The products were purchased through either Tmall or the Lazada by Norwegian laboratory and authentication technology company ORIVO.
They selected products that were specifically claiming that the omega-3 source was based on a single-species and/or a specific geographic location.
Nine out of 19 products, including those claiming to be 100% salmon, krill and cod oils, did not meet the label claims.
Orivo chief technology office Erik Fuglseth told us the percentage of inauthentic products in Asia matched similar studies the firm had undertaken in North America and Europe.
“We have previously performed similar studies of different omega-3 categories, including wild Alaskan salmon oil, cod liver oil and krill oil, in other geographical markets. Every time we have done this, we have found similar levels of adulteration, spanning from 30% to 40%. It seems like there is a ‘minimum guarantee’ of adulteration at one third for such e-commerce channel screenings.”
He explained the selected products were analysed by ORIVO´s unique analysis technology, which is based on nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.
“With this technology, the actual composition of all the components in the fish oil is analysed. It has been scientifically documented that the raw data from an NMR-analysis of a fish oil, which we convert into so-called chemical fingerprints, or NMR-fingerprints, of a fish oil varies depending on species and geographic locations.
“The resulting analysis data were then compared with ORIVO´s database, containing authentic reference samples of different omega-3 sources from all over the world, using advanced algorithms. A match with the correct profile in the database guarantees that the claimed source is authentic, a mismatch is the opposite.”
Fuglseth concurred that it can be difficult to guarantee that the products purchased online were genuine, as they were not provided directly by the brands concerned.
“When buying from online retailers like Tmall and Lazada this is of course difficult to guarantee. That is one of the reasons that we do not name any of the brands in our study.
“Regardless, if the products were fake or not, they are still being sold to consumers, and 45% of them did still not contain the ingredients declared on the labels,” he added.
Both Lazada and Tmall say that the selling of fake goods is strictly prohibited, but much of the onus over authenticity is placed on individuals sellers.
Species at risk
Unsurprisingly, the most commonly adulterated products come from higher priced omega-3 categories such as krill oil, wild Alaskan salmon oil, Norwegian salmon oil and Norwegian cod liver oil.
In such cases, the higher priced ingredients are substituted with cheaper ones.
“The most extreme cases found are krill oil products composed by vegetable oil and phospholipid sources,” he added.
“However, the most common findings are named natural oils such as salmon oils and cod liver oils adulterated with standard 18/12 fish oil, and products supposed to contain higher amounts of EPA/DHA typically adulterated with cheap ethyl ester ingredients.
“Some might argue that, since it is not dangerous to replace one source of fish oil with another, it is ok, but I completely disagree. In my opinion, what is declared on the product label must be the same that is actually in the product every time.
“I also think the following consumer perspective is interesting: ‘If a brand owner can cut corners on claimed ingredients to have me pay more money for a given supplement, how can I trust any other claims from that brand, including sustainability, potency and/or food safety claims?’”
The firm has worked with several major industry players, including the Chilean omega-3 producer Golden Omega, which offers ORIVO-certified omega-3 concentrates, while the cod liver oil firm Vesteraalens and krill oil giant Aker Biomarine, both from Norway, are actively promoting the certification to brand owners wanting to ensure consumers of the source of their omega-3 products.
Here in Asia, NY-O3 recently launched ORIVO-certified products in Taiwan, after initially entering mainland China.
Likewise, Norway’s Bard Mayen will launch an authenticated seal oil product in mainland China and Taiwan within weeks.
And the aforementioned Vesteraalens is about a launch a series of ORIVO-certified consumer products under the name ‘Vesteraalens Arctic omega-3’, while Norwegian counterparts Pure Salmon Oil will soon debut products in China too.