So, you’ve already read “Should You Take a Supplement?” You’ve gone through the questions and have decided that an Omega-3 supplement is right for you. You take yourself to the grocery store or pharmacy, find your way to the supplement aisle, and all of a sudden, your palms begin to sweat. You look up to see rows and rows of bottles full of vivid colors, bold statements, and fine prints that could leave anyone’s head spinning.
How do you know which Omega-3 supplement to choose? Follow the four steps below and you’ll be able to shop for your Omega-3 supplement with confidence.
Step 1: Choose the right SOURCE for you
Omega-3 fatty acids EPA + DHA can come from several different sources. While ALA, another type of Omega-3 fatty acid, can be converted to EPA + DHA, the conversion rates are abysmal. Therefore, direct sources of EPA + DHA should be consumed. Although EPA + DHA sources are less common, there is likely one that fits your lifestyle.
- Natural Fish Oil – Fish oil is made from the tissue of fatty fish. Different types of fish provide Omega-3s, but more common sources include salmon, sardine, anchovy, herring, cod, and mackerel. Omega-3s from natural fish oil can be found in both phospholipid and triglyceride forms in varying amounts depending on the fish. It’s important to note that the EPA + DHA content in natural fish oil can vary widely depending on the fish species, feed management, and food processing. Additionally, omega-3 content in farmed fish can be quite different in comparison to wild fish. Because the type of food the fish consume affects their fatty acid content, the vegetable oils and oilseeds often used in aquaculture feed lead to much lower Omega-3/Omega-6 ratios compared to wild fish (9 vs. 12.4). Natural fish oil may also contain additional healthful nutrients that you find in whole fish, such as vitamins A and D. However, there is a risk that fish contain mercury or other contaminants that can sully natural fish oils.
- Processed Fish Oil – Most manufacturers will process natural fish oils to “purify” them of heavy metals and contaminants, convert natural triglycerides to ethyl esters, and concentrate the fish oil to yield higher percentages of EPA + DHA per serving. Most commercially available Omega-3 fatty acids are in the purified ethyl ester form. However, ethyl esters are not as easily absorbed and utilized as other Omega-3 fatty acid forms. Therefore, some manufacturers go a step further and process the oil again in a re-esterification process. Purified ethyl esters can be returned to the more natural triglyceride form. These are called re-esterified triglycerides and are more easily utilized by the human body than ethyl esters.
- Fish Roe – Fish roe, or fish eggs, is a valuable by-product of the fishing industry. Fish roe is used for both human consumption in its natural form and for Omega-3 oil extraction to be consumed in supplements. Fish roe is a rich source of Omega-3s in phospholipid Fish roe from herring, salmon, pollock, and flying fish contain up to 75% of their fats in phospholipid form, with more than 30% of those fats being EPA + DHA.
- Krill Oil – Krill oil is extracted from the Antarctic crustacean krill, a shrimp-like zooplankton. Krill are known for having high amounts of phospholipid-bound Omega-3 fatty acids. Some say that krill have much lower pollutants levels than other fish species due to their small size and short lifespan. However, research does not yet support this claim. One toxicology report found that the krill oil products tested ranked “intermediate” in terms of their Persistent Organic Pollutants contaminants compared to fish oils. Some research does suggest that the phospholipid sources predominately found in krill oil have higher bioavailability than the triglyceride sources dominant in fish oil. However, it generally comes at a higher cost.
- Algal Oil – Algae are the original producers of EPA + DHA in the marine food chain, synthesizing EPA + DHA de novo, then passing these powerful nutrients off to the krill and fish that consume them. Eventually, EPA + DHA accumulate in the tissues of other marine species that humans then consume. High in triglycerides, research has found that algal oil is bioequivalent to whole salmon, raising blood DHA levels equally. Furthermore, microalgae can be grown in controlled conditions, allowing constant biochemical composition and eliminating the risk of chemical contamination. Another touted benefit of utilizing algal oil is the reduction in the use of global fish stocks.
Step 2: Choose the Right AMOUNT for You
Utilizing food labels when purchasing a supplement is the only way, you the consumer, can ensure you are buying a product that contains the amounts of EPA + DHA that are helpful and healthful. While some organizations recommend consuming 250mg/day of EPA+DHA, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 450 – 500mg/day of EPA + DHA.
