Fish Oil Quality

OmegaMatters: Episode 9

Hosts: Drs. Bill Harris & Kristina Harris Jackson

Guest: Gonzalo Caceres 


Background and key takeaways:

In this episode, Drs. Harris and Jackson have a deep conversation about how fish oil is made and how it is used to support both human health and aquaculture. Mr. Caceres walks them both through the complex process of making fish oil and how ordinary fish oil becomes a concentrate. Did you know around 30% of the fish oil that goes into supplements comes from the Peruvian anchovy fishery? Learn about this and more in this fascinating conversation.


Guest Bio:

Gonzalo Caceres:

Gonzalo Caceres is the Commercial Director for TASA, a Peruvian fishing company that provides ingredients and seafood of high quality and added value in harmony with the community and the environment. TASA was founded in 2002 and is the largest producer and exporter of fishmeal and fish oil in the world. In addition, it is one of the leading suppliers of refined and concentrated omega-3 fish oil.



Kristina Harris: Welcome to another episode of OmegaMatters, the little show where my dad and I have a casual conversation about nutrition, research, and omega-3s. My name is Kristina Harris Jackson. I’m the Director of Research at OmegaQuant Analytics, a clinical lab specializing in fatty acid analysis. I’m also a nutritional science researcher and registered dietician.

My dad, Bill Harris, is a world renowned scientist in the field of nutrition, specifically in the realm of omega-3 fatty acids. He founded OmegaQuant and has also founded the newly formed Fatty Acid Research Institute, or FARI for short. He started OmegaQuant about 10 years ago to be able to offer fatty acid testing through the Omega-3 Index to clinicians.

 The Omega-3 Index is a marker of omega-3 intake and a risk factor for cardiovascular disease that Dr. Harris and Von Schacky established in 2004. And recently because of the Omega-3 Index and the creation of that he was determined to be in the top 2% of scientists in the world based on the impact.

Kristina Harris: So that’s us. And today we’re joined by Gonzalo Caceres, who is the Commercial Director at TASA, which is a major fishery and producer of fishmeal and fish oil off the coast of Peru. Gonzalo went to the Universidad Catolica Santa Maria for undergraduate studies in economics, the Universidad de Piura for his MBA, and Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management for business marketing strategy.

 So, he’s very much on the business and production side of things, but still knows a thing or two about the science. He’s been in the fish oil industry since 2012, overseeing the process from fishery, to distillery, to finished product. And we brought him on OmegaMatters to tell us about that process. Thank you for joining us. And if you could start by just telling us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up in this field, that’d be great.

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah. Thank you. Well, I’m very happy to be with you guys and to share my experience with your audience. And yeah, well, I’m with TASA and in this world of the anchovies and fish oil since 2012. And before that I was working in produce and textiles.

So pretty much more than 16 years working in international businesses. And we’re happy to be in this industry, you know? Because finally your work means something, and especially the health of people, you know? So, yeah. And I’m very happy to share my experience with you on this field.

Bill Harris: Yeah. Well, our primary incentive for, I think, reaching out to you to see if we can have a chat about the quality of fish oils. Where do these come from? Are we fishing out the oceans and, you know, destroying all the all the fish in order to feed the world… You know all of those questions. We’re going to take about 20 or 30 minutes just to cover some of those. We appreciate you coming because you’ve got such a big spread of it. So, walk us through what you say to a  consumer when they ask: “Where does fish oil come from?”

Gonzalo Caceres:  Perfect. Well, when you see a fish, I think that people must understand that it’s very similar as the humans in terms of composition, because 70% of the weight of the fish is water and 20- 25% is all the muscle, skin, et cetera, and 5% on other, all right? However, there’s some fish with more percent of fat and that’s where we get fish oil.

This very important because sometimes the consumers or the people in the industry, they think fish oil doesn’t have anything with the fishmeal. But the do because they are coming from the same fish. And the goal of the industry is to maximize the fish.

If you go back 25 years ago, fish oil wasn’t as popular as it is today. You used to have the cod liver oil that everybody used to have then we had products specifically selling omega-3s EPA/DHA.

 Peru is the breadbasket for all the EPA/DHA, and years ago the production of fish oil was probably higher than today. Today, with all of the regulation in place to try to be more sustainable with the biomass, we’re catching less quantity that before so the production of fish oil is lower than before. In the last eight years, Peru has generated 150 thousand tons of crude fish oil.

Creating fish oil starts with the fish, then you cook it and separate between the protein and the fat. That product is the crude fish oil. This production from Peru is 150 thousand tons on average in the last eight years. But if you go back 20 years ago, Peru produced pretty much the double the fish oil we are producing today.

