  • South Africa


  • Docosahexaenoic Acids
  • Eicosapentaenoic Acid