How the Dietary Supplement Industry Impacts the Environment

Are Omega 3 supplements sustainable?

Bottles of dietary and vitamin supplements
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In the 1970's, if someone said Omega 3, they may have been talking about a cult that gathered under shiny lights in the sky. In the 80's, Omega 3 would've been a video game system, like Nintendo. But today, Omega 3 is short for Omega 3 fatty acids, which are all the rage due to the perception that they prevent heart disease and strokes. The hard thing to swallow, however, is that the efforts you make to improve your health through the use of supplements just might have the opposite effect when it comes to planetary well being. 

You may have heard the idea that there are good fats and bad fats. Good fats basically reduce the bads. Omega 3's are specific types of fats found in our blood stream. These come in two types, ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Both of these can be found in walnuts and some seeds, but are most abundant in fish. Salmon, anchovies, cod, tuna, sharks, and sardines are the species that yield the most Omega 3 oils.  Since these are so sought after, they're sold by nutrition companies in the form of supplements. In fact, according the the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 20.9 percent of fish caught in 2016 went to non-food use.

Because these oils come from fish, they involve mass fishing of the above types of fish. This can have harmful effects to ecosystems. Let's explore these.

Overfishing and Endangerment

Here's a statistic that might be a bit shocking, but is sadly correct: 90 percent of the larger predatory fish (cod, shark, tuna) that once graced our oceans are now gone. In fact, scientists estimate that 100 million sharks are pulled from the world's oceans annually. Around 85 percent of Europe's 397 total fish stocks are below healthy levels, according to The site tells us that cod are a particular target, both in the Atlantic and the Pacific.

In fact, a 2016 article is entitled Cod Is Dead--Is Dogfish the Answer? . It begins by pointing out that there are "hardly any" cod left in the Atlantic. When particular species are over-fished, it can create a ripple effect. points out, "The depletion of (predators like shark and tuna) can cause entire shifts in ocean ecosystems, changing the marine community completely."

Algae Overgrowth

It's important to realize that overfishing and depletion of various types of fish can have consequences beyond those pertaining to other fish. For example, when overfishing occurs, algae grows too much (because many kinds of fish feed on algae). This can be detrimental because of the bioproduct that is formed when algae breaks down.  It is called dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and can greatly damage coral reefs.

What Can We Do About It?

Re-thinking Fatty Acids. One culprit in the overfishing of many species of fish for Omega 3 supplements is a "go big or go home" mentality that many people have. They are told by doctors and via articles on health that it's important to stock up on fatty acids as a way of avoiding heart attacks. To so many people, this means heading straight for supplements, which supply a huge boost in fish oils. These supplements, as we've seen, drain fisheries.

One need not skimp on ALA or DHA when being mindful of fish and their habitats. It is very possible to get adequate Omega 3's from any kind of bean, as well as from walnuts, cashews, and macadamia nuts.  Eating fish in moderation--with cod particularly moderate--should allow one to supplement these foods--Omega-wise--and not contribute to overfishing the way the consumption of supplements would.

Alternative Sources. There is some very good news on this front. Some saviors of the environment have been searching for ways to provide good fats to people without destroying marine habitats in the process.  

One concept that someone figured out was that the reason fish were so rich in Omega 3's was that they digested a lot of algae. That gave rise to the idea of making products from algae that humans can eat to obtain their fatty acids. One company, Algarithm, has developed all sorts of food products that derive from algae, thus delivering Omega 3's.  

Further, there are several sources in addition to algae that can supply folks with Omega 3s. Flaxseed oil and perilla oil, for example, help supply Omega 3, and can be integrated into a wide variety of dishes; there are also flaxseed oil supplements.

Ultimately, a mad rush to produce and consume large numbers of Omega 3 supplements may not be sustainable, taking into consideration fish and their habitats. We need to question how much Omega 3 we actually need for optimal health, and what sources will have the lowest environmental impact.