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Is Your Fish Oil Toxic?

August 20, 2014

Photo: Getty Images

Have you ever watched a commercial for the latest miracle drug, with the token happy couple strolling along the beach, only to hear a record scratch in your head as they start listing the possible side effects? That’s how I felt after reading a study about the possible dangers lurking in my daily dose of fish oil. Did all of its benefits outweigh the risk of possibly ingesting a slew of chemicals?

As with any pill, fitness class, or blind date, there is the chance of an adverse reaction, so I brought my concerns right to the source, Dr. Barry Sears, founder of The Zone Diet, author of The OmegaRX Zone, and a leader in fish oil research. “The fear about toxins in fish oil is legitimate, because they can be incredibly dangerous,” he says. But why? You may have heard—our oceans aren’t doing so great. Things like mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, neurotoxins, carcinogens, dioxins, and furans get consumed by fish in said oceans and accumulate in their fatty tissue, which means when their oil is extracted, a handful of toxins might come with it. “The concern about toxins in fish oil is legitimate, because all fish accumulate toxins, which can be incredibly dangerous,” he says.

Even armed with all this information, I wasn’t ready to ditch my fish oil; it’s one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which play an important role in brain function, ease inflammation, improve mental health, and lengthen life overall. So what was I supposed to do? “The solution is choosing a highly refined fish oil in which these toxins are reduced to incredibly low levels,” says Dr. Sears. “But don’t assume all fish oils are the same and purchase the cheapest fish oil you can. The cheaper the fish oil, the less omega-3 fatty acids and the more PCBs it contains.” The FDA also warns not to  exceed a daily intake of three grams.

But how do you know which brands are refining their oil to that non-toxic level? The IFOS website has a tool to search most brands and see how pure each really is. Sealogix Omega-3, Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega, and Zone Labs are among the most refined with the highest amount of omega 3’s and the lowest amount of toxins.

Here’s my own little tip: take your fish oil at night to avoid fish hiccups. They might not be toxic, but they’re not fun either.