Daily Mail Continues Its Plan to Bewilder the Nation and Gaslight Us into Believing That We Need Fish Oil Supplements

The Daily Mail is affectionately known as the People’s Medical Journal. Whether we like it or not, now that the Telegraph has effectively withdrawn from any attempt to provide decent medical journalism, the Independent is episodically odd, the Guardian is distressingly full of woo in its lifestyle section, the Times does what it can but is hampered in its editorial tone by the occasional flakiness of Dr Stuttaford and his fondness for supplements and PSA levels, so the Daily Mail is, by default, a high-volume source of medical news for a goodly proportion of the UK public. If anyone had the money to identify the source of newspaper clippings brought into GPs’ surgeries, I would bet good money that a disproportionate number would be from the Daily Mail. Which makes it all the more distressing that the Daily Mail is not only bewildering the nation with the flip-flop of its reporting but possibly trying to gaslight us into believing that we have difficulties with reading comprehension from which only fish oil supplements can save us: Is your Omega-3 fish oil supplement any good – or a load of old codswallop?

jdc has commented on the article: Daily Mail’s Dodgy Pill Piece – it must be Tuesday. Presumably others will also subject the fish oil health benefit claims and unevidenced dosage recommendations to some scrutiny (Dr* T has taken a look at a tiny study of fish oils supplements in a NZ school). HolfordWatch is going to comment on something quite small.

Dr Alex Richardson carried out a paper analysis of the relative merits of 14 fish oil supplements; the supplements are scored out of 10, points are awarded by criteria that are not entirely clear. However, it seems that there was no actual analysis involved, other than reading the labels, and some nifty work on the calculator to arrive at the price for a month’s supply. (There may have been a touch with the tip of the tongue and swallow test, it’s difficult to tell.)

Asda might be irritated to learn that they were described as (effectively) poor value for money with 3/10. Tesco might be pleased that they win the accolade of Best Budget Buy despite having a desultory score of 4/10. Both of these are particularly odd when one considers that on 4 November, Daily Mail reported on a series of laboratory analyses of fish oil supplements: Popular fish oil supplements fail ingredient tests.

Fish oil capsules are one of the UK’s most popular nutritional supplements and have been shown by a number of studies to help maintain joint flexibility, keep the heart healthy and aid brain development.

But scientists from the new review website whatsinit.com tested 27 brands of the widely sold supplements – and found that more than half did not meet trading standards guidelines.

The organisation, which claims to be the only independent website providing unbiased analysis of UK health supplements, says that one of the worst offenders was Tesco’s High Strength Cod Liver Oil, which had just 79 per cent of active ingredient, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), claimed on the bottle…

Asda’s Omega 3 contained higher levels of the active ingredient than claimed. [Emphasis added.]

However, doubtless for good reasons, these sorts of considerations didn’t influence the Daily Mail to fund laboratory analyses of these products so that Richardson’s assessments might be at all meaningful. After all, if Asda’s products contain more than stated then it might alter its value for money rating, and if the Tesco contained less, then its ranking might alter (albeit, this is a different product but there is little reason to expect the contents of the capsule to differ from the oil in a bottle, assuming a similar source).[a]

If you thought that you remembered this appearing within the Daily Mail only 2 weeks ago, then you are obviously already taking your supplements. However, if you don’t understand how the Daily Mail is happy to post 2 such pieces on the same topic with no sign of joined-up thinking, then perhaps you need to take more.

It’s up to you. However, if you decide that you need to take a serving of fish oils a day because you have arthritis or similar, and you have consulted your doctor, then we have a suggestion. The Food Standards Agency advises us that tinned oily fish such as sardines, pilchards, mackerel and salmon do not lose their Omega 3 oils through canning (unlike tuna). A well-known supermarket chain is offering a 120g tin of sardines for 17p in its Own Value brand. If you are in the demographic that can eat oily fish several times a week and have no other contraindications, then if you were to eat half a tin of these sardines a day, you would have a generous dose of Omega 3 oils (Waitrose and other report that sardines have 2.2g of Omega 3 per 100g). There are plenty of other dietary options (other fish, appropriate seeds and nuts, some eggs), however, the sardines will cost around £2.55 for a 30 day supply which is substantially cheaper than the supplements in the Daily Mail and gives you most of a meal as well (pâté, soup, dip, sandwich filling, stew).

