How 'Green' Are Your Omega-3 Supplements?

Tips to help you ensure the omega-3 supplement chosen for you pet patient is the best possible choice.

Suggested Veterinary Products

With so many omega-3 supplements on the market, how does one choose a good one? Palatability? Price? Purity? Plant, algae, krill or fish? Farmed or wild, from European or Pacific waters, or out of the Artic or Antarctic biospheres?

For “One Health” professionals, a cost-benefit analysis of the safety and effectiveness of omega-3 supplements should take into account stress on the ecosystem through overexploitation of resources along with the risk of contaminating patients’ systems with cancer-causing chemicals.

Polluted Oceans

That the ocean is polluted is no surprise. Noxious agents such as mercury, pesticides, organochlorines and radionuclides1 may land in fish and their oils. Consider this from FishOilSafety.com:2

“Millions of people who take fish oil for health benefits have been kept in the dark about the levels of PCBs and other contaminants they may be swallowing with the omega-3s.”

“Some supplements contain labels that say ‘treated to remove contaminants,’ but those labels do not tell consumers how much is left after such ‘treatment.’”

“Despite knowing about these potential threats for years, the FDA has allowed supplement makers to provide misleading labels for consumers and doctors, who often recommend fish oil supplements.”

“Consumers have the right to know what is really in fish oil!”

“[O]ur tests—and others like them—show that some major brands of supplements sold by large retailers still contain widely varying levels of PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls, cancer-causing chemicals].”3

Standards for PCBs, mercury and dioxins vary.4 The U.S. Food and Drug Administration tolerates 2,000 parts per billion (ppb) of PCBs while California allows only 90 ppb. PCBs impair development, reproduction and organ function, possibly causing cancer. Additional lipophilic chemicals include polybrominated diphenyl ethers.5,6 Most initial crude fish oil preparations are highly contaminated. Thus, refinement is necessary.7 However, while manufacturers may indeed have filtered their oils, the result may exceed acceptable ranges.8

Are some fish oils radioactive? Possibly. A report in Forbes.com claims that the radioactive isotope iodine 131 has been found in California kelp and some fish oil samples.9 Months after the tsunami-damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant unleashed radioactive cesium and iodine isotopes into the Pacific Ocean, migratory bluefin tuna reached the California coast with radionuclides from Fukushima.10,11 Radiocesium has also arrived on land, as far as the midwest.12,13

Radioactivity from the plant is rising, not falling, indicating that the ocean is not diluting the radiation as expected, likely due to the fact that the facility continues to leak radiation. Dire predictions about the possible fallout of Fukushima’s continuing contamination are appearing on watchdog websites although little official commentary is available.

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Citizens groups and bloggers across the globe suspect that governments from Asia and North America are downplaying the radiation risks from Fukushima; they claim that evidence now indicates that the impacts of this nuclear accident will have worse effects on the Pacific Ocean than formerly anticipated.14

About 70 percent of fish caught in Japan contain radioactive cesium; 20 percent of Japanese fish exported to Canada exceed isotope ceilings for food. A marine scientist stated, “There has been virtually zero monitoring and research on this.”15 An oceanographer said, “People want to know what’s happening with the cesium and how much is in the fish, but we don’t know.” Neither cooking nor filtration eliminates radioactive cesium; for fish flesh, cooking merely concentrates the amount of radiocesium per unit tissue.16


While climate change and toxic dumps damage our oceans, overexploitation of resources may be its largest direct threat.17 Overfishing reduces species diversity, unbalances ecosystems and challenging species survivability.18,19 Shark destruction for fins, shark oil, and cartilage has led to their endangerment. This year, Illinois became the first inland state (No. 5 in the U.S.) to ban shark fins.20 Many shark species are now considered endangered.

Shouldn’t veterinarians take a stand against shark oil and shark cartilage supplements, given that that other sources of omega-3s and cartilage are readily available?

Oil Alternatives

The mission statement of the One Health Initiative reads, “Recognizing that human health (including mental health via the human-animal bond phenomenon), animal health, and ecosystem health are inextricably linked, One Health seeks to promote, improve, and defend the health and well-being of all species….”21

What alternatives exist to lessen the risks and environmental concerns about omega-3 supplements? How can we retain the benefits of omega-3 supplements without suffering from a guilty conscience?22-27 Krill oil seemed like a viable option at first. These shrimp-like, algae-eating crustaceans from deep ocean waters in Antarctica and elsewhere serve as food for fish, penguins, albatrosses, seals and whales.28

Although their EPA and DHA levels differ in amount and molecular structure, research has shown that krill oil offers comparable levels of n-3 fatty acids to those from fish. However, humans’ insatiable appetite for aquatic sources of omega-3 fatty acids along with global warming are threatening the delicate Antarctic ecosystem and, ultimately, the survival of krill and the many marine animals that depend on them for food.29

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The Solution? Algae

Earth-friendly and renewable microalgae provide EPA and DHA without the risk of mercury, dioxin, PCBs and radiation. As the original sources of marine omega-3s, microalgae also satisfy the need for vegetarian alternatives to fish oils. No fish flavor, no fish breath and no fish flatulence.

As One Medicine, One Health, professionals, we need to consider how the products we feed our patients impact the planet and its ecosystems. We can vote with our pocket book, but also at the ballot box. We can support politicians who compel corporations to obey safety standards and reduce pollution poured into our waters, injected into the ground, and blown into the air.

