There are many health benefits of omega-3 essential fatty acids, but with so many brands on the market it can seem impossible to know which one to choose. Here are five things to look for:
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are two long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and the main ingredients in fish oil. Humans can make very small amounts of EPA and DHA from the truly essential ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), but rarely enough to meet the daily requirements. Nutrition experts recommend the following Adequate Intakes for maintaining normal function in healthy adults:
• 1.1 g (women) to 1.6 g (men) of ALA per day
• 650 mg of combined EPA and DHA per day
Therapeutic doses of omega-3s for specific health concerns are often 2 times higher than the Adequate Intake. The ratio between the two fats may also be adjusted. DHA is needed for structural integrity of cell membranes and neural tissues, but EPA has more effects on modulating immune function and inflammation (including cardiovascular risk factors) so most targeted therapeutic formulas contain much higher percentages of EPA – up to 3.5 times more. Well-balanced formulas most often contain EPA and DHA in a 3:2 ratio.
You want to be sure that your oil is fresh and free of contaminants.
Oxidized (i.e. rancid) oil contributes to those dreaded “fishy burps” and can actually harm your health by increasing LDL cholesterol. Fresh oil should have a light, palatable taste; you can test encapsulated oils by chewing apart the gel capsules.
Always inspect the packaging. Check for a good expiration date as well as for the presence of any additives. The best companies preserve their oils using natural antioxidants such as vitamin E, rosemary, and lemon. “Filler” ingredients such as soy oil, glycerin, and sorbitol or allergens such as dairy and gluten have no place in quality fish oils.
Heavy metal and chemical testing for mercury, lead, PCBs, dioxins, and other contaminants is also an important consideration. The product should clearly state that it has undergone third-party testing and the manufacturer should not hesitate to provide information about its quality-control procedures.
There are several categories of fish oil. First is the natural triglyceride form that is the same as if you ate the fish. Many liquid fish oils are in this form and easily dispensed by the teaspoon. People who prefer the convenience of capsules, however, often find that concentrated formulas are easier to use because there are fewer capsules to take each day. Free ethyl esters are isolated and stabilized omega-3s that are usually 2-3x more concentrated than the original oil. This is the form found in the prescription fish oil Lovaza. Finally, some supplement companies offer their concentrated oils as “re-esterified” triglycerides which take the isolated and purified omega-3s and chemically repackage them into new triglyceride (fat) molecules.
All three of these forms are digestible and all three have been clinically shown to reduce serum triglycerides and cholesterol. Ethyl esters are somewhat more stable against oxidation, but triglycerides (both natural and re-esterified) have better bioavailability.
4. pregnancy status
The specialty pre-natal fish oils are highly recommended during pregnancy because they contain a higher percentage of DHA to aid healthy development of the baby’s brain, eyes, and nervous system. Pre-natal products also make sure to avoid oils that contain vitamin A, which can cause birth defects at high doses. (Cod liver oil, for example, contains a relatively high amount of vitamin A — 1500-3000 IU per tsp — so should usually be avoided during pregnancy).
Sustainability is a major issue in fish oil production. Species like krill which play such an integral and delicate role in the oceanic food chain are not good choices for harvesting — the environmental price is just too high. By contrast, sardines and anchovies make an excellent choice for fish oil because they are abundantly available, reproduce quickly, and tend to be less contaminated with mercury due to their small size.
Norwegian cod, a major source of cod liver oil, is another good example of fish to use for oil. Norway has extremely strict fishing regulations, which guarantees a sustainable source. An added bonus is that cod livers are considered a “waste” part of the fish after the fillets are cut and sold to eat, so virtually the same number of fish are harvested regardless of whether their livers are used for oil or discarded.
Finally, the bottom line is always an important factor when purchasing supplements. But keep in mind all of the above points and remember that the best value may not always be the same as the cheapest product on the shelf!