You pay your money, you take your Omega 3 as it pleases you.


[a] For completeness, Biocare’s fish oil supplement (as recommended by Patrick Holford) scored 8/10 and was described thus: “A good product, but costs as much or more than some of the higher quality supplements”. However, we were disappointed that there was no assessment of the Equazen products, particularly the one that played such a key role in the Durham School Initiatives.




Filed under patrick holford, supplements

6 responses to “Daily Mail Continues Its Plan to Bewilder the Nation and Gaslight Us into Believing That We Need Fish Oil Supplements

  1. You say it is something quite small, but the point regarding the issues raised in the previous Mail piece about fish oil is significant IMHO. It’s not just the lack of joined up thinking (which is so common in MailWorld I barely even notice it any more – or that’s my excuse anyway), it’s that the information in the first piece impacts on the fish oil ratings in the second yet can be blithely ignored by the Mail.

    Nice work on the oily fish alternatives too!

  2. “Is your Omega-3 fish oil supplement any good – or a load of old codswallop?”

    Not : Is you Omega-3 fish oil supplement DOING any good, or a load of old codswallop?

    It annoys me that it is tacitly a given that we *should* be taking fish oil pills, and this article just makes sure its the right ones, when really someone should be looking objectively at whether they do any good at all.

    Another failed attempt to do so occurred in New Zealand recently.

    Too many vested interests.

  3. Dr*T – agreed, it may look plausible to think that fish oils are good for people but there is a thin evidence base for supplements (as opposed to dietary sources of Omega 3 that may encompass more than fish), specific demographics, particular conditions, recommended amounts etc. etc.

    Dr Harriet Hall likens this sort of lacuna to Tooth-Fairy science:

    This study falls into the category of what I call Tooth Fairy science. You could measure how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under the pillow, whether she leaves more cash for the first or last tooth, whether the payoff is greater if you leave the tooth in a plastic baggie versus wrapped in Kleenex. You can get all kinds of good data that is reproducible and statistically significant. Yes, you have learned something. But you haven’t learned what you think you’ve learned, because you haven’t bothered to establish whether the Tooth Fairy really exists.

    jdc – glad to be of service in identifying affordable sources of Omega 3. :-) And yes, this is a set of circumstances in which consumers definitely need:
    i) decent evidence
    ii) analyses of products
    iii) joined-up thinking.

  4. GidAbove

    I’ll leave it to you hardcore fact-guys to check this, but it appears that the good Dr Richardson is involved in your favourite bit of omega 3 research, the “Durham Trial”. Lead Researcher or something…

    And then… who owns the website for the Durham trial, http://www.omegaschools.com ? It’s “Healthy & Essential Ltd” who distribute… (drum roll please) the two top-scoring supplements in the article (Barlean’s and MorEPA). This bit of blatant advertorial is actually pretty transparent when you notice how they studiously avoid reviewing any of the other fish oil supplements out there that actually contain the same stuff as the two favourites.

    Keep eating the sardines!

  5. GidAbove

    oh – the omegaschools link won’t work as they’ve taken it down but google it and you’ll see that is/was a sales site for the “winning” products.

  6. GidAbove

    Apologies (again – see this is what happens when you try to drop a few titbits for you Holford Watchers in 5 minutes in your lunch break…) – the “omegaschools website” appears to have been Healthy & Essential Ltd’s cash-in the “official” Durham trial, but it’s not accessible. Makes it difficult to see the connection between Dr Richardson but rather thoughtfully Google have cached it so you can see it here: http://tinyurl.com/9de7h4 But if you want to buy their products (the top-scorers) just go to their main site http://www.healthyandessential.co.uk and they’ll sort you out for a modest sum.

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