How to Get Your Omega-3s Without Taking Fish Oil

A California lawsuit claiming that fish oil capsules are contaminated with PCBs -- banned chemicals that have been linked to cancer and birth defects -- is producing news stories right out of a blockbuster horror movie. We wouldn't blame you if headlines like Fish Oil Takers Beware inspire you to trash your capsules and give up on these good fats.
But take a breath. The last thing we want is for the news media to come between you and your omega-3s. These healthy fats -- found in salmon and trout (the only fish with plentiful omega-3s in the United States), fish oil capsules, and a few other superfoods -- are just too important. They're already credited with protecting hearts against deadly offbeat rhythms, lowering depression risk, cooling inflammation, and helping babies grow healthy brains. Now, omega-3s are also showing promise for encouraging weight loss and discouraging belly fat.
So what's up with the lawsuit? A California group tested 10 types of fish oil capsules from major manufacturers/distributors (CVS, Rite Aid, General Nutrition, Solgar, Twinlab, Now Health, Omega Protein, and Pharmavite). The suit says that:
  • Every capsule tested contained PCBs, toxic chemicals that were banned decades ago but still linger in oceans and rivers -- and thus fish -- everywhere.
  • Capsules had 12 to 850 nanograms of PCBs per dose but didn't say that on the label, in violation of California's strict disclosure laws (90 nanograms is the max for no disclosure on labels).
  • Statements on the capsules saying "Screened for PCBs" or "Treated to remove PCBs" falsely implied that all PCBs had been removed.
This isn't the first time that fish oil capsules have gotten, uh, fishy looks, especially from environmental groups. In 2007, Greenpeace named five of the same makers in this lawsuit as being suspiciously vague about how they removed PCBs. On the other hand, in 2008, ConsumerLab tested 52 brands (including four listed in the lawsuit) and found no contamination.

What to do? Don't lose these good fats. Until this issue is resolved, maximize the benefits and minimize your potential exposure by being extra choosy. Here are three smart ways to do that:

Go straight to the safest omega-3 source. Get your omega-3s where the fish do: from microscopic algae floating around in the oceans. These tiny plants convert sunlight into omega-3 fats. Algae-based omega-3 supplements are also extra-rich in DHA, one of the two kinds of omega-3 fats found in fish oil (the other is EPA). DHA is responsible for most of the benefits found in omega-3s. We aim for 600 milligrams of DHA a day.
Bonus: Getting DHAs from algae, not fish oil, eliminates the toxin problem. The only challenge is finding algae-based DHA, but fortunately that's getting easier. One of the first on the market, Life's DHA from Martek, is sold online. (Dr. Mike chairs their scientific advisory board because he thinks so highly of it.) Some other options: Spring Valley (available online), Finest Natural (Walgreens), and Natrol DHA-Omega-3 (CVS).

Catch some safe fish. Aim for three fist-sized servings of fish a week, which is enough to lower your RealAge by 2.8 years. Great choices that are low in contaminants and provide good fats include wild salmon (inexpensive trick: canned salmon is usually wild, so use it for salads, quiches, and casseroles), canned white tuna, and trout.

Munch on walnuts and sprinkle on flaxseeds. Snack on a dozen walnuts a day (walnuts have six times more omega-3s than any other nut). Sprinkle ground flaxseeds on your yogurt, or drizzle flaxseed oil on your salad. The good fat in these is called alpha-linolenic acid, 2% or so of which your body converts to DHA. At the grocery store, choose omega-3-enriched foods like eggs and orange juice.
But even if you regularly eat fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts, adding capsules is smart because it's difficult to get enough from food. That's why we YOU Docs take them every day.
Finally, don't overreact to this PCBs-in-supplements scare. Even though these toxins were widely banned in 1979, tons are still in the environment, and small amounts find their way into many foods, including beef, dairy products, and chicken. A simple way to reduce your exposure to PCBs may be to eat less red meat. Even though it's low in PCBs, Americans and Canadians eat so much of it that red meat accounts for most of the exposure from food!


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