Choosing an Omega 3 Supplement
Deciding which Omega 3 supplement to buy can be a daunting process. This article will show you how to find a safe and effective supplement that best suits your needs. You will also learn about the different types of Omega 3 supplements, including fish oil, krill oil, and algae based supplements.
Things To Consider
When you are choosing which Omega 3 supplement to buy, you need to consider a couple of things. Here's what you need to look for when browsing through the huge selection of Omega 3 supplements currently available on the market.
Is the Supplement Safe?
Safety is the first and most important consideration. After all, Omega 3 supplements are usually taken daily and on a long–term basis.
The main safety concern is related to environmental contaminants in fish oil. Fish oil may contain traces of PCB, mercury, heavy metals, dioxins, and other toxins.
To ensure purity, fish oil manufacturers use a process, called molecular distillation. When this is done correctly, it enables them to reduce the levels of toxins in fish oil to a level considered safe.
All commercially available oils must adhere to strict safety standards. If you are buying from an established manufacturer, contamination should not be an issue. Usually, these manufacturers also provide independent, 3rd party laboratory analysis of every batch of their products (typically, the analysis includes tests for PCB, DDT and heavy metals).Another thing that you should check is the solvents using during the extraction process. The manufacturer must confirm that they don't use any harmful solvents, such as hexane. Usually, ethanol (a form of industrial alcohol) is used as a solvent.
Extracting fish oil from fish means that manufacturers must boil fish and press their meat to get oil. This means that there is heat involved. Since Omega 3 fatty acids are vulnerable to heat, this can cause them to oxidize – become rancid.
There are several ways manufacturers tackle this problem. Some use so called carbon dioxide supercritical extraction, which requires less heat. Others, instead, remove oxygen from the process, which means that there is heat present, but the oils can't oxidize.
Omega 3 oils are very susceptible to oxidation and as a result they have a relatively short shelf life. Before buying any product, you must make sure that it is fresh. Check the sell before date. Once you open the container, smell the liquid or break open a capsule. There should be no fishy odor (although sometimes you might smell lemon or orange flavor, which is added to make the oil more pleasant tasting).
Some manufacturers also provide the so called ‘peroxide value’. This value is a measure of rancidity reactions in the oil during storage. It should be below 5meq/kg.
You will get your Omega 3 supplement in a sealed container/flask. Once you open it, the product is exposed to oxygen. You must put it in a refrigerator and use it all within 1 month. After this period the rancidity reactions increase rapidly, making the oil rancid, pro-inflammatory and harmful to health. If you have any remains after 1 month, throw them away.
How Much Bioactive Ingredients Does the Supplement Contain?
Many Omega 3 manufacturers put misleading labels on products. They promote the products based on the total amount of fats that it contains. However, the thing that interests you as a consumer is the amount of the actual Omega 3 fats.
To learn what’s really inside your supplement look for EPA and DHA values (or ALA if you are buying plant-based supplements). These are the abbreviations of the main types of Omega 3 fatty acids.
The discrepancies between the promoted fat amounts and the actual Omega 3 content can be huge – some products can contain, for example, 1.000 mgs of fish oil with the actual amount of EPA and DHA barely reaching 300 mgs.
Check the label for the actual EPA and DHA content and serving size.
Another thing to look for is the serving size. Is it enough to eat just 1 pill a day or do you need to take 2, 3 or even more to get your daily dose of Omega 3? To reduce the amount of pills that you need to consume you might want to look for a more concentrated product, which yields higher percentages of EPA and DHA Omega 3.
Molecular Form of Omega 3 Supplement Affects Its Absorption
Omega 3 fish oil supplements can be found in 2 molecular forms: ethyl esters and triglycerides.
Let’s take a look at how these supplements are made. Fish fat is naturally in the form of triglycerides. During the distillation process fish fat is converted into the ethyl ester form. The reason for this is that this form is more easily managed and has a higher boiling point.
At the end of the distillation process, many oils enter distribution as supplements in ethyl ester form. Some manufacturers, though, take the process further and convert the distilled oil back into the triglyceride form.
The main difference between triglyceride and ethyl ester Omega 3 fish oils:
- Triglyceride form has higher absorption and is more easily metabolized by the human body (in our body fats are stored and transported in triglyceride form)
- Ethyl ester form is cheaper because it needs 1 step less in the production process – estimates are that in bulk this form is 30-40% cheaper than triglyceride form
Main Types of Omega 3 Supplements
Fish oil is the richest source of DHA and EPA Omega 3 fatty acids. It has been extensively studied since it was discovered that the Inuit on Greenland have lower risk of heart disease even though they eat a high-fat diet.
Fish oil is also the most commonly used Omega 3 supplement. The majority of studies that were done regarding the health benefits of Omega 3 fats used fish oil.
Find out more about fish oil as a source of Omega 3s in our article Which fish oil supplement should you buy?
Krill is a small crustacean living in the open seas. Its oil is comparable to fish oil as a source of DHA and EPA. Some even consider krill oil superior; however, there have not yet been many studies made with krill oil as it is a relatively new source of Omega 3 supplements.
To learn more about krill oil, read Things you should know about krill oil supplements.
Algae Omega 3 Supplements
Marine algae supplements typically contain only DHA. Since DHA is partially converted into EPA in human body, algae supplement is a valid alternative source of Omega 3 for vegans and vegetarians.
Flaxseed Oil Supplements
Flaxseed oil is a rich source of ALA. Even though ALA seems to be beneficial to human health, it doesn’t reach the action of EPA and DHA. A small percentage of ALA is converted into EPA and DHA in human body. However, the conversion is so inefficient that it is probably best to get a direct dietary source of the bioactive fatty acids EPA and DHA, instead of relying on the ALA Omega 3 supplements.
Both algae and flaxseed supplements are covered in-depth in our article Omega 3 supplements for vegans and vegetarians.
Cod and Halibut Liver Oil
Cod and halibut liver oils are also abundant sources of Omega 3 fatty acids. Cod liver oil has long been given to children to prevent vitamin D deficiency.
Some liver oil supplements contain high amounts of vitamin A, which can be toxic on the long term. Excessive intake of vitamin A may lead to weak bones, fractures, and hair loss.