Since past few decades, Omega 3s has been subject matter for extensive research, particularly the types that are found in seafood and fish oil supplements.
Omega 3s are good fats, which the nutrition experts claim are vital for maintaining good health.
The best way to get sufficient amounts of omega 3 fatty acids is by including natural source of omega 3s, such as fatty fish, in your diet.
However, there are many people who don’t eat enough fish, and for them the only option left is to consider taking a supplement.
There are number of different omega-3 supplements available in market. But, they all do not provide same health benefits.
We have spent many days in studying the pros and cons of different types of omega-3 supplements and compiled a detailed guide to describe everything about these supplements that you should know.
Omega-3 Supplements Guide – What Omega 3 Supplements To Take And What Supplements To Avoid?
Fish and fish oil are the best source omega 3s. Fish oil is available in both natural as well as processed forms.
The processing can alter composition of the fatty acids. And for this reason, we need to be careful while choosing omega 3 supplements because all of them are not the same. Some of them are absorbed better than others.
Here is a brief review:
(i) Fish: Whole fish contains omega-3 fatty acids in the form of free fatty acids as triglycerides and phospholipids.
(ii) Fish oil: Conventional fish oils contain mega-3 fatty acids mostly in the form of triglycerides.
(iii) Processed fish oils: Fish oils are processed in order to purify or concentrate them. In the process, they get converted into ethyl esters. Ethyl esters are not natural, but are the synthetic versions.
(iv) Reformed triglycerides: The ethyl esters obtained while processing fish oils can be transformed back into triglycerides, which are known as “reformed” triglycerides.
All of the above forms have health benefits. However, studies have found that the omega-3s present in ethyl esters are not as easily absorbable as those that are present in the other three forms (Source: 1, 2).
As a thumb rule, the absorption-abilities of omega-3s in the form of free fatty acids (mostly contained in food) is 50% more as compared to triglycerides, and the absorption-abilities of triglycerides is 50% more as compared to ethyl esters (Source: 3, 4, 5).
Note: Omega3s are available in different forms. The most common are triglycerides, which are good to consume. On the other hand, the ethyl esters are formed when omega3s are processed. They can not be absorbed so well. So, avoid eating this form of omega3s.
Natural Fish Oil
This oil is produced from oily fish tissues, commonly in the form of triglycerides.
Natural fish oil has properties, which are mostly same as that of a real fish. It also contains numerous other vital nutrients.
In addition, natural fish oil also has vitamins A and D. And its fermented version contains vitamin K2 as well.
The most common sources of natural fish oil are salmon, sardines and cod liver. The liquid form of these oils are quite common, and are much more resilient to oxidation as compared to the processed oils.
Note: Supplements in a form of natural fish oil are the best. They contain good amounts of EPA and DHA. They also have vitamins A & D with other fats too that help in absorbing the omega3s.
Processed Fish Oil
Processed fish oil is typically in purified and/or concentrated form. During processing, the fats are converted into ethyl ester form.
Purification is done in order to remove contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs, from the fish oil. And concentrating process is done to enhance EPA and DHA contents in the oil. Actually, the processed oils may contain pure EPA and/or DHA anywhere between 50 to 90%.
Processed fish oils mostly come in capsules and are low priced. They are very popular with consumers, and are widely available in fish oil market.
As the processed fish oils are in ethyl ester form, so your body cannot absorb them so well as compared to natural fish oil. To overcome this absorption issue, some producers process the oil even further to transform it back into a synthetic triglyceride form, which relatively is easy to absorb (Source 9, 10).
These forms of processed fish oil are called as reformed (or re-esterified) triglycerides. They are very expensive fish oil supplements & only cater to the elite segment of fish oil market.
Note: When the natural fish oils are processed to convert them into purified and/or concentrated form, they become more prone to oxidation and also less easily absorbable by your body, unless they are processed further to transform them back into triglycerides form.
Several studies have found that omega-3 is absorbed fairly as effectively from the phospholipids of krill oil as from the triglycerides of fish oil, at times even more efficiently (Source: 13, 14, 15, 16).
Moreover, krill oil is extremely resistant to oxidation because it naturally has a powerful antioxidant called astaxanthin (Source: 17).
In addition, krill are very small animals and have a short lifetime, so they don’t gather many pollutants during their lifespan. Thus, their oil doesn’t have to be purified, and is seldom come in the ethyl ester form.
Note: Krill oil not only contains lesser contaminants, but it also has a powerful antioxidant. It offers EPA and DHA in both triglyceride as well as phospholipid forms, which are fairly easy to absorb.
Mammalian omega-3 oil is extracted from seal blubber. It’s in the form of natural triglycerides.
Besides EPA and DHA, it also has docosapentaenoic acid (DPA). DPA is a scarce omega-3 fat with many health benefits (Sourec: 20). It’s remarkably low in omega-6 too.
Alpha-linolenic acid in short called as ALA. It is a “plant-based” type of omega-3 and your body can obtain it from flax seeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds.
Another shortcoming is that most plant oils contain much more omega-6 than omega-3.