Industrial behemoths and nuclear power plants won’t suffer the consequences of a polluted radioactive planet. We will, along with our animals. 

Dr. Robinson, DVM, DO, Dipl. ABMA, FAAMA, oversees complementary veterinary education at Colorado State University.



1. Burger J, Gaines KF, Boring CS, et al. Effects of cooking on radiocesium in fish from the Savannah River: exposure differences for the public. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 2004;46:231-235.

2. FishOilSafety.com. Is fish oil safe? Accessed at www.fishoilsafety.com on 07-04-12.

3. FishOilSafety.com. Fish oil supplements. Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.fishoilsafety.com/?page_id=10 on 07-04-12.

4. Environmental Defense Fund. How safe are fish oil supplements? Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://apps.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=19376 on 07-04-12.

5. Ashley JTF, Ward JS, Schafer MW, et al. Evaluating daily exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers in fish oil supplements. Food Additives and Contaminants. 2010;27(8):1177-1185.

6. Bell JG, Dick JR, Strachan F, et al. Complete replacement of fish oil with a blend of vegetable oils affects dioxin, dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in 3 Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) families differing in flesh adiposity. Aquaculture. 2012;324-325:118-126.

7. Fernandes AR, Rose M, White S, et al. Dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in fish oil dietary supplements: Occurrence and human exposure in the UK. Food Additives and Contaminants. 2006;23(9):939-947.

8. Bourdon JA, Bazinet TM, Arnason TT, et al. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contamination and aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) agonist activity of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplements: Implications for daily intake of dioxins and PCBs. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2010;48:3093-3097.

9. gCaptain. Fukushima – Is the crisis over for the Pacific? Forbes.com. May 29, 2012. Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://enenews.com/forbes-source-says-radiation-detected-in-some-fish-oil-samples-could-fukushima-disaster-be-a-cataclysmic-event on 07-04-12.

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10. Zabarenko D. Fukushima radiation seen in tuna off California. Reuters. May 28, 2012. Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/28/us-japan-nuclear-tuna-idUSBRE84R0MF20120528 on 07-05-12.

11. Madigan DJ, Baumann Z, and Fisher NS. Pacific bluefin tuna transport Fukushima-derived radionuclides from Japan to California. PNAS Early Edition. Accessed at www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1204859109 on 07-3-12.

12. Kuta S. Radiation from Japan nuclear plant reaches Colorado; officials say no threat. Daily Camera. March 23, 2011. Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.dailycamera.com/news/ci_17682076 on 07-3-12.

13. Buck EH and Upton HF. Effects of radiation from Fukushima Dai-ichi on the US marine environment. Congressional Research Service. April 2, 2012.

14. Roslin A. Canada: Fish eaters threatened by Fukushima radiation. The Vancouver Sun. January 16, 2012.

15. Roslin A. Canada: Fish eaters threatened by Fukushima radiation. The Vancouver Sun. January 16, 2012.

16. Burger J, Gaines KF, Boring CS, et al. Effects of cooking on radiocesium in fish from the Savannah River: exposure differences for the public. Faculty Research & Creative Activity. Paper 60. 2004. Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://thekeep.eiu.edu/bio_fac/60/ on 07-03-12.

17. The Ocean Foundation website. Resources – About our oceans. Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.oceanfdn.org/newsroom/about-our-oceans on 07-04-12.

18. US Environmental Protection Agency. Aquatic Biodiversity. Overexploitation of Species. Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.epa.gov/bioiweb1/aquatic/overexpl.html on 07-04-12.

19. US Environmental Protection Agency. Aquatic Biodiversity. Overexploitation of Species. Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.epa.gov/bioiweb1/aquatic/overexpl.html on 07-04-12.

20. Anonymous. Illinois shark fin ban: first inland state adopts policy against fin sale, trade. Huff Post Chicago. July 2, 2012. Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/02/illinois-shark-fin-ban-fi_n_1643587.html on 07-05-12.

21. One Health Initiative website. Mission statement. Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.onehealthinitiative.com/mission.php on 07-04-12.

22. Calder PC. Fatty acids and inflammation: the cutting edge between food and pharma. Eur J Pharmacol. 2011;668 Suppl 1: S50-S58.

23. Calder PC. Mechanisms of action of (n-3) fatty acids. J Nutr. 2012;592S-599S.

24. Willett WC. Dietary fats and coronary heart disease. J Intern Med. 2012;272(1):13-24.

25. Calder PC. Fatty acids and inflammation: the cutting edge between food and pharma. Eur J Pharmacol. 2011;668 Suppl 1: S50-S58.

26. Calder PC. Immunomodulation by omega-3 fatty acids. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids. 2007;77:327-335.

27. Tan JS, Wang JJ, Flood V, et al. Dietary fatty acids and the 10-year incidence of age-related macular degeneration: the Blue Mountains Eye Study. Arch Ophthalmol. 2099;127(5):656-665.

28. Cunningham E. Are krill oil supplements a better source of n-3 fatty acids than fish oil supplements? Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112(2):344.

29. Jowit J. Krill fishing threatens the Antarctic. The Observer. March 22, 2008. Accessed at /redirect.aspx?location=http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/mar/23/fishing.food

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