Fish oil supplements are concentrated omega-3 oils derived from the tissue of fatty fish. In the world of supplementation, fish oil is often recommended by both traditional medical doctors and natural practitioners alike. Fish oil has been shown to prevent cancer, improve attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, treat anxiety, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and plenty more. It’s an incredible supplement offering major health benefits to almost everyone who takes it.
With all its benefits and high demand, you can find fish oil supplements at just about any supermarket, drugstore or discount retailer around. But, are all the fish oil supplements on our grocery store shelves safe and effective? Are there characteristics that make some fish oil supplements better than others? Are all fish oils created equally?
Millions of people take fish oil supplements every day for various conditions. Sadly, many of the fish oil supplements on the market today contain impurities and may be mislabeled. After digging into research about different types of fish oil, their potency levels and purity claims, we’ve discovered that fish oil supplements are definitely not all created equally. We’ve got some advice on how to pick the safest, most effective and purest forms of fish oil to fit your needs.
Mislabeled Fish Oil Supplements
Two essential fatty acids are found in fish oil and are incredibly beneficial for several functions of the human body. They are eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. These are omega-3 fatty acids that are derived from coldwater fish.
A 2015 research study was published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, wherein 47 fish oil supplements were analyzed to determine the amounts of DHA, EPA and other fatty acids each contained. The results of the study showed that more than 70 percent of the supplements tested did not contain the amount of EPA or DHA fats that their labels claimed. In fact, just 10 of the 47 supplements tested contained the amount of EPA and DHA fatty acids stated on their labels.
While a good many consumers have been confidently taking their fish oil supplements as directed by their doctors, they may not be getting the amount of omega-3 oils that they were promised.
Impurities in Fish Oil Supplements
In 2017, the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications put out a study investigating three commonly available fish oil supplements sold in the United States. When researchers analyzed the top-selling brand of fish oil, they found that while it did contain omega-3 fatty acids, it also contained significant levels of saturated fat. They also found levels of peroxides and secondary oxidation products that exceeded industry standards. Similar impurities were found in the other two best-selling omega-3 fish oil supplements.
Saturated fat is not something anyone expects to find in a fish oil supplement. Studies like this and others have concluded that the quality and purity of fish oil supplements is not being monitored adequately by the manufacturers.
The Freshness of Fish Oil Supplements
Fish oils are highly unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats are especially vulnerable to oxidation and rancidity. Oxidized or rancid oils are extremely dangerous to the human body. They increase inflammation in the body, which contributes to all sorts of diseases including heart disease and cancer.
One industry insider estimates that, for some major supplement manufacturers, it takes two to three years from the time the fish is caught until the oil is put into capsule form and the supplement is available in the store for purchase. Obviously, we would never eat fish that was two to three years old. It’s important to find fresh fish oil supplements as well to avoid consuming rancid, oxidized fish oil.
How to Ensure You’re Buying the Best Fish Oil Supplements
At this point, you’re probably second-guessing those fish oil supplements in your cupboard — and that’s a good thing. Some mainstream supplement brands are making tons of money selling inferior oil that could even be harmful to your health. Not every fish oil supplement on your supermarket shelves is created equally.
When you’re shopping for a fish oil supplement, you want something that contains enough omega-3 fatty acids to benefit your body. In particular, you’re looking for a supplement with at least 1,000mg (one gram) of EPA and DHA combined. For example, one of the best-rated brands of fish oil contains 650mg of EPA, 450mg of DHA and 180mg of other omega-3 oils for a total of 1280mg of omega-3 fatty acids.
One way that certain manufacturers will try to fool you is to make claims on the label about total omega-3 content. However, when you look deeper, very little of the omega-3 fat comes from EPA and DHA sources. Read the labels to ensure you’re getting a high potency omega-3 fish oil.
Because of their position in the food chain, smaller fish contain less contaminates than larger fish. When you’re reading labels on fish oil supplements, look for supplements derived from small fish like sardines, anchovies, and mackerel rather than tuna, herring or cod.
Also, make sure your supplements are processed in a country you trust. It is a requirement that the country of origin is listed on the label. Look for that and make sure you are getting your fish oil supplements from a trusted source.
This topic can be tricky to distinguish. For starters, check the expiration date on the bottle before you buy the supplement. Look at the bottle in the front, then reach back and check the expiration date on the bottles toward the back of the shelf. Many times, stores will put fresher items toward the back to sell off their older stock first. Buy the supplements with the latest date on the label.
Expiration dates aside, the fish oil supplements you buy may still not be very fresh. Once you get the supplements home, take one out and bite into it. If there’s an extra fishy odor or flavor, it’s not fresh. Similarly, there should be no hint of rancidity or a foul taste. Save your receipt until you’ve tasted one of the supplements. Fish oil supplements that are fresh should have a slight taste of the ocean, but never a knock-you-over fishiness or stale, rancid flavor. Often, vitamin shops and health food stores have samples to give you before you buy the supplements as well. It never hurts to ask.
There are a few ways to know if the fish oil supplements you plan to buy are of the purest quality. First of all, look for an indication of third-party testing on the label. A couple of organizations exist to help with purity standards. The International Fish Oil Standards Program (IFOS) is a third-party group that tests and certifies fish oils. The IFOS has rigorous and high standards for its certification. This organization tests each supplement by the batch or lot number to make sure they contain the precise amount of active ingredients that are listed on the product label. They also test to ensure that the supplements do not contain any harmful levels of contaminants.
Another third-party testing group is Eurofins. According to their website, “Eurofins is the world-leading food and feed testing laboratory group, deploying a comprehensive range of state-of-the-art analytical techniques in order to support its clients’ increasingly stringent quality and safety standards.” Eurofins has high standards, and tests fish oil supplements for purity as well as potency and freshness. Look for the IFOS or Eurofins quality stamp on the label when you’re shopping for fish oil.
If you find a supplement that seems to be of high quality, without the IFOS or Eurofins stamp, request to see its Certificate of Analysis (COA). The COA is an analysis completed by an independent laboratory. It will have a complete breakdown of the exact amount of the EPA and DHA in their supplement as well as everything else. You can email the company directly to request this information. Manufacturers are required to have the COA available for consumers. Many larger companies have their COA forms posted online. If not, they should be able to send it over to you via email, upon request.
Enjoy the Benefits of a Quality Fish Oil Supplement
It’s true that quality varies greatly when you’re shopping for fish oil. However, don’t let that scare you away from taking this beneficial supplement daily. Fish oil has been shown to be one of the most favorable and effective supplements available. It’s worth your time to shop around and make sure you’re getting the purest, freshest and best-quality supplement possible for your health.
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Carey, R. (2014). What to look for when buying a fish oil supplement. Retrieved from: https://www.puori.com/blog/2014/10/02/buying_fish_oil_supplement#
IFOS quality concerns. (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.nutrasource.ca/ifos/fish-oil-facts/quality-concerns.aspx
Kleiner, A. (2015). A comparison of actual versus stated label amounts of EPA and DHA in commercial omega-3 dietary supplements in the United States. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25044306
Kresser, C. (2010). The definitive fish oil guide. Retrieved from: https://chriskresser.com/the-definitive-fish-oil-buyers-guide/
Mason, R. (2017). Omega-3 fatty acid fish oil dietary supplements contain saturated fats and oxidized lipids that may interfere with their intended biological benefits. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006291X16321878
Worldwide excellence in bioanalytical testing. (n.d.). Retrieved from: https://www.eurofins.com/about-us/
Your 2018 guide for finding the right fish oil. (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.puori.com/blog/2014/10/02/buying_fish_oil_supplement#