Bill Harris: That’s an interesting point. So, you’re actually not taking as much fish out now.

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah.

Bill Harris: Because you want to maintain the fishery?

Gonzalo Caceres: Yes. I think there’s a learning curve. Because the government is a very important part the industry. I think their regulations are stricter. And I think their understanding of the biomass has dramatically improved over the last several decades.

At Tasa, the core value that we have as a company, I think in Peru as well, as an industry, is to ensure the sustainability. We want to stay in the business for a long time (laughs). So, it’s better to take care of the biomass.

The Peruvian government has done very good work in the last years. And in 2007 or 2008 we made the quota systems an changed the regulations completely. As a result, the number of boats decreased more than 50%. And the factories as well. And everything is under control today.

Twice a year the government, before the quota is announced, they make a study for 45 days to assess the conditions of the sea, the health of the biomass, et cetera. And based on that they define if we have a quota or not, and how much that quota is going to be based on the total biomass. And it’s usually no more than 25% to 30%.

So, why I’m telling you all this? Because there were so many years, especially when we had the Nino years, where the government said, “We are not going to open the season.” And we are talking an industry of more than a billion dollars here. So, when a government has that power and this is backed by the industry, that’s where you can see how big of a role sustainability plays.

Bill Harris: Do those roles apply around the world? Or is that just Peru?

Gonzalo Caceres: I think more countries are following this example. But not all. And not every species. That is the big challenge I think for the future, you know, how all the countries can apply similar rules.

Bill Harris: What percent of the total raw fish oil comes from the Peru, Chile, from the Pacific coast of South America?

Gonzalo Caceres: Let me come back to that.

Bill Harris: Okay.

Gonzalo Caceres: If you go back 25 years, Peru was probably the most important country supplying fish oil. We used to burn the fish oil as a fuel.

Kristina Harris: Oh my gosh.

Bill Harris: Fuel?

Gonzalo Caceres: It was not the market that we know of today. We used to export a lot of fish oil as a margarine base. This was 20 years ago.

Gonzalo Caceres: And then the game changer was two things. The industry was the aquaculture, especially in the summer. They needed a very good base of fat as energy, with EPA and DHA. And then there is also the industry we know today in supplements and pharmaceutical with EPA/DHA.

Gonzalo Caceres: So that changed in the last 20 years.

Bill Harris: What’s the separation between how much omega-3 product goes to humans and how much goes to fish?

Gonzalo Caceres: So, coming back to your question about production. Usually, the production of fish oil around the world is very technical. You can produce in the world more than 1,000 tons of fish oil globally. The question is: How much of that is omega-3 DHA? That’s a completely different question. Because there’s a lot of fish that doesn’t have very good quantity of EPA/DHA. So, what IFFO does is measure the total production of fish oil with some quantity of EPA/DHA inside. That is the thousand tons that I’m telling you.

Bill Harris: Oh, okay.

Gonzalo Caceres: From that, Peru represent 25-30% of the total production of fish oil.

Bill Harris: Oh.

Gonzalo Caceres: So it’s big. But what’s most important is when you measure EPA/DHA production. And we estimate that it’s less than 200 thousand tons of only EPA/DHA.

Gonzalo Caceres: And the other thing is that based on the production of EPA/DHA for supplements. And I think they take no more than 20% of the total fish oil that is produced.

Bill Harris: 20%?

Gonzalo Caceres: 20%. Yeah. And the other 70% is aquaculture.

Bill Harris: Oh, okay. So most of it goes to feed other fish.

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah. And big example is farmed salmon.

Bill Harris: Yeah.

Gonzalo Caceres: Farmed salmon consumes more EPA/DHA than the supplement industry.

Gonzalo Caceres: By far.

Bill Harris: Yeah. That’s very interesting.

Gonzalo Caceres: Because the goal is the same at the end of the day. You as a consumer, what you want is to have EPA/DHA in your intake daily. No matter if it’s a supplement or it’s a salmon or any kind of food.

Bill Harris: Yeah. Right. So, on the supplement side we hear about fish oil supplements, we hear about omega-3 concentrates. What the difference between those things?

Gonzalo Caceres: So, you start with a crude oil that is the raw material.  After that you have the, what you have to do is clean the product. That is because if you see the color of the crude fish oil, it’s like black coffee. So very, very black.

Bill Harris: Really?

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah.

Bill Harris: Oh, okay. I think I have a picture you sent me. Let me put this screen up.

Gonzalo Caceres: Yes.

Bill Harris: You see that?

