One of the most common questions I’m asked is about omega 3 fish oil supplements: whether they’re actually helpful, what are the benefits of fish oil supplements, and is there a difference among all of the different ones out there. As it turns out, not all fish oil is created equal. Because there is a vast difference in quality, and the good ones are less common, chances are if you don’t know what to look for when selecting a supplement, you will end up with one that doesn’t provide the benefits you need.
A few months ago my sister called me to ask about fish oil supplements and Omega 3. She had purchased a bottle at Costco (good price), and had also tried another more expensive, big name brand but found that neither seemed to be making any difference for her. She didn’t feel any different when taking them. And that’s the point, right? The goal is that what you put in your body – food or supplement – should make you feel better.
I went for my bottle of fish oil (which at the time was Metagenics EPA-DHA 720 – a very good product and brand), and she got out hers so we could compare. Interestingly, the two types of fish oils she had purchased were almost identical, so the only big difference was the price.
The first thing we checked was the ratio of Omega 3 fatty acids to the total fat in the supplements. Her supplements were 1,000mg of fatty acids in each capsule, which is fairly common. My Metagenics pills had 1,400mg per capsule. The amount of Omega 3 fatty acids in hers was about 400mg, so less than half of the total fat in the capsule. In mine there were 720 grams of Omega 3s – just over half.
The next thing we checked for were the key “ingredients” or types of Omega 3 fats in each capsule. The beneficial part of fish oil supplements and the reason we take them is to get eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These fats are the source of all the Omega 3 benefits.
Of the 720mg of Omega 3 fatty acids in one of my capsules, 100% of it was EPA and DHA Omega 3 fats (430mg of EPA and 290mg of DHA). My sister’s capsules were roughly 180mg of DHA and EPA combined. So to summarize, less than half of one of her fish oil capsules had Omega 3 fats, and less than half of those Omega 3 fats really mattered. Because of my arthritis, I take about 3 – 4.5 grams of EPA&DHA each day. That’s 4-6 of the Metagenics capsules, but it would take between 17-25 of my sister’s capsules to get the same amount of the beneficial fats.
The lesson learned: be sure to check out how much actual EPA and DHA are in each capsule and consider how many capsules you feel comfortable downing each day when you’re searching for fish oil.
Another thing I had my sister look for on both of her bottles was any kind of statement or claim of 3rd party purity testing. Neither of hers had any such claim. With many fish (especially from fish farms) becoming poisoned by mercury and other harmful substances (which pass right along to you in their fish oil), I think it’s very important to make sure you take fish oil that has been independently tested and certified as pure and free from harmful contaminants. Mercury levels in fish are a big deal and need to be taken seriously.
The last thing I had her check was for tocopherols. Tocopherols are a preservative for the fish oil. Now I’m no fan of preservatives in general, but you need one in your fish oil. Fish oil, like any oil, oxidizes over time and becomes rancid. When you put rancid oil into your body, it has to use antioxidants to neutralize the oxidized (rancid) oil. Your body needs those antioxidants for other things, so make sure your fish oil has some kind of tocopherol in it – the more natural, the better. And buy your fish oil in quantities you can get through quickly. The less time it’s hanging around on your shelf, the better.
I really liked my Metagenics fish oils, but I’ve recently switched to the Vital Choice brand. The Vital Choice fish oils actually have lower amounts of EPA and DHA in each capsule (so I have to take more), but the Vital Choice oils come straight from salmon (or krill). Basically Metagenics has a more scientific approach to putting together its fish oil supplements, while Vital Choice uses more of a whole-foods approach to creating theirs. It’s a nature made fish oil. And the tocopherol in the Vital Choice fish oils is a naturally occurring and very powerful antioxidant (astaxanthin), so they don’t even have to add that part. Because I like food and even supplements in the most natural state possible, I’ve made the switch and have been really happy with the supplements from Vital Choice. For me it’s simply the best fish oil supplement I’ve found.
- Amount of EPA and DHA – the higher the better
- Purity tested – avoid mercury and other contaminants
- Preservative – needs to have one (look for tocopherol in ingredients)
As with all vitamins and supplements, you get what you pay for. Be sure to check the labels to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.