This article concludes our series on cGMP practices within the supplement industry. This week’s article is about fish oil production as well as often unspoken processes that allow fish oil to be the popular health food supplement that it is today.
Walk into any Vitamin Shoppe or GNC and chances are an associate will ask if you have tried fish oil yet. The potential benefits of fish oil are numerous: research suggests fish oil is good for skin, helps with joint dryness, promotes heart health, and even aid brain development in children. A fish oil sale went from $425 million in 2007 to a phenomenal 1 billion dollars in 2012 and shows no signs of stopping. To put that in perspective, supplement sales in 2012 were 11.5 billion dollars, so this one product holds up a sizable portion of the entire supplement market. When compared to the plethora of different products the supplement industry provides (protein, herbs, multivitamins, etc), it only makes that 1 billion all the more impressive.
It is recommended that fish oils be refrigerated for the sake of quality control and bioavailability. In fact, many supplement stores provide refrigeration units that keep fish oil bottles and softgels between 40° and 50° Fahrenheit. Any colder and the oil can clump and ruin the consistency, but higher could risk premature spoilage.
The process begins with freshly caught fish –often tuna, mackerel, and sometimes salmon. For extracting healthy omega-3 oils, fatty fish are always best because they contain the most oil per fish caught. Due to the reduction of many salmon fisheries, most companies have moved to other fish in an effort to be more environmentally sustainable. Tuna, mackerel, cod and others have taken its place in recent years due to the abundance of these commercial fish.
One of the massive nets used to catch schools of blue fin tuna.
The bigger factory ships often stay on the water for most of the fishing season and transfer product and supplies to smaller carrying vessels which return to a shore facility. Since some species feed and live near the surface (called pelagic fish) they are easily visible from the vessel or from the air. Airplanes are often used to spot the schools and direct fishing vessels to them.
Fish are caught live and then stored in large tanks at approximately the same temperature as sea water until they can be transported back to the plant for processing. Temperature and other important environmental factors play a role in the preservation of a given day’s catch. Time is of the essence as spoiled fish cannot be processed into fishmeal. Once the fish has arrived at the factory it is ground into fishmeal, where the oils and meat need to still be separated.
A typical fish processing plant. Workers debone the fish before processing.
The cooking process separates these two constituents into individual, concentrated ingredients. A rotary screw conveyor transfers heat indirectly from a surrounding jacket. This is an improvement over direct heating practices in that it is a gentler process that saves more of the delicate oil, preventing a loss in final product. Until fairly recently, companies heated the meal to excesses of above 100°C. Because of this, fish oil products were rendered completely ineffective and have led to a persistent skepticism towards the supplement’s purported health benefits, even to this day. New experiments have shown that the walls of the fat cells are broken down before the temperature reaches 50 °C, so only minor heating is required to achieve the desired effect.
Fish meal is fed through the top and the moved through the machine.
Cooking is an exacting operation in production and temperature is difficult to control. Production of cooked material, which can be readily pressed, is dependent on the quality of the raw material and on the process conditions. A precise time-temperature program for this process can therefore not be set up and a process of trial and error is generally required when fish processed. This means that strict temperature monitoring is a must if any of the oil is supposed to be sold to supplement companies.
A number of procedures can be used to convert raw fish and cuttings into viable oils. The process is universal in that factories all over the world both on land and on ships employ it with slight differences in equipment type, but the major steps of cooking, pressing, separating, and drying are always present. Continuous processing from the time the fish are landed optimizes efficiency and maximizes product quality, and the types of fish used are rotated depending on what the season is.
Heavy metal pollution is one of the modern world’s most serious environmental problems, and as with anything else, safety is always of the utmost importance. Excess water and metals are removed through the use of flue gasses like carbon dioxide, which need to be carefully overseen in order to not spoil the product. The addition of water during the process also makes flooding a potential issue that manufacturers can easily address with Temperature@lert flood sensors. Temperature@lert’s Cellular Edition sensors can effectively audit CO2 output, moisture, flooding, temperature, and other important environmental readings to produce an effective safeguard against a myriad of problems and disasters.
Robert “Bobby” Rejek, Dreaming Dramatist
Boston local, Bobby is Temperature@lert's resident fitness and nutrition expert. Majoring in English and having earned Suffolk's Recognition Day Award for his contributions to Suffolk University, Bobby joins the Temperature@lert team as a content writer. He creates health-related blog posts, aids in marketing team initiatives, and helps maintain the technical content database. Outside of Temperature@lert, Bobby is a certified Personal Trainer through the NCSF and is working on his first fantasy novel. Because he's always on the go, Bobby's favorite temperature of 65°F reminds him to keep cool and stay breezy.