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What Is The Difference Between Prescription And Supplement Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

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Updated December 21, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What Is The Difference Between Prescription And Supplement Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Answer:

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of unsaturated fat, or “good” fat, that mainly lowers triglycerides. Although they are found in foods such as fish and nuts, they are also available in a variety of supplements that can be found on store shelves. There is only one prescription form of omega-3 fatty acids on the market, which is Lovaza. Despite the variety of omega-3 fatty acid options out there, all of them should help lower your triglycerides.

Supplements and prescriptions undergo different monitoring requirements set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Over-the-counter products, like the omega-3 fatty acid supplements found in stores, are classified as a “food” by the FDA. This means that it is the manufacturer’s responsibility to make sure that the supplements are safe, free of contaminants, correctly labeled, and made in a safe and clean environment. The only way the FDA will remove a supplement from the market is if there have been a lot of health complaints about the product after it has reached store shelves.

Prescription drugs, on the other hand, are monitored a little bit differently. For instance, prescriptions such as the prescription omega-3 fatty acid, Lovaza, must undergo extensive testing before they can be sold in pharmacies. The manufacturers must prove to the FDA that the drug works how it is supposed to, that it is safe, any adverse effects of the drug, and that it contains all of the ingredients stated on the label.

Another difference between these two products is the amount of omega-3 fatty acids they contain. Although Lovaza may contain 90 percent omega-3 fatty acids, it is only used in individuals whose triglycerides are higher than 500 mg/dL, since there are concerns that it may raise LDL cholesterol. Over-the-counter supplements, on the other hand, contain roughly between 30 and 50 percent omega-3 fatty acids, depending on the product.

Because omega-3 fatty acid supplements do not have to undergo the extensive testing requirements that prescription omega-3 fatty acids do, they are usually much cheaper. Additionally, when in the same amounts that are contained in prescription omega-3 fatty acids (Lovaza), over-the-counter omega-3 fatty acid supplements should lower triglycerides in the same manner.

Sources:

Pharmaceutical Approvals Monthly. F-D-C Reports. Chevy Chase, MD 2005; 10(2):34.

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