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Are omega-3 products really the good oil?

Are omega-3 products really the good oil?

Consumers buying foods with omega-3 may not be getting the good oil they think they are says Rufus Turner, a lipids scientist with Crop & Food Research.

He and colleague, Dr Carlene McLean, have studied commercially available fish oil in New Zealand, that’s been manufactured overseas. They found it contains varying levels of primary and secondary oxidation products.

“These oxidised products result in variations in the quality of fish oils and may explain the mixed results in international human clinical trials investigating omega 3 health benefits” Dr McLean said.

Recent results from international cellular, animal and human trials indicate that the oxidised products in fish oils may have potential carcinogenic and pro-inflammatory actions. These products have the potential to increase the risk of atherosclerosis and thrombosis and reduce the potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

Dr Turner says that unfortunately, fish oils containing omega-3 fatty acids are unstable and more vulnerable to oxidation than vegetable oils or other animal fats. When fish oils come into contact with oxygen and are exposed to metals, light and heat they degrade. Oxidation of the oil accelerates after extraction from the fish and during subsequent storage.

Dr McLean says New Zealand is at the forefront of research providing solutions for long-term preservation of commercial oil products for human use. Fish oil producers are working with scientists at Crop & Food Research to ensure New Zealand-produced oil is of the highest quality.

“We are using the by-products from the filleting process, which constitute up to 60% of the fish weight and contain up to 10% oil, to produce a value-added, high-quality nutraceutical oil,” says Dr McLean. “As well as looking at ways to improve handling of the raw material after harvest, we are working with industry to modify their by-product processing operations, to improve yields and the quality of oil and protein extracts.”

Dr Turner says, “It is essential to ensure that fish oil in food products has good levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and that measures have been taken to minimise degradation, so consumers do get the good oil they believe they are purchasing.”


Recognition of the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids has grown since the Inuit Eskimos low incidence of heart disease was highlighted in the 1970s. Their high fat diet is sourced from marine animals and it has now been established that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish play a unique and important role in preventing heart disease.

Many other benefits have also been associated with consumption of fish oils including enhanced immunity, improved bone, joint and eye health and better brain function. Links have also been made to mental health.

Around the world, food companies have responded to consumer awareness of these health benefits by creating products with omega-3 fatty acids. These include: breads, spreads, yoghurts and drinks.


Drs Turner and McLean work on lipids, proteins & their oxidation. Recent research, at their Nelson base, has focused on the analysis of volatile oxidation products in fish species. This has been achieved using the only Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometer - SPME dedicated to oils in New Zealand.


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