Commentary

Omega-3s lead the push for quality in supplement industry

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / redstallion
© Getty Images / redstallion
Omega-3s are a category of products that embody the notion that supplements are getting ‘better.’ They started out at a high level and have gone on from there.

In the first installment of this series​, we visited the question of what is quality, and whether dietary supplements were getting ‘better.’  Last week I asked the question of whether herbal dietary supplements (the first category of products considered during this rumination) are coming closer to meeting that standard.  In my view, the answer is yes.

This series was engendered by my uneasy feeling that with all of the thousands of dietary supplements on the market, there is a danger that quality could be swamped by market momentum.  Get the product out there, get some money rolling in, and let’s hope we can catch up later with efficacy studies, precise dosages, etc. Are these new concepts really steps toward better dietary supplements?  Or are they just a way to squeeze more blood out of the same stone?

What do we mean by ‘quality?’

Robert Pirsig’s semi autobiographical novel/philosophical treatise Zen and the Art of Motorocycle Maintenance ​delved deeply into the question of what is ‘quality.’  In Pirsig’s view, the question we should really be asking is not what is new, but rather, what is best. How then, to define what is ‘good’ or ‘best?’ 

Pirsig came up a philosphy he referred to as the ‘Metaphysics of Quality’.  He poured a lot of words into that mold in the above book and a subsequent tome that he titled Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.

I won’t parse through all of that verbiage here. If you’re interested, you can go read (or reread) the books for yourselves. In one of my previous professional guises, I wrote headlines at a newspaper. I often found that if a story was difficult to sum up in the few words of a headline, that meant it was probably not very well written. So, to sum up Pirsig’s philosophy in a headline: Good is a verb, not a noun.

Fish oils have unique history

So are omega-3s supplements putting the action into that verb?

Fish oils (and, by extension allied forms of omega-3s) have had a few advantages here.  For one, they are among the oldest dietary ingredients on modern market.  The trade in cod liver oil stretches back into the late 1700s.

Second, it has a relatively long modern research history, too.  I said ‘modern market,’ because, while cod liver oil could be said to have  a long history of use, it pales in comparison to the history of botanical ingredients, whose use stretches back into antiquity.

But that long history can be something of a burden as well as a boon.  Herbal traditions contain lots of sage advice, but they have old wives tales mixed in there, too.

Omega-3 and fish © Getty Images geckophotos
© Getty Images / geckophotos

In the case of fish oils, the story of the ingredient really started first to be told via the modern scientific method.  Among the first studies was epidemiological evidence comparing the health of ethnic Greenlanders living on that island as opposed to those who had moved to Denmark.  The stay-at-homes lived lives almost completely free of heart disease whereas the emigrants, eating a typical Danish diet, suffered heart ailments at a similar rate to ethnic Danes.  What was the magic differentiator?  Fish consumption.

The strongest and most established body of science for the marine omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) is in relation to cardiovascular health, reported in the early 1970s by Dr Jorn Dyerberg and his co-workers in The Lancet​ and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​.

To date, EPA and DHA have been linked to improvements in blood lipid levels, a reduced tendency of thrombosis, blood pressure and heart rate improvements, and improved vascular function. Beyond heart health, numerous compelling studies support the fatty acids for cognitive function, mood and behavior, eye health, joint health, maternal and infant development, and sports nutrition.

GOED seals the deal

Quality © Getty Images olm26250
© Getty Images / olm26250

All of this has been underpinned by the foundation of Global Organization of EPA and DHA Omega-3s, GOED, now entering its 12th year.  This group, whose founding back in the day was driven by Robert Orr of Ocean Nutrition Canada among others, has become the model for other such organizations in the dietary supplement industry.

The concept was to put down the competitive hatchets for a moment  to set some baseline quality measures, codified via the GOED Monograph​.  This set the standard for what could call itself ‘fish oil.’  Algal omega-3 ingredients were part of this quality narrative from the very beginning, and other later entrants, such as the krill oil and shrimp oil ingredients among others, have been able to find their own ways to fit into this quality universe.

The monograph system established a baseline concentration, a dosage if you will, right from the start.  And creative lipid chemists have found ways to innovate from there.  Most notably, this has been through higher concentrations, but new dosage forms are part of that picture, too.  All of this is tied to the baselines dosages, or the stuff we have proven works, in other words.  Taken together the system is among the strongest arguments for self regulation in the industry.

When friends and acquaintances find out I’m in the supplement industry, one of the first questions I get is, “What supplements should I take?”  ​That’s followed in short order by, “What do YOU take?”​ My first and best answer in both cases is “Omega-3s.” 

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