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Fish oil labels are misleading, new study shows

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Fish oil is one of the most popular dietary supplements in the U.S., but a new study finds buyers should beware. Researchers assessed the doses and health claims on hundreds of formulations and found many had confusing or misleading claims. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Nearly 1 in 5 people over the age of 60 take fish oil supplements. And Dr. Ann Marie Navar, a cardiologist who focuses on prevention at UT Southwestern, says many of her patients assume fish oil supplements help prevent heart disease. But she says the evidence isn't there.

ANN MARIE NAVAR: We actually know from randomized trials that there is no benefit for fish oil for the majority of the population in terms of preventing heart attacks and strokes.

AUBREY: She says it's no wonder that many people are confused given the claims that are made. As part of their study, which is published in the medical journal JAMA Cardiology, she and her colleagues assessed hundreds of fish oil supplement labels obtained from a National Institutes of Health label database. They found about three-quarters of the labels made a health claim. Many were about heart health, but there were also statements such as, supports cognitive health or joint health. These kinds of claims are allowed by the FDA because they stop short of promising to treat or prevent a disease. But Dr. Navar says the claims don't mean much.

NAVAR: For a lot of the other claims - like brain support or joint support or eye health - we just don't even have studies to show one way or another if fish oil does or doesn't do anything from a health standpoint.

AUBREY: The oils found in fatty fish, known as Omega-3s, are healthy, and they have anti-inflammatory properties. And the U.S. dietary guidelines recommend consuming Omega-3s as part of a healthy diet.

NAVAR: It's true that people who eat more fish and have higher blood levels of the Omega-3 fatty acids have less heart disease, but it just hasn't panned out in randomized trials that when we give people fish oil supplements that they have fewer heart attacks and strokes. So unfortunately, we can't recreate a healthy diet with a pill.

AUBREY: There is evidence to show that fish oil supplements can help reduce triglycerides. That's a type of fat found in the blood. But the study found that among 255 supplements from leading brands, only 9% contained a daily dose high enough to lower triglycerides. So Dr. Navar says it's important to be aware of the doses.

NAVAR: It's really complicated. For people who are taking fish oil to lower their triglycerides, they need to ask their doctor how many milligrams they should be taking, and then they need to look at the label.

AUBREY: She says navigating fish oil labels may confuse even the savviest consumers. And her research concludes stricter regulations on dietary supplement labeling may be needed to prevent consumer misinformation. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.