Gonzalo Caceres: So that’s the crude oil. The crude oil is as not as yellow as you see in the picture. It’s actually black.

Bill Harris: Uh, I was just looking at something else. So it’s not that yellow, huh?

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah. It’s more dark. The first part of the process is to neutralize and bleach the oil. So you take out all the free fatty acids at the core. You know what I mean?

Bill Harris: Okay.

Gonzalo Caceres: Then, the next step is what we call the molecular distillation process where you take out all the PCBs and different contaminants so the oil is clean.

Bill Harris: And how are you protecting the EPA and DHA from being degraded in this process?

Gonzalo Caceres: We control the temperature. If you control the temperature well, you are not going to degrade the oil. You are going to maintain the same molecular structure. You only are going to clean the oil. That’s it.

Bill Harris: Okay.

Gonzalo Caceres: The other part that is the winterization process. Because there will, if you put it as, I don’t know, minus five or zero you’re going to have two parts — the olein, that is the liquid part of the oil, the one that is in the soft gels. And then you have the stearin, which is the solid part at some lower temperature. The winterization process separates the two fractions.

Bill Harris: So it’s simply cooling.

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah.

Bill Harris: That’s what winter comes from, I guess.

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah. So, the stearin is the margarine. If you want to call it that.

Bill Harris: Okay.

Gonzalo Caceres: So the oil that is the liquid part, you put it through to the next process that is the blending and drumming because we usually export the product in drums. And we ship everywhere the world. So, our customers that are the main soft gel manufacturers and brands, what they do is take this oil and with that oil they do the final soft gels that you can find in the stores.

Bill Harris: Okay. And this is 18/12 oil?

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah. It’s 18/12 oil. But what’s important is how much EPA/DHA you have.  So, it’s at least 26-260 milligrams per gram in one gram of oil.

Bill Harris: How much does the EPA/DHA value vary by season?

Gonzalo Caceres: When you talk about the 18/12 it’s a specific ratio of 160 milligrams of EPA and 100 of DHA. But there’s another oil on the market that is called standard oil, that they don’t make the differentiation between EPA/DHA, it’s total quantity of EPA/DHA, which is 260 mg.

Bill Harris: And that’s unique to anchovy?

Gonzalo Caceres: Yes.

Bill Harris: Are there fish oils that are, natural fish oils that are more DHA than EPA?

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah. Especially tuna. Tuna has way more DHA than EPA.

Bill Harris: Oh, interesting. Okay.

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah.

Bill Harris: Okay.

Gonzalo Caceres: Between Peru, Turkey, and Morocco we have 40% of the total production of DHA.

Bill Harris: Oh.

Gonzalo Caceres: And if you add the north of Chile you can go to 45-50% of the market.

Gonzalo Caceres:So it’s concentrates — these oils are concentrated in only few- few countries. So all the other oils around the world, they start with 22%. Peru and Morocco, we have 28%, 30%.

Bill Harris: Nice.

Gonzalo Caceres: So, for the standard oils, yes, you only qualify as Peru and Morocco for that kind of product.

Bill Harris: Okay.

Kristina Harris: I always thought it was very cool that the cold water fish need the omega-3s ’cause they’re in such cold water. And it allows them to be flexible. So your winterization process, kind of demonstrates how important those unsaturated fats are to the actual fish. But then you’re talking about the waters that most of these fisheries are in, and the Pacific can get quite cold.

Gonzalo Caceres: Yep.

Kristina Harris: None of these places are, like, in Antarctica or Norway. They’re not in the cold.

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah.

Kristina Harris: waters you think of.

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah.

Bill Harris: Well, in Turkey…

Kristina Harris: If we did have more fisheries up there, would those be potentially richer in EPA and DHA? Or is there, kind of, that ceiling on 30%?

Gonzalo Caceres: I think that the highest is the 30% that is coming from Peru. I haven’t seen anything higher than that. And Bill had a question about the different kinds of profiles that we have during the season. And this is incredible because every season is different. And when you see how much oil we produce per season, we can go from 2% to 6%. And this is the same production (laughs). It’s the same process and everything. ‘Cause the fish, sometimes they swim more and they- they burn more fat.

Kristina Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gonzalo Caceres: So that’s why it changes a lot. And the profile is between the north of Peru, and the center, and the south — it’s completely different, completely different.

Kristina Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gonzalo Caceres: So that’s why we have to work hard to blend one profile with another profile to try to serve our customers. You know? But this is the challenge — trying to forecast what the profile is going to be.

Kristina Harris: Wow (laughs).

