omega 3 fatty acids health

Something’s Fishy About Omega-3

Not all supplements are created equal.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for optimal health. They are deemed “essential” because we need them for proper health, but cannot produce them on our own. These fatty acids are required for a wide range of functions, from proper blood flow to brain development and are integral to the heart, skin, joints, eyes and immune system. With over 10,000 published studies over the past 30 years, EPA and DHA from fish oil are among the most researched natural ingredients in history. Health benefits are many: Improves cardiovascular health, lowers inflammation, supports healthy brain function and cognition, improves lipid metabolism and lower triglycerides, helps maintain healthy blood pressure, enhances mood, reduces arthritis pain and helps maintain visual acuity.

Dietary changes over the last century have led to a decrease in the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids and supplementation for most people has become an important health strategy. The problem is that fish oil supplements vary dramatically in composition, purity and freshness. The supplement industry lacks the oversight needed to maintain minimum standards and unfortunately, too many of us are lured into purchasing the supplement with the most effective marketing strategy and may end up with an attractive package with scant healthy nutrients inside and possibly some dangerous contaminants.

Here are some things to look for when evaluating fish oil supplements:

Freshness – Look for products that use the freshest fish oil. Rancid oil is used in many fish oil supplements, a sure way to cause stomach upset. The companies that catch their own fish and process their own oils usually have the freshest ingredients.

Purity – The purer the oil the fewer toxins it will contain.

Price – Do not judge based on price alone. The cheapest products are likely to be contaminated and less safe, but not all of the expensive ones are superior. Do your research.

Potency – Evaluate the DHA. The average fish oil contains roughly 18% EPA and 12% DHA but the best supplements contain much higher concentrations.

Formulation – The natural triglyceride-based fish oils are the preferred form for superior absorption, but the vast majority of commercial products are in the less natural ethyl ester form which is more resistant to digestive enzymes and thus not absorbed as easily.

Many experts in wellness and healthy aging recommend “pharmaceutical grade” fish oil.

Pharmaceutical grade fish oil means that the oil is purer, has a higher omega-3 content, and is generally safer to consume. The oil is more expensive and “ultra-refined”.

“High quality” or “pure” are descriptors used for health food grade fish oil. With ultra-refined fish oil the process is taken several steps further. The process of true molecular distillation removes man-made pollutants from the fish, the purification process removes much of the fishy taste, the process helps to remove any saturated fats and finally the oil is analyzed and tested to verify the final product.

Most dietary supplement companies are really sales and marketing firms. Many of them outsource manufacturing, lab testing, bottling and labeling.

Do your homework and find a company that provides access to all of the information regarding their products. The best pharmaceutical grade fish oil companies will measure the “catch to capsule” time, another measure of freshness and provide you with information on their purification processes and safety standards. The old adage “you get what you pay for” may well be true in this case.

Written by Susan Kady Wilson, MD
Photo by Caroline Attwood

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