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Omega-3 fish oil capsules on blue surface

Fish Oil Quality Matters: What to Consider When Choosing a Supplement

Recently, fatty acids – specifically omega-3s – came under the microscope on the BBC’s Trust Me, I’m A Doctor. Though the programme had only good things to say about fatty acids, and credited supplements with elevating respondents’ levels of omega-3, they reached the rather dubious conclusion that you were just as well using cheap fish oils as expensive ones. How wrong they were.

Omega-3 Deficiency: A Real Problem

Essential fatty acids are just that – essential. With this in mind, the BBC programme tested 60 healthy volunteers to determine where they stood on the omega-3 index. The index is a measure of the omega-3 levels present in the fat of blood cells, with those under 4% considered at risk of heart disease.

Worryingly, the vast majority of volunteers – none of whom were in the habit of eating fish or taking supplements – were around the 4% mark. Some were even as low as 3%. As a snapshot of the population, the results clearly indicate that we don’t consider essential fatty acids quite so essential. On the contrary, omega-3 deficiency would appear to be widespread.

To assess the efficacy of oily fish and fish oil supplements in addressing this problem, researchers checked the levels again, after volunteers started eating fish twice per week or using a daily omega-3 supplement. They found that the subjects leapt to 7-8% in just 8 weeks, moving into the accepted threshold for low risk.

At this point, the researchers came to a mind-bogglingly simplistic conclusion: you can opt for the cheapest fish oil supplement on the supermarket shelf and gain as much benefit as premium-quality products. This is wrong on many levels, because not all fatty acids are equal.

Why Fish Oil Quality is Important

Claiming that fish oil quality doesn’t matter is like claiming all proteins or carbohydrates are nutritionally identical. It’s simply not the case. The assertion seems to rely on the notion that fish oils should be rated purely on their omega-3 content. Pollutant levels, purity and fish sustainability are not allowed to enter the discussion. Nor is bioavailability.

The Bioavailability of Fish Oil

Fish oils are a great way of getting more essential fatty acids into your diet – that’s a given. But one key difference between low-cost fish oils and the premium variety lies in their bioavailability. Cheap fish oils generally exist in the synthetic ethyl ester form, or the least bioavailable, while high-quality fish oils favour re-esterified triglyceride.

In a famous randomised, placebo-controlled trial during the 1990s, the availability of long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA in the rTG form was shown to be far superior (134%) to ethyl ester equivalents (76%). There are several separate studies showing a similar discrepancy, and according to some reports, DHA in ethyl ester fish oils is less stable than in the triglyceride counterparts. In other words, DHA in ethyl ester is more susceptible to harmful oxidative products, decay and damage.

Given that triglyceride fish oils are 1.7 times more bioavailable – and also more stable – is it any wonder they’re more expensive?

The Pollution Factor

The cleanliness of fish oils is also worth considering, since contamination in the form of environmental pollution can affect fish from which the supplements derive. Surely it should be a cast-iron priority to get fatty acids from a fish oil that, as well as being effective in supplying omega-3s, is safe and efficient for the human system to process?

No digestive system should have to labour under the stresses of PCBs, dioxins and heavy metals that show up in fish pulled from polluted waters. Supplements made from the oil of fish caught in cleaner waters logically tend to have lower concentrations of toxic pollutants. By and large, smaller fish also contain lower concentrations of pollutants.

The Sustainability of Fish

A third factor would be sustainability: you should always buy from a supplier who ensures fish are harvested in a sustainable manner, and from a species not currently under threat.

Which Omega-3 Supplement is Best?

These considerations and others are at the heart of Labdoor’s work. The independent laboratory assesses fish oils on the basis of ingredient safety, product purity and projected efficacy. Since all oils are susceptible to oxidation, they test supplements thoroughly to help consumers make an educated decision about which fish oil they ought to take, and which provides the most benefit.

Of the 53 best-selling fish oils sold in the United States, Labdoor found that 3 recorded 50% or greater of the allowable mercury content per serving. What’s more, 14 recorded peroxide levels at or above the upper limit. Evidently fish oil quality matters a great deal: each of us would hope to limit our intake of mercury and favour a supplement which is resistant to oxidation. Fatty acids might be essential, but our considerations must go beyond simply hitting our daily omega-3 quota.

Labdoor named WHC’s UnoCardio 1000 as the best fish oil in the market, ranking it highly for product purity, label accuracy, ingredient safety and nutritional value. A single softgel supplies 1,200mg of omega-3 fatty acids in the rTG form, including 675mg of EPA and 460mg of DHA. It is manufactured from sustainable fish species and purified using a cold and eco-friendly production process.

Know the Difference

Price may not be a measure of quality in every walk of life, but when it comes to fish oils, you get what you pay for. Potency is important, and so too is oil quality and sustainability. Keep this in mind and you’ll make an informed and wise decision.