Omega-3 fatty acids have been in the headlines numerous times in recent years, with fish oil being one of the most discussed and debated supplements in the world. These headlines have touted the health benefits of omega-3s as well as the cautions related to fish oil information, purity, rancidity, and potency, making it important to understand how to choose the best fish oil supplements.
To further complicate things for consumers, other fish oil supplements have arrived on the market with claims of superiority over fish oil, such as krill oil. This article aims to highlight the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and evaluate the food and best fish oil supplement sources.
In addition, a checklist is provided on how to select high-quality fish oil and marine oil supplements. An infographic is included at the end of the article which will enable you to select the best fish oil or other marine oil supplements in supporting your specific needs.
The Health Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are deemed essential since they are needed to sustain health. In modern society, the ideal proportion of omega-3 and omega-6 has fallen out of balance – from close to 1:1 in hunter-gatherer era to the omega 6 dominated present at 1:20 (1). Having too much omega-6 in the body and too little omega-3 leads to many diseases including cardiovascular, autoimmune, inflammatory, neurological, among others (2). There are three (3) main types of omega-3 PUFAs important for human physiology.
- EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) typically found in fatty fish, seafood, roe and algae;
- DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) mostly found in fatty fish, seafood, roe and algae;
- ALA (Alpha-Linolenic Acid) typically found in fatty plant foods including, but not limited, hemp hearts, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax.
Genetics and Omega-3 Requirements
ALA is a form of omega-3 but is not efficiently converted to EPA and DHA in the body (5). Polymorphisms in the FADS2 gene can further reduce the efficiency of this conversion. Nutrition Genome analysis can determine if such polymorphisms are present in your genetic code and provide guidance on how to improve gene function.
Understanding What Makes the Best Fish Oil: Processing, Purity and Quality Control
All marine oils are processed to some extent. Processed fish oil is the most refined and processed, whole crude fish oil being the least, with the others somewhere between those on the processing spectrum. Processing and refinement will also vary by the supplement. Consumers should request information on processing if the supplier does not automatically disclose such information on their web page or product label. Below is a summary of common processing steps that take place after the extraction of the crude marine oil:
- Deodorization: An evaporator is used to remove free fatty acids and contaminants from the crude oil;
- Ethylation: This process uses a dilute acid to create ethyl esters;
- Distillation: Distillation removes shorter chain ethyl esters and saturated fatty acids with the use of heat and a vacuum. Distillation can be continued to concentrate EPA & DHA content;
- Cold Filtration: Low temperature is used to precipitate compounds out of the oil. Once they are solid they can then be filtered for exclusion;
- Glycerolysis: An enzyme, acid or base catalyst is used with glycerol to reform ethyl esters into triglycerides. This step is not completed if products are to be sold as ethyl esters;
- Molecular Distillation: Like deodorization, this process removes remaining glycerol or fatty acids not utilized in the triglyceride reforming step;
- Clay Filtering: A step to eliminate very small pollutants;
- Blending: The subsequent oil is mixed with substances, like antioxidants, to improve stability and protect against oxidation. Common additives include vitamin E, rosemary oil, oregano oil and astaxanthin. Other marine oil may be blended in at this stage to modify the EPA/DHA concentrations or fatty acid profile (12) (13) (14).
The Importance of Quality Control of the Best Fish Oil
Marine oil quality has been improving in recent years due to negative publicity catalyzing producers to improve products and by increased consumer demand and awareness. Nevertheless, consumers still need to understand two factors that affect purity: contamination and oxidation.
Contamination includes heavy metal contamination (lead, mercury, PCBs, etc.) and pesticide residues. Oxidation refers to the oxidation (degradation) of fatty acids and oxidation of other non-fatty acid compounds in the oil. As mentioned above, most manufacturers add in a variety of antioxidants to raw and finished products to minimize oxidation. Manufacturers also use low temperatures and low light conditions to reduce oxidation during processing. Moreover, some capsules may utilize nitrogen to prevent oxidation in the final product and extend shelf-life.
Many reputable organizations are in now in place to provide guidance, testing and quality control of marine oils. Consumers should seek verification from producers that their products are staying below established contamination thresholds and do not exceed standards for oxidation. A Certificate of Analysis (COA) should be requested. A COA is an analysis completed by an independent (third party) lab to measure the ingredients in a product and confirm whether it meets producer claims. The COA will list the composition of fatty acids, include levels of toxins / contaminates and should provide oxidation values.
What are the “other ingredients” in Fish Oil?
In addition to displaying the marine oil ingredients, most marine oil supplement labels will have “other ingredients” listed, which are usually associated with the material that encases the oil, coatings, and compounds added for stability, such as antioxidants.
These should also be scrutinized for additives, fillers, and compounds that may be detrimental to human health or may not be congruent with your beliefs or ideologies. More specifically, these other ingredients may have implications related to kosher, GMO status, gluten, vegan/vegetarian, allergens or glutamate sensitivity (e.g. carrageenan).
Fish and other marine oils are typically delivered within capsules or soft gels. Since capsules mask the taste and odor of the product, it may be beneficial to open one on occasion to determine if any off-flavors or smells are present.
The capsules are frequently made from gelatin, and some manufacturers also use enteric coatings to keep the capsule from dissolving completely in the stomach and instead the contents are released in the small intestine. Enteric coatings may reduce the possibility of a fishy repeat but there have been limited studies supporting the claim that absorption is actually increased via this delayed delivery method.
Two potential concerns related to enteric coatings with marine oil products are the potential to reduce absorption/bioavailability and the ingestion of synthetic compounds used in the coating. These issues will vary according to the specific product so do your homework before purchasing.
How to Choose the Best Fish Oil to Take
- Define your health objective first (e.g. Inflammation, brain health, etc.) and select product accordingly (Table 1 and the infographic )
- Choose wild (if possible)
- Lower on the food chain the better
- Choose sustainable sources – MSC certification; Friends of the Sea
- Look for quality control verification e.g. GMP, FHL guide, US/EUP compliance
- Request a COA
- Identify or request further purity and potency verification (3rd party testing) e.g. NSF certification, IFOS certification, isura certification
- Study label details; the label should quantify all compounds in the product (not just “Total Fat”), including antioxidants and Table 1 and the infographic
- Identify other non-fatty acids (other) ingredients in the product including the capsule to ensure purity and that there are no conflicts with your health objectives or ideologies
- Choose the highest quality, lowest cost product; quality should be sought over cost, if possible; if cost is high, it may be more beneficial to reduce dosage to make affordable versus consuming a greater quantity of lesser quality fish oil
- Generally speaking, processed fish oil will offer the lowest cost supplement source of EPA/DHA
Best Fish Oil
Best Krill Oil
Best Cod Liver Oil
Best Wild Salmon Oil
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