10 Questions to Ask When Buying Omega-3
Have you taken omega-3 supplements? Were you disappointed with the results? With so many omega-3 products on the market, it’s difficult to distinguish quality omega-3 from poor quality omega-3 or fish oil.
Most people think omega-3 is the same as fish oil, but it is not. In this blog, you will learn why this is so and what to look for on nutrition labels. The next time you make a purchase of omega-3 online or in-store, you will be fully informed.
Here are 10 questions to ask yourself when buying omega-3 supplements (scroll to read or click the links below to jump to sections):
- Is it Pure-Quality Omega-3 or Just Filler?
- Is it Low-grade Fish Oil?
- How Much EPA and DHA Do You Need?
- What is the Capsule Size?
- Does it have a Good Ratio of EPA to DHA?
- Is it Sourced from Quality Fish?
- Is it Free of Contaminants?
- Is it Bioavailable?
- Does it have a Fishy Aftertaste?
- Does it Include Vitamin D?
Omega-3 is a group of fatty acids that contain an essential fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA converts into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic (DHA). EPA and DHA are the most important omega-3s because they provide nutrients and they are ant-inflammatory. Pure-quality omega-3 will have at least 80 percent EPA and DHA in total omega-3. Most omega-3 supplements on the market will have only 5 to 25 percent EPA and DHA, containing mostly filler from other oils and saturated fats.
One way to test if you have an omega-3 supplement with mostly filler is to put your softgel capsules in the freezer for 24 hours. If they turn white and cloudy, they contain more filler than omega-3. If they are clear, they are pure-quality omega-3.
Bottom line: With pure-quality omega-3, you get higher concentrations of EPA and DHA per capsule and less filler.
Depending on the distillation process, fish oils start as fish, which is mixed with water and cooked. The “rendered” fat is separated and filtered. This fish fat or oil contains about 25 percent omega-3, but hundreds of other fats and impurities. Some less expensive products use this oil after filtration and label it as fish oil, which it truly is, but contains only a trace of the good oils: EPA and DHA.
Essentially, fish oil is a mixture of mostly “bad fats” and very few “good fats”. Discount fish oil can contain anywhere from 0 to 30 percent of omega-3, the “good fats”. Typically, the amount of omega-3 in fish oil is 18 percent EPA and 12 percent DHA. That means 70 to 80 percent of fish oil contain other impurities that derive from other fats or saturated “bad fats”.
Bottom line: There is three times more “bad fats” in fish oil than in pure-quality omega-3.
Although the American Heart Association recommends at least 500 mg of omega-3 daily, the adequate intake varies depending on your age and health. For children, 300 to 500 mg of omega-3 is fine. An adult who is in great shape and at optimal health will only need 500 mg to 1,000 mg of omega-3. However, an adult who is concerned or struggling with health conditions may want to take at least 1,000 mg to 2,000 mg of omega-3 daily.
Generic omega-3 supplements tend to have small percentages of EPA and DHA with as much filler as fish oil. Typically, they include about 300 mg of total omega-3. Pure-quality omega-3 will have at least 1,000 mg of total omega-3 and at least 80 percent EPA and DHA. Remember to view the serving size and total omega-3 on the back of your nutritional labels. Many premium brands claim to have high concentrations of EPA and DHA, but it may be per serving size of two or three capsules.
Bottom line: Read your nutrition labels and pay attention to the serving size to determine how much EPA and DHA there is in total omega-3.
The size of a capsule isn’t as important as what is in it. A small krill oil capsule is easy-to-swallow, but contains almost nothing of value. Likewise, a generic fish oil capsule as sold in some nutritional stores often contains cheaper oils and little EPA and DHA.
This is where labeling and serving size matters. You may read, “contains 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA” on the label, but the serving size is two to three capsules. In this case, each capsule only contains about 300 mg of omega-3 and more than likely 700mg of bad fats or filler.
You’ll want to consider capsule size when determining how much total omega-3 is included per capsule. Again, pay attention to serving size since many supplements will include the total amount of omega-3 per two to three servings, instead of one. You’ll want to look for at least 800 to 900 mg of omega-3 per capsule.
Bottom line: The size of the capsule is not equivalent to the amount of total omega-3; pay attention to the serving size.
