Fish oils (also referred to sometimes as omega-3s) are popular amongst those wanting to support their joints, brain, skin and cardiovascular health (amongst other conditions); however, one thing I find most frustrating in practice is the frequency of clients coming in who have purchased a fish oil supplement that, whilst it may not be breaking any laws, is far too often not delivering a therapeutic dose unless you take way more than what’s recommended on the label.
So how is it people end up with a less than optimal product?
This can be for a variety of reasons: poor advice may be given in-store, not understanding what is on offer, and commonly being attracted by a cheaper price tag — as fish oils can definitely vary in price, and everyone looks for a bargain. It’s my experience that with fish oils you tend to get what you pay for — meaning cheaper offerings are typically cheap for a reason, with manufacturers providing a less therapeutic product to offer it at a lower price point. But is that what you really want?
My aim with this article is to direct you to what you should look for on the label, so you can be more informed and able to select a better quality product for the price you choose to pay. One that will provide what you are after (whether or not you realise it) in the form of the active constituents — the omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid — better known by their abbreviations EPA and DHA.
I’d also like to point out the alternatives to fish oil — something you may wish to consider given current sustainability concerns of the fishing industry, and the growing number of people choosing to move away from animal-based products entirely. More on that later…
Doing the math
It’s the EPA and DHA in your chosen omega-3 oil that provide the physical benefits you are frequently reading about – namely anti-inflammatory properties, and the ability to support healthy cell membranes and brain health. So if it’s the EPA and DHA you need from your fish oil, then you should buy a product that provides these at a reasonable dose. Here’s the catch, though — you need to check the label to find out how much is in there per dose and then do a little math.
The front of the bottle you pick up in the store will typically claim something like 1000 mg, so it’s not uncommon for me to speak to clients who understandably assume this means they are getting 1000 mg of the good stuff they have read about (and occasionally they are getting close); however, all that number is referring to is the amount of ‘oil’ in the capsule (or it may be a 5 ml dose of a liquid product) and that oil will contain other non-active elements. In fact, I often see products that, when you look at the ingredients list on the back of the bottle, it may only have 256 mg EPA and 180mg DHA out of the 1000 mg — the rest is of little to no use therapeutically.
What you need to do to gauge the therapeutic potential of what you are buying is add the EPA and DHA numbers together:
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) 256 mg
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) 180 mg
436 mg of omega-3s (per 1000 mg dose)
The rest is typically filler, and this raises the question of whether your product is worth the price tag. My point is that a reasonable daily level of EPA+DHA for many ‘evidence-based’ condition-specific applications would begin at 2ooo mg/day — so knowing this you can see you’d need to take not 1 or 2 capsules but 5 of this example to get to the minimum required level. Not only is that much more costly than you may have originally bargained for, but that’s also a lot of superfluous ‘filler’ oil you now take that offers no benefit to you.
Is your product really good value after all?
So, using this as an example, you can see that yes it is fish oil, and yes it has omega-3s in it — therefore there can be many statements made about the product in the accompanying marketing material. But I’m going to guess it’s not really what you’d likely be buying if you were better informed; and it’s no longer as cheap per dose if you really want to gain the benefits of an evidence-based level of EPA/DHA.
This difference in actual content may help explain why the prices can be so different between the fish oils you see for sale in stores, or what a natural health practitioner may have in their dispensary. This info can also now help you better evaluate what you need for your health goal, and how to get it at the best price for your situation.
As a rough guide, provided you are not on any blood-thinning medications (in which case please get professional advice on specific dosing for you) then the evidence-based levels of EPA+DHA are around 2-3 g/day when it comes to many inflammatory states. That said, it makes sense to look at products where you can achieve that dose with the least number of capsules — or go for a 5 ml liquid dose (or thereabouts); these are better value for money from what I have seen.
Is krill oil better?
From one perspective — yes; another — no. The thing with krill oil that all the marketers gets hyped up about is its ‘bioavailability’, which is correct — after all, krill naturally contains astaxanthin, an antioxidant that gives krill their pinky-red colour and helps its therapeutic action. But what is not revealed (unless you dig into some of the literature) is that you need about two-thirds of the same dose of krill oil to equal the same benefits of fish oil — the latter of which is where the bulk of the evidence still lies currently. So the glaring difference (other than environmental concerns with taking krill out of the oceans) is that the ‘one a day’ dose potentially given on the product is only a small dose. But it may be the only dose that is economically viable for the manufacturers, or they would find it hard to bring their product to market as the cost would greatly increase. If using krill oil — check how much you really have to take (not just the labelled recommendation) and see if it’s worth it to you.
What about the plant-based consumers and vegans of the world, or those allergic to fish?
Algal oil is extracted from algae grown in controlled conditions, avoiding the issues plaguing our over-fished oceans. This vegan-friendly alternative offers the same EPA and DHA as fish oil, but presented in a more attractive product for the more compassionate amongst us who choose not to consume fish, and/or those wanting to take some personal responsibility for wider environmental issues. It’s wise to choose products that are also screened for any metals or contaminants; and as these products contain less EPA/DHA, then my additional advice here is to focus on including omega-3s from plant-based sources including flax oil, flax meal, walnuts and chia seeds. Choosing food sources of omega-3 also brings the benefits of additional nutrients and fibre — a preferable option to a glug of filler oil, in my opinion.
Anti-inflammatory alternatives to fish oils
Here is where I wanted to note that there are other options to taking fish or krill oil. These will depend on what you are trying to achieve, but the #1 herbal to look to would be turmeric when working to reduce inflammation in the body. You can also make big changes to your overall inflammatory state by adjusting your diet to first remove any personal food-related triggers, treating any gut disturbances you may have, and increasing the antioxidant potential of everything you eat. Food is medicine after all. But it doesn’t stop with turmeric. For those with specific aches and pains, there is also ginger, the colourfully named cats claw or devils claw, and a whole range of other herbal options that can be formulated to assist if required, though you must speak to a qualified naturopathic herbalist first to advise on how to use these correctly and safely, especially if taking medications.
Last little details…
If you are still choosing a fish oil, it’s my opinion that you should always look for a brand where you can check that they screen their fish oils for mercury, other metals and any potential contaminant. Another thing I recommend is to look for companies making some effort towards sustainable fishing practices, such as only using small fish — sardines and anchovies, for example. Our oceans are under tremendous stress already, so these choices matter.
What’s significant to everyone is to avoid the commonly available plant-based oils including canola, sunflower and safflower (a whole other toxic topic worthy of its own post sometime), to help keep the omega-3 to -6 ratio in better balance.
So now you know a little of what I do about this topic I hope you feel better able to make the best choice next time you want to purchase an omega-3 fish, krill or algal oil, or know someone who does. In this case, cheaper does not equate to best value (particularly regarding fish or krill oils) when you get down into the details.
Featured image by Unknown Artist on Pexels