***Be sure to look on the label for DHA + EPA specifically. Even if a supplement states 1,000mg of fish oil, it may only contain 300mg of EPA + DHA.***
Beyond dietary recommendations, individuals should be considering their distinct needs when choosing appropriate dosing options. Depending on a person’s lifestyle and regular dietary choices, the amounts of EPA + DHA required to obtain optimal blood levels can vary greatly. Furthermore, study results suggest that official Omega-3 intake guidelines for Americans are not robust enough to raise blood levels to a beneficial level. While ensuring you are meeting recommended amounts is a good place to start, personalizing your Omega-3 intake to meet optimal blood levels is the gold standard.
The only way to know what your current levels are, and therefore, how much to consume to reach ideal levels is with a blood test. An Omega-3 Index test measures the amount of DHA and EPA in red blood cell membranes expressed as a percentage of total fatty acids. A level between 8-12% is associated with better overall health. Testing your current Omega-3 Index and then plugging the results into an Omega-3 calculator can help you find exactly how much EPA + DHA you personally need to reach your Omega-3 Index goals.
Furthermore, it’s advantageous to test 3-6 months after beginning a new supplement routine. Individuals can respond to supplements differently; this way, you can ensure the supplement and amount you choose is working for you. Likewise, you can speak to a trusted health care provider to help guide your dosage and testing decisions. Don’t waste money on a supplement that is not providing you the amount of Omega-3s you need to obtain your desired health benefits.
Step 3: Form = Function
While you can find Omega-3 supplements in capsules, soft gels, or liquids, that is not the only form you need to consider. As mentioned earlier, fatty acids come in various molecular configurations, impacting the way they are absorbed and utilized in your body.
Omega-3s can be found in natural triglycerides, free fatty acids, ethyl esters, re-esterified triglycerides, and phospholipids. Why does this matter, you may ask? It has everything to do with their physical-chemical properties and how easily they are digested, absorbed, and incorporated into human tissues.
Let’s make this as brief as possible to save you from high school chemistry flash backs. Research has found the bioavailability of EPA + DHA from free fatty acids and natural triglycerides to be similar and very good (91%). The bioavailability of re-esterified triglycerides is superior (124%) to natural fish oil, and the bioavailability from ethyl esters is inferior (73%) compared to natural fish oil.
However, more recent research suggests that intake of phospholipids may outperform them all. One animal study found that the incorporation of DHA into the brain, liver, and kidney was more than twice as high from phospholipids compared to triglycerides. Different Omega-3 sources will offer EPA + DHA in different forms, and this can help guide your supplement decision. Use the continuum below to inform your decision.
(phospholipids > re-esterified triglycerides > free fatty acids = natural triglycerides > ethyl esters)
While this is valuable knowledge, don’t get too bogged down in these details. Yes, bioavailability may differ, but consumption of all forms can significantly increase plasma EPA + DHA levels.
Step 4: Choose a Product that is in Line With Your STANDARDS
As discussed in past articles, diving into the supplement industry can be like swimming in murky waters. There is no standardization or regulation of nutritional supplements before they hit the shelves. It is the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure the product is safe, effective, and labeled correctly before it goes to market. This, as you can imagine, leads to many false claims, mislabeled products, and precarious supplements hitting store shelves. Don’t feel hopeless, though; there is a way you can better protect yourself in the intimidating supplement aisle.
Find Omega-3 supplements that are third-party tested or certified by other governing bodies that you value and trust. For example, some organizations that work with or certify companies for sustainability and environmental impact practices include the Marine Stewardship Council, Friend of the Sea and Environmental Defense Fund.
Another certification to look for is the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED). GOED partnerships indicate that the partner company upholds the highest product quality and ethical standards and is tested to ensure standards are being met.
Other third-party testing companies that are common include ConsumerLab.com, NSF International, and USP. Third-Party Testing companies test the product and display a quality assurance seal. A Third-Party Testing Seal indicates the product was manufactured correctly, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants.
The Bottom Line
Every individual is different. Choosing an Omega-3 supplement is like buying a car. Do you want to drive fast? Do you need lots of seats for a big family? Do you want something that’s environmentally friendly? Or is something at a lower cost right for you right now? There is no correct answer for every person.
When it comes to Omega-3s, you get to choose the source and form according to your values and priorities. Is your priority saving cost? Is your priority bioavailability? Is your priority ocean sustainability and conservation? Do you need a source that conforms to your dietary needs? The good news is there is enough variety to fit any need, and at the end of the day, all have been shown to increase levels of EPA + DHA when consumed in adequate amounts. What matters most is that you are reaping the health benefits of a diet high in EPA + DHA. Which supplement will you choose?