Fish oil supplements

Some people choose fish oil supplements in preference to eating oily fish. The news here is not good either – particularly worrying as intense marketing by producers boasts of meticulous manufacturing techniques and reassurances that all toxins have been removed.

In March 2006, the Food Standards Agency announced that supplement manufacturer Seven Seas Limited was withdrawing some batches of fish oil supplements because of high levels of pollutants. Less than a month later, Boots also withdrew fish oil capsules for the same reason. In both cases they claimed there were no health risks yet the levels of dioxins exceeded statutory limits. A bizarre statement which seems to say that a little bit of poison is okay!


The official position – not budging


girlThe risk of toxins in fish prompted the government to commission a report on the benefits and risks of fish consumption. The report from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment was published in 2004.

It led to the advice that pregnant and breastfeeding women should limit their consumption of oily fish to one or two 140 gram portions a week. They, along with children under 16, should also avoid shark, marlin and swordfish entirely and limit the amount of tuna they eat. Men, boys and women past childbearing age or who are not intending to have children, can eat up to four portions of oily fish a week before possible risks outweigh the benefits, they claimed.

The report highlighted dioxins in herring, salmon, mackerel and, to a lesser degree, trout and voiced concerns about other pollutants such as brominated flame retardants. The Food Standards Agency insists that occasionally eating more oily fish than they recommend will not be harmful.

The risks from chemicals such as dioxins are not immediate but develop over time as they accumulate in the body and no-one knows what the long-term effects will be. Surely it must be better to avoid these hazardous chemicals entirely? This guide’s recipe section will enable you to do just that!


Confused? You will be!

Official advice to eat oily fish to help the development of unborn and breastfeeding infants is contradicted by advice to limit fish eating for fear of damaging both these vulnerable groups. So just when your intake of omega-3 really matters – during pregnancy and breastfeeding – the government warns you to limit your intake! No wonder people are confused!

In 2002, Which? magazine reported on a Consumers’ Association survey which found that only a sixth of fish eaters knew that the official advice is to eat oily fish once a week; over half thought the advice was to eat two or more portions but a staggering 61 per cent had no idea that oily fish is likely to contain toxins. One per cent knew that pregnant women should avoid certain fish but nobody could name them.

Most people were even confused by what was meant by oily fish – 14 per cent thought that cod was an oily fish – it isn’t.

It’s no clearer in the US. In 2002, the American Heart Association recommended at least two servings of fish, particularly oily fish, per week. It also warned that this needed to be balanced with concerns over mercury and PCBs. How on earth are people supposed to do that? It is either safe or it isn’t, and such cautions seriously challenge the idea that fish is ‘healthy’. Who should the public listen to?


Fish failing

Despite the constant promotion of fish, the British public just doesn’t buy it! On average, people eat only a third of a portion of oily fish a week and seven out of ten people eat none at all. Clearly, oily fish is not a significant contributor of omega-3 fatty acids in the diets of most people.

Encouraging people to eat oily fish is not working as a public health measure and if it did work it would be an environmental disaster as the oceans simply cannot cope with the current, let alone increased, demand. And farmed fish are not the solution.

The upshot of all this is that many people fail to understand the importance of omega-3s and don’t realise how easy it is to obtain them from everyday plant foods. The government is doing us a great disservice by not promoting alternative, plant-based sources. We can only guess that they see the protection of the fishing industry as more important than public health.

Promoting oily fish as the only route to heart health could actively deter people from making the fundamental dietary changes necessary to improve their health. A better and simpler solution would be to recommend a plant-based diet containing EFA-rich seeds, nuts and oils. Plants, not fish, are the way forward for good health.