This usually-excellent Healthy Skeptic column in the Los Angeles Times missed the mark on a number of fronts on this story about testing for omega-3 fatty acid levels and supplementation that could be used if levels are low.
First, it focused on only one company offering these tests and conveniently hyperlinked to that company’s website.
But it also waffled on the clearly unclear benefits of such testing.
The selection of quotes often dictate the final take-home of a story. There were quotes of enthusiastic claims from the company and from a scientist/author with a vested interest – “Given the protective power of omega-3s, everyone should know their levels.” And from an independent cardiologist, who said, “"I don’t have any problem with anyone who wants to spend $149 to check their levels out.”
But health care reform discussions need to start somewhere, and perhaps starting with $149 per person charges for tests of unclear benefit is one of many places to start. The story could have said that.
But such quotes were balanced by more evidence-based comments from several sources who emphasized what has NOT been proven about the benefits of testing for omega-3 fatty acid levels or about supplementing to boost such levels if found to be low.
The story included the cost of the test and the cost of the supplement.
One nutritionist warned, "If you have high cholesterol and high blood pressure, you can’t just pop fish oil pills and say, ‘I’m protected.’ "
And, as noted, the story concluded with caveats: "No studies have ever proven that people with low omega-3 levels can reduce their risk of heart trouble by taking supplements or eating more fish…There’s also no strong evidence that some people may need more omega-3s than they’d get by sticking to current recommendation."
There was no mention of possible harms that might be associated with obtaining blood samples at home; there was no discussion about whether or not there were possible harms associated with implementing fish oil treatment based on the results obtained.
The story could have done a better job scrutinizing the evidence.
It cited company claims. And it cited "suggestive evidence" from one study.
It did conclude: "No studies have ever proven that people with low omega-3 levels can reduce their risk of heart trouble by taking supplements or eating more fish" and " There’s also no strong evidence that some people may need more omega-3s than they’d get by sticking to current recommendations."
So we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt on this criterion.
No overt disease-mongering of the risk of heart disease.
Several scientists interviewed for this story did not appear to have direct connections with the company marketing the test reported on.
The story discusses the use of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation as a means of reducing the chance of having a heart attack. But these potential benefits are not placed into the context of other clearly effective ways of reducing risk. These could have at least been briefly mentioned.
This story provides the website for one commercial entity selling the test reported on, but it doesn’t tell readers that there are several entities that run this test.
The story made it seem as though only the Gene Smart company – to which it provided a link – was capable of assessing circulating levels of omega-3 fatty acids. It is not the sole domain of that one company.
Given the number of sources interviewed, it’s clear that the story didn’t rely solely or largely on a news release.