Aim: Fish oil supplements are regulated in New Zealand under the Dietary Supplement Regulations (Section 42, Food Act 1981) and therefore are not subject to the same level of scrutiny and regulations as medicines. We investigated accuracy of labelling, stated health benefits of fish oil supplements sold in New Zealand, and risks relating to possible mercury content.
Method: The amounts of omega-3 fatty acids contained per capsule were determined by an independent laboratory using gas chromatography on 10 of the most popular over-the-counter fish oil supplements sold in New Zealand and were compared with amounts stated on product labels. Information on doses recommended to achieve a specific health benefit were taken from the 10 labels as well as the company websites. These recommended doses were compared with published recommended doses identified as being effective in those health areas stipulated on the labels, based on either systematic reviews, meta-analyses and/or consensus statements. Mercury was analysed by an independent laboratory using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry.
Results: The actual amounts of EPA and DHA per capsule in 90% of the over-the-counter fish oil supplements analysed were within 10% of the amount stated on the product labels. Only one product was greater than 10% below the stated dose on the label. All products suggested benefit across heart, brain and joint health and all but two products stated a range of capsules required to achieve that health benefit (eg, 2-6 capsules). Based on the maximum number of capsules recommended (which ranged from 3-6 capsules), only three products would likely confer the dose identified as optimal for achieving a health benefit across all three health areas. Only two products recommended doses that would likely confer a health benefit both at the minimum and maximum number of capsules. More products would likely benefit brain and heart health than joint health. Mercury was not detected in any sample.
Conclusions: It is reassuring that the doses of 90% of the products were accurate and that mercury was not detected in any sample; however, less than a third of the supplements would likely confer all the health benefits stated, even at the highest recommended daily doses. This paper has highlighted the ongoing challenges associated with the regulation of "health claims" associated with dietary supplements in New Zealand. Indeed, the literature on health effects is contradictory at best. Clearer definitions of the types of health statements that can be made and the research necessary to support them requires regulatory clarification.