When you consume more “bad fats” like omega-6 (found in meat and greasy foods) than “good fats” such as omega-3, your body produces more arachidonic acid (AA). AA is derived from linoleic acid, which fuels pain and inflammation. Both EPA and DHA act as anti-inflammatory agents, which reduces symptoms of some diseases and disorders.
EPA is an essential fatty acid that boosts heart health and the immune system. DHA supports brain function and cognition. A higher EPA to DHA ratio may support heart health, while higher amounts of DHA may support brain health. Some ratios vary depending on the health condition; however, doctors recommend a 2.3:1 to 2.6:1 ratio of EPA to DHA for optimal health.
Bottom line: The doctor recommended ratio of EPA to DHA is 2.3:1 to 2.6:1.
Generally, cold-water, wild-caught fish is the best natural source of omega-3 fatty acids. The largest dietary source of omega-3 comes from fish that feed on algae, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies. Unfortunately, some fish sourced for fish oil comes from tuna, mahi mahi, and tilapia high in mercury and other contaminants because it’s widely available and cheaper.
The purity and safety of quality omega-3 sourced seafood goes through a rigorous review process. You may not see this information on the product label. You can usually research this information on the brand’s website.
Bottom line: To ensure safety and sustainability, make sure your omega-3 supplements are sourced from quality fish from a certified manufacturer.
Due to environmental exposure, seafood contains contaminants such as mercury, heavy metals, dioxins, PCBs and other harmful toxins. To reduce or eliminate these toxins, most laboratories use a molecular distillation process or chromatography. However, some fish that are high in mercury and other toxins may be used in fish oil or generic supplements and may have higher levels of contaminants.
It’s important to know what type of fish your omega-3 is sourced from. For example, wild-caught salmon, anchovies, sardines, and pollock, generally have less contamination than tuna or tilapia. Also, some omega-3 supplements may contain gluten and sugar. You can get this information either from the product label or by viewing the product details online.
Bottom line: Search for guaranteed purity. Your omega-3 supplements should be free of mercury, purine, fillers, gluten and sugars.
Bioavailability has become a buzzword in the supplement market. Many brands of krill oil, fish oil and omega-3s claim to be bioavailable. Bioavailability refers to the degree and rate at which a supplement or drug is absorbed into the body and is active.
When a high-quality omega-3 has increased bioavailability, it quickly absorbs in the body. For instance, it absorbs better with fat content from the food you eat.
Bottom line: Choose an omega-3 supplement that has proven bioavailability.
If you have low-grade fish oil or a generic fish oil supplement, it will smell and have a fishy aftertaste. Remember, depending on the distillation process, fish oil becomes “rendered” fat, which is separated and filtered. This fish fat or oil may contain hundreds of other fats and impurities.
This fish oil sits in vats for several days prior to being sent for distribution and what’s left over may even be sold to low-cost brands. Some less expensive products use this oil and sell it as fish oil. By the time this low-grade fish oil reaches the shelves, usually at a very low price, it has already been sitting and rotting for several weeks.
However, since pure-quality omega-3 is filtered right away using chromatography, this process removes the unsafe fats, impurities and toxins, and it does not rot like fish oil. Pure-quality omega-3 supplements are also neutralized to contain no fishy aftertaste, burps or smell. They may also include flavors with other nutrient-rich oils.
Bottom line: Choose a pure-quality omega-3 supplement that is neutralized with no fishy aftertaste or burps.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. It is not naturally abundant in most foods we eat, and most people don’t receive enough vitamin D, either from lack of exposure to the sun, wearing sunscreen or lack of supplementation or diet.
Dietary sources such as fatty fish and milk don’t have enough vitamin D to meet the daily intake. Many people who are vegan or vegetarian or lactose intolerant do not ingest enough vitamin D. Also, most people who spend time in the sun use sunscreen, reducing the skin’s ability to absorb vitamin D. Therefore, the majority of people are vitamin D deficient. In fact, it’s estimated that one billion people worldwide are vitamin D deficient. Read more about the importance of vitamin D.
Bottom line: Omega-3 with high individual units of vitamin D per capsule, at least 1,000 IU, is an ideal supplement for most people with vitamin D deficiency.