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FDA cracks down on omega-3 label boasts

Tribune correspondent
Published: May 11, 2014

Q: Someone just told me that the FDA is making companies take the amount of omega-3 fats off their labels. I thought omega-3s are good for us. Why can’t they tell how much is in their food?

Answer: The FDA did recently announce a decision on labeling omega-3 fats, but it’s not quite what you heard. What they said is that a manufacturer may not put “high in omega-3” or similar statements on the label.

They can still say their canned fish has “20 milligrams of DHA per serving.” That’s giving the exact amount in a serving. Or they could say “has twice as much DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids as menhaden fish oil,” another exact amount. And they can use some standard statements, such as “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”

What the FDA decided companies may not do is claim that a product is “high in ...” or “rich in ...,” or even “an excellent source of ...”

This rule applies to dietary supplements, too, including fish oil capsules. It sounds rather convoluted, but the reasoning for these limits is that there is no one standard to say how much is high or excellent. The FDA does not have a standard for how much we need to eat. The Institute of Medicine has given some recommendations, but there are different ways of calculating them. And the fish and fish oil companies who wanted to put high or excellent on their labels used different ways to calculate what was needed.

Without a standard baseline, there’s no way to determine whether something is high or just so-so. So they can’t make those claims. But eat fish anyway; it’s still very good for us!

Mary A. Keith, a licensed dietitian and health agent at Hillsborough County Extension, can be reached at [email protected]