The Scoop - Spring 2017

The Scoop: A Newsletter for Consumers from the Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health Department of Health and Human Services seal  Office of Dietary Supplements logo

Spring 2017

What’s the Scoop? Questions and Answers About Dietary Supplements

What’s the Scoop on Fish Oil and Other Omega-3 Dietary Supplements?

Fish oil, which contains omega-3 fatty acids, is a commonly used dietary supplement. Omega-3s are promoted as “healthy” fats, and research shows that foods that contain omega-3s, such as fish and other seafood, have many health benefits. However, the potential benefits of fish oil and other omega-3 dietary supplements are not as clear. Below are answers to some commonly asked questions about fish oil and omega-3s.

For more information, see our fact sheet on omega-3 fatty acids.

1. I’m confused by all of the different terms such as ALA, EPA, and DHA that are used when referring to omega-3s from fish oil, flaxseed, or other sources. What are the differences?

There are two main types of omega-3 fatty acids—“short chain” and “long chain,” named for their somewhat different chemical structures. ALA is one of the most common short-chain omega-3s, while EPA and DHA are the most common long-chain omega-3s.

grilled fish filet

Plant foods such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils, as well as chia seeds and black walnuts, contain ALA. Fish and other seafood—especially cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna—contain EPA and DHA.

Most omega-3 supplements, including fish oil, krill oil, cod liver oil, and vegetarian products made from algal oil, contain EPA and DHA. Flaxseed oil supplements contain ALA. Some foods, including certain brands of eggs, yogurt, milk, and soy beverages, contain added omega-3s. You can check product labels to determine which ones.

Most research on the potential health benefits of omega-3s involves EPA and DHA. Our bodies can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, but not very well. So if you want to increase the amount of EPA and DHA you consume, you need to get them from either foods or dietary supplements. If you eat about 8 ounces per week of a variety of seafood, you are getting about 250 mg of EPA and DHA each day. A typical fish oil supplement provides about 300 mg of EPA and DHA, but doses vary widely.

2. Are fish oil supplements recommended for cardiovascular disease? What does the latest research show?

fish oil supplement pills

Fish oil supplements help lower triglyceride levels, but their other effects on cardiovascular disease are less clear. Studies conducted 10 to 20 years ago found that fish oil reduced the risk of some heart problems such as sudden death and stroke, especially among people with heart disease. But many recent studies have not found the same thing. Some researchers believe that changes in people’s lifestyles, such as increased use of statins and higher consumption of fish over the last 10 to 20 years, might overshadow the potential benefits of fish oil. Research clearly shows that eating fish and other seafood as part of a healthy eating pattern reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Therefore, experts recommend consuming 8 or more ounces per week of fish and other seafood, including some varieties that have higher amounts of EPA and DHA (such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna).

3. I am pregnant and have heard that it’s important to get DHA in addition to prenatal vitamins. Should I take a supplement, eat more fish, or both?

A pregnant woman

During pregnancy, experts recommend eating 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of seafood per week, choosing from varieties that are lower in methyl mercury. These include salmon, herring, sardines, light tuna, and trout. Pregnant women should not consume certain types of fish—such as king mackerel, shark, swordfish, and tilefish—that are high in methyl mercury.*

Some studies show that taking DHA or other omega-3 dietary supplements during pregnancy might slightly increase a baby’s weight at birth and the length of time the baby is in the womb, both of which might be beneficial. However, it is not clear whether taking these supplements during pregnancy affects a baby’s health or development. We recommend talking with your health care provider for advice.

* The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency have issued advice regarding eating fishexternal link disclaimer. This advice will help women who are pregnant or may become pregnant—as well as breastfeeding mothers and parents of young children—make informed choices about fish that is healthy and safe to eat.

News From ODS

Strengthening Knowledge and Understanding of Dietary Supplements

Now Available: ODS Strategic Plan for 2017–2021

The ODS recently released its strategic plan for 2017–2021, Strengthening Knowledge & Understanding of Dietary Supplements. This document was shaped by the thoughtful input, comments, and advice we received from our stakeholder communities throughout the federal government, academia, the dietary supplement industry, consumer advocacy and education groups, and interested consumers. It presents a refreshed set of goals, strategies, and activities that ODS plans for the next 5 years. It also provides a review of ODS activities and accomplishments between 2010 and 2016, and includes examples of ODS collaborative projects and programs and summaries of its research investments.

New ODS Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets

ODS continues to expand its library of science-based fact sheets with a consumer fact sheet on omega-3 fatty acids and another on choline. See the full list of ODS fact sheets on dietary supplements.

The Scoop provides information from the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) on vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other dietary supplement ingredients. The Scoop is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. If you copy or distribute its content, please credit the Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health and include the publication title and date. Do not use our information in any way that suggests we endorse any commercial product or service.

We welcome your comments and suggestions for future issues of The Scoop. To contact ODS, go to the Contact Us page of the ODS website. Please note that we cannot answer specific medical questions, make referrals, or provide guidance on the use of dietary supplements. Those questions are best answered by a physician or other qualified health care provider who can tell you if dietary supplements are right for you and what effects they could have on your health.

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About ODS

The Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s medical research agency—supporting scientific studies that turn discovery into health.

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Office of Dietary Supplements
National Institutes of Health
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Bethesda, MD 20892-7517