Note: ALA are plant sourced, and contain both omega-3 as well as omega-6 fats. Unfortunately, they lack EPA or DHA, the types of omega-3s that are more useful for human bodies.
Marine algae, especially microalgae, is a great triglyceride source of EPA and DHA.
In fact, algae are eaten by smaller fish. The EPA and DHA then originate from algae, and move up the food chain in fish.
Studies have found that algal oil has even more concentrated omega-3 fats, especially DHA as compared to fish oil.
In addition, it is claimed that they contain vital minerals such as iodine.
Moreover, algal oil doesn’t contain any pollutants like heavy metals. This makes it a great option.
Algae is claimed to be sustainable & environmentally safe. It may help meet the growing world population’s demand for omega-3s.
Note: EPA and DHA, in triglyceride form, can be sourced from Microalgae, a marine plant. It is environmentally safe and can serve the needs of vegetarians and vegans for omega-3 fatty acids.
Green-Lipped Mussel Oil
The green-lipped mussel is a shellfish and found in New Zealand. The oil extracted from it is generally in the form of triglycerides and free fatty acids.
Besides EPA and DHA, this oil also has eicosatetraenoic acid (ETA), a scarce omega-3 fatty acid. It’s considered even more useful in reducing inflammation as compared to other omega-3 fatty acids (Source: 26, 27).
Moreover, consuming green-lipped mussel oil is claimed to be environmentally safe.
Note: Green-lipped mussel is a shellfish. Its oil supplements contain many forms of omega 3s fats.
Omega-3 oils usually come in the form of capsules or soft gels.
They are easy to swallow and don’t have a taste, so make up a quite large segment of omega-3s supplements market.
The capsules are typically made using a soft, thin layer of gelatin. Several manufacturers use polymer barrier. This helps to not release the drug until it reaches the small intestines. This is done so as to mask the foul smell of rancid fish oil and prevent fish burps.
Caution: If you intake omega-3 capsules, consider opening one at times and smell so as to ensure it hasn’t gone rancid.
Note: Capsules are very popular with the consumers of fish oil. But, because capsules can mask foul smell of rancid oil, so it’s suggested that you open it from time to time to check if they have gone bad.
Look At This Check List When Buying Omega 3s Supplements
When buying an omega-3 supplement, make sure to read the label carefully.
What to look for:
(i) Type of Omega-3: Make sure the supplement contains higher amounts of the most vital ingredients – EPA and DHA. A supplement may claim on the front label that it contains 1000 mg fish oil per capsule, but if you see on the back – it may contain only 320 mg of EPA and DHA, which actually is very little.
(ii) Absorption: The second most important factor is the absorption. Avoid EE (ethyl esters) and go for free fatty acids (FFA), triglycerides and reformed triglycerides (TG, rTG), and phospholipids (PLs).
(iii) Purity And Authenticity: Select products, which either have the GOED standard for purity or some other reputed “third party tested” approval stamped on them, so as to ensure that they are more likely to be safe and truly contain what they claim.
(iv) Freshness: Fish oil spoils more easily than other foods, if not kept cold or consumed quickly. Once they spoil, they will have a bad smell, and become less powerful or even harmful. Always check the dates. Also check if it contains an antioxidant such as vitamin E. The easiest way to ascertain the freshness is the “bite test.” High-quality, fresh oil will be relatively free of any filthy taste or foul smell.
(v) Sustainability: Look for a fish oil product that is certified by Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)or a similar organization. To earn the certification, seafood products are required to satisfy the organization’s best practices and must originate from a sustainable fishery.
Note: Read the supplement’s label carefully for checking its type and amount of omega 3. It must have EPA & DHA in sufficient amounts, and preferably an antioxidant to fight rancidity.
The Top Omega-3 Health Supplements
Regular fish oil supplements are generally the best option for majority of the people, who are looking to improve their immunity and well-being.
But, keep in mind that natural fish oil generally contains no more than 30% EPA and DHA, and the rest 70% is other fats.
And, if you want to consume larger amounts of EPA and DHA, you will need to intake high amounts of calories and vitamin A to get the desired amount of omega-3.
If that is the case, a supplement with concentrated omega-3s may be a better option because then EPA and DHA can be as high as 90%. Choose the brands, which contain omega-3s in the form of free fatty acids (best), triglycerides or phospholipids.
Note: Normally, a regular fish oil supplement is good enough for the majority of the people – who want to improve their health. In case you want to have higher amounts of omega-3s, choose a supplement with concentrated omega-3s.
Take Away Message
For majority of the people, a regular fish oil supplement is usually enough.
However, focus on the EPA & DHA contents. Check the labels that they are stamped with logos of reputed organizations to ensure the supplements really contain what they claim.
Whereas the animal-based omega-3 products mostly contain EPA and DHA, the plant-based usually contain ALA. Algal oil is one exception, which is a great source of excellent omega-3s and suitable for everybody, including vegans.
Always remember that omega-3s are prone to going rancid. So, never buy them in bulk.
Finally, omega-3s are perhaps one of the most beneficial supplements you can have. But, make sure to use them wisely.