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SMHS researcher finds many omega-3 supplements are rancid

The study found many omega-3 supplements may not be providing their promised health benefits.
Jordan Tovin | Assistant Photo Editor
Omega-3 fatty acids are popular among supplement consumers because of medical benefits like the support of cardiovascular and eye health.

Updated: Oct. 3, 2023, at 4:04 p.m.

A GW medical student found that many omega-3 supplements are rancid and may not offer the health benefits that companies claim.

Jacob Hands, the lead author of the study and a second-year medical student at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences, said his study examined 72 omega-3 supplements and found that almost 68 percent of flavored and 13 percent of unflavored omega-3 supplements were not fresh and considered rancid by standards set by the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s, or GOED. Hands said the supplements aren’t a hazard to consume, but consumers should be aware that they may not be receiving the health advantages, like bolstered heart and brain health, that are often promised by the supplement manufacturers.

“The biggest takeaway is just that there’s a lot of impurities in a lot of supplements and the supplement industry writ large is kind of a sh*t show,” Hands said.

Omega-3 fatty acids, largely derived from seafood and algae, are popular among supplement consumers because they support cardiovascular health and pregnancy and potentially lowers the risk of age-related macular degeneration — an eye disease that can blur the central vision — according to the Cleveland Clinic. A 2012 National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health study found that more than 18 million American adults took omega-3 supplements.

Hands said he tested 72 consumer-available omega-3 supplements from 2014 to 2020 with Leigh Frame, an associate professor of clinical research and leadership at SMHS and the study’s senior author. He said he quantified the supplements’ rancidity by measuring their oxidation level. Hands said high oxidation levels within supplements could reveal that ingredients used to make the omega-3 supplements may be old or of poor quality.

Hands said the Food and Drug Administration does not approve all omega-3 supplements before they become available for purchase. Hands said there is some degree of “dishonesty” about the quality of omega-3 in supplements sold on the market among companies that sell non-FDA-approved supplements, and added that consumers should use the results of his study to start questioning the freshness of supplements available on the market.

“Being very mindful of what you’re consuming and not blindly trusting what anybody, especially a non-FDA regulated industry, is telling you is contained within a supplement,” Hands said.

Mark Anderson, the vice president of research at which provided Hands with the collection of supplement data and testing used in the study — was a researcher on Hands’ study. Anderson said GOED guidelines state that flavored supplements are not included in GOED’s oxidation testing due to potential inaccuracies.

Anderson said his goal with the results of the study is to “steer people to good products” by testing even the flavored omega-3 supplements that GOED has excluded from its testing.

“It’s a big issue for the GOED group to not just dismiss flavored products and say they’re not applicable, which is what they have in there now, but to take into consideration that some flavored products should be tested,” Anderson said.

GOED experts said the findings of this study can help the supplement industry by bolstering trust in the efficacy of omega-3, which holds various health benefits.

Gerard Bannenberg, the director of technical compliance and outreach at GOED, said flavored products pose a challenge to GOED and testing because they may skew results by interfering with oxidation testing. He said GOED’s accountability of companies and manufacturers should ease consumer misconceptions around deregulation.

“There are many products on the market, produced by brands that are not a member of GOED, so these companies don’t have to adhere to our limits,” Bannenberg said. “There are no regulatory requirements for oxidative quality for these types of supplements.”

Bannenberg said this study could prompt researchers to expand their studies to include new testing methods, especially when looking into the impact of flavored supplements on oxidation testing.

“This type of research is important to get this awareness,” Bannenberg said. “It also shows us that we might want to consider developing new methods to understand the state of quality of such flavored products. I can tell you from a chemical point of view, this is actually quite a challenge.”

Kaitlin Roke, GOED’s director of scientific communication and outreach, said there is “strong” research that backs up omega-3’s value in supporting heart and brain functions as well as prenatal health and pregnancy. Roke said she is hoping consumers can see omega-3s for their long-term benefits, rather than as an instantaneous solution to heart and brain health as research into omega-3s expands to find links with heightened physical performance and memory retention.

Roke said although she does not deem rancidity to be a prime issue in omega-3 supplements, consumers should be aware of the quality of the supplements they choose.

“Personally, as a consumer, I’m just a little bit skeptical of the ones that have just made a big splash and are kind of really new,” Roke said. “I want to know what is the research being said about those nutrients.”

This post was updated to correct the following:

The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Hands said companies should be held liable amid some “dishonesty” about the quality of omega-3 in supplements sold on the market. Hands did not say companies should be held liable. The Hatchet also incorrectly reported that Anderson provided Hands with the data collection and testing used in the study. provided Hands with the data collection and testing. We regret these errors.

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