By Michael Lelah, Ph.D., Technical Director, NOW Foods
In May, I had the unique opportunity to visit our Norwegian fish oil supplier. I was in Europe for another event and took the opportunity to see firsthand how our fish oils are made. Fish oils are in the news because of their positive attributes in support of cardiovascular health and nutritive value, but are also in the news because of contamination by mercury and PCBs. All the science points to the health benefits of fish oils far outweighing the concerns, certainly because the amount of contaminants in the oils are far less than in the fish we eat!
Our fish oil supplier is in Aalesund, Norway. Aalesund is an idyllic town on the Norwegian coast, embedded in the fjords, in the land of the almost midnight sun. Fishing and fish processing is the town’s heritage, since the days of the Vikings. I visited fish farms in the fjords, took a private tour of the cod oil museum, saw processing of salmon first hand, and also inspected the extraction and production of the salmon, cod liver and omega-3 fish oils used in our products.
Most of the salmon is farmed today. Cod is mostly wild but some is farmed. Omega-3 oils mostly are extracted from wild anchovies, which today mainly come from Peru in large tankers for processing in Norway. The fish farms in Norway are carefully situated in the many fjords. Laws prevent fishermen and others from close access to ensure a clean controlled environment for the fish. The fjords are deep and thus there is constant recirculation of water to ensure fresh, natural conditions for the fish. The fish are fed with oils processed from other fish and made into pellets.
All aspects of making the oil, from the fish feed, to the farms, to the processing, are done by law under clean hygienic conditions, suitable for human consumption. And Norwegian standards are high.
I visited one of the largest fish processing facilities in the world. We took a ferry to an island where salmon are brought in tanks, kept cold for about 24 hours to calm them prior to preparation for consumption. The facility is extra clean with the most up to date controls to prevent microbial and other contamination. Modern stainless steel equipment is used to cut the head and filet the salmon. The fillets are sold for human consumption all over the world, while the heads are “by-products” used to make fish oils.
Following extraction of the fats and oils, the omega-3s and other components are extracted under most hygienic conditions in stainless steel equipment. Oils are processed using either absorbent or molecular distillation technologies. The oils are tested for potency and contamination using the same state-of-the-art methods that we use at NOW Foods. Our suppliers have been making fish oils for many years and their experience and understanding is terrific. We discussed many aspects of new products, improving the oils by reducing contaminants further and addressing such technical issues as differences between European testing and US testing.
I also was taken on a special tour of the fish oil museum in Aalesund. In this town, cod liver oil was first made over 100 years ago. We went through the stages in its development and how cod liver oil has become one of the top selling nutritional oils in the world.
I hope you have enjoyed this “fish oil story” and the associated pictures. But also remember that for us at NOW Foods, this is serious business. In addition to the purification processes I’ve described, NOW Foods also screens and tests our fish oil in-house for heavy metals (mercury, cadmium, lead etc) using the ICP-MS instrument, a technologically-advanced heavy metal detection system, to ensure safety, purity and consistently high quality. The ICP-MS is able to detect heavy metals at the parts per trillion levels.
This trip was not just about the amazing scenery and the great environmental purity. It was truly about ensuring the highest standards for our ingredients and a level of confidence in our products that we can pass on to you.