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Nordic Naturals defends omega-3 supplements against claims of spoilage

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In the eyes of an ever-more-suspicious public, companies are guilty until proven innocent and a dearth of appropriate test methods forms a chasm over which this industry giant must build a bridge to defend its reputation.

In the last six months omega-3s mogul Nordic Naturals has been called to defend the purity of its naturally lemon-flavored omega-3 fish oil supplements. In both cases the issue came down to the inability of existing industry freshness tests to gain an accurate reading on the fish oil in the presence of the added lemon flavor.

Earlier this year Zone Labs, Inc., brought a dispute before the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council for Better Business Bureaus against Nordic Naturals’ advertising claims on the Ultimate Omega Sport 90, a lemon-flavored omega-3 supplement. One claim with which Zone Labs took issue stated that, "Nordic Naturals adheres to and exceeds the stringent Norwegian Medicinal Standard (NMS) and the European Pharmacopoeia Standard (EPS) as well as the voluntary standards set by the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) and the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED) for all of our products." 

The dispute over this claim hinges on a technical detail. GOED's standards for freshness, according to Adam Ismail, executive director of GOED, are based on testing the pure fish oil, prior to flavoring or encapsulation. So applying those standards to a flavored supplement—which GOED considers a "formulation" and not a pure fish oil—isn't wholly accurate. While making no judgements or incriminations of the actual quality of the supplements, NAD recommended that Nordic Naturals discontinue use of that claim. 

But Zone Labs wasn't just pointing out a technical detail. In fact the challenger called into question the freshness and quality of Nordic Naturals' lemon-flavored supplements, suggesting that the addition of the flavoring somehow tainted the fish oil, causing it to oxidize and spoil.

The January 2012 issue of Consumer Reports brought this question to bare more publically when Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega lemon-flavored soft gels were tested for freshness in a line-up of many different omega-3 fish oil supplements. The Ultimate Omega soft gels—the only lemon-flavored supplements included in the line up—tested positive for “elevated levels of compounds that indicate spoilage,” specifically the anisidine value (AV) which measures the presence of compounds like aldehydes. When fish oils oxidize or spoil they produce aldehydes that give off a rancid “fishy” odor. At first these results seemed to confirm the concerns Zone Labs had previously expressed.

“The problem,” explains Adam Ismail, executive director of GOED, “is that there are many kinds of aldehydes and many of them are desirable like the aldehydes that create the lemon scent and taste in lemon oils. In a pure fish oil, the only aldehydes that will show up are a result of oxidation. When you add a flavoring to the fish oils, you are introducing a product that could have desirable aldehydes that would make an anisidine value test appear high, even though the fish oil to which it was added was extremely fresh.”

Nordic Naturals fights back

Nordic Naturals confronted Consumer Reports on the mistake, calling it a false positive, and the publication has issued a correction withdrawing the lemon-flavored fish oils from the test results. Kantha Shelke of Corvus Blue, LLC, said of the Consumer Reports test: “It’s analogous to using an industrial blowtorch to sear a crème brulee and declaring that the recipe was faulty because the dessert charred.”

While that may be true it raises another question. Why isn't there a test that will reveal the freshness of the formulated oil? 

In this age of information, in the eyes of an ever-more-suspicious public, companies are guilty until proven innocent and Nordic Naturals had been accused of a crime and could not yet prove its innocence. 

Industry at work to develop test for omega-3 freshness

On December 5, 2011, Nordic Naturals released information that they had been hard at work developing a new, more accurate testing methods for freshness in formulated products. “The reality is we’re not the only one with a naturally flavored product or with this problem, but we would like to help set the standard around it,” said Keri Marshall, MS, ND, chief medical officer for Nordic Naturals.

“We have been aggressively pursuing a number of different tests in our own labs as well as third-party labs to develop new tests to answer these questions,” Marshall told Functional Ingredients. “We’re very close with one where we’ve been able to separate out all the components on the finished product to measure the anisidine value of the individual components. So we test pre-encapsulation and post-encapsulation to see where the high AV is really coming from. Preliminary results show that flavoring is not affecting oxidation of the oils. We will be able to share the results with the public in 2012.”

Marshall hopes that GOED and other standard-setting groups will review their tests to ensure quality.

Ultimately the entire industry ought to adopt any new, accurate testing methods that preserve the integrity of the natural products industry as well as the health and safety of consumers.

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