Gonzalo Caceres: Uh, yeah.

Bill Harris: Right, right. So, this is concentrated oil.

Gonzalo Caceres: So we already talked about the crude oil and all the processing that you have to do to put it in a soft gel for refined oil. So then what do you do with a standard 18/12 oil or refined oil?

Bill Harris: Yeah.

Gonzalo Caceres: You’re taking a 200 and 60 milligrams per gram EPA/DHA in your body.

Bill Harris: Okay.

Gonzalo Caceres: And what all the different institutions and research recommend is that you should take at least more than half a gram per day of EPA/DHA. So if you want to incorporate that you need to take at least two to three soft gels per day.

Bill Harris: Of these things, right, the standard oils.

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah, yeah. But you can do it.

Bill Harris: Yeah.

Gonzalo Caceres: But then people said, “No, but we want to take less fish oil. We only want to take the EPA/DHA and we don’t want to take a big soft gel, much less three. We want only one.” So that’s where the concentrates play a part.  So the process is pretty much, at the beginning, it’s the same because you start with the crude oil. You have to clean it, you have to do all of the molecular distillation. And then you do the ethylation because that’s the part where you have to change the structure from triglycerides (TGs) to ethyl esters.

Bill Harris: Okay.

Gonzalo Caceres: Because that’s the only way that you are going to concentrate more EPA/DHA in the same gram. And that involves different technologies. So everything is depending on what is the amount of concentration. You know? Because the first we have is the 18/12. Then you have the double strength that is the 33/22. Then there’s some iteration to 36/24, 40/20, 50/20. And now you can go up to 95% or more with the concentrates.

Bill Harris: Wow.

Gonzalo Caceres: The easiest way to know how concentrated your oil is would be to look at your label on the soft gels. You have to add EPA/DHA and add in the total fat. And that’s where we are going to see how concentrated it is.

Kristina Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Bill Harris: Okay. So what does SPD stand for?

Gonzalo Caceres: The SPD is a technology.

Bill Harris: So, it’s a distillation technology?

Gonzalo Caceres: Distillation, yeah.

Bill Harris: Okay, so obviously the more concentrated it is the more expensive it is ’cause you got more processes to go through. Right?

Gonzalo Caceres: Yeah, it is more expensive because of the yield. When you start with a crude oil you have 28% or 30% of EPA/DHA and you want to take it to 90%, there is more cost to do it, okay, the energy, and the technology, and everything. It’s all about how much you are not going to use from the raw material. So, all that waste is going to be very expensive.

Kristina Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Bill Harris: Oh yeah.

Gonzalo Caceres: So you have to see the whole, you know?

Kristina Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Bill Harris: Yeah. Right, right.

Kristina Harris: What are the other uses for the extra fish oil?

Gonzalo Caceres: There is a lot of oil that we use for aquaculture as well. Because at the end of the day you have a lot of energy in the fish oil. But, you know, it’s not going to be the same value as the EPA/DHA. Right?

Bill Harris: Right, right.

Kristina Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gonzalo Caceres: If you compare, for example, the seed oil that the feed companies use for aquaculture, the price is sometimes 40% or 50% less than the fish oil. So that tell’s you the value of only the EPA/DHA content of the fish oil.

Bill Harris: Yeah, yeah. How low, I mean, I assume salmon requires EPA and DHA just for optimal health and growth.

Gonzalo Caceres: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Bill Harris: Is that level still being met when they’re blending vegetable oils in with fish oils?

Gonzalo Caceres: Yes, yes.

Bill Harris: To feed the salmon?

Gonzalo Caceres: I think the salmon industry has made very good investments throughout the years to try to optimize the formulation. And I think they have a ratio, if I’m not wrong, between 7%-6%, to 8% of EPA/DHA in the formula to try to meet the health requirements of the fish.

But it also has to do with your value proposition to your customers. Ten years ago when you went to the doctor they said, “Hey, you need to get more EPA/DHA, so eat salmon,”  And not really to take a fish oil supplement. You know? So, yeah. There is a lot of that.

Bill Harris: Yeah. Right, right. So what’s the future look like in terms of other sources of EPA and DHA besides fish?

Gonzalo Caceres: Well, I think I think the world is growing. And we would like to have all the market based on fish oil and everything from Peru, but it’s (laughs) not going to be possible. You know? So we need to give people more alternatives.

We don’t believe that algae oil is going to substitute for fish oil. I think they’re part of the same industry. And we have to work together in the formulation. So, I think the challenges that I see is that we have to tell more customers what we are doing.

Bill Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gonzalo Caceres: I think we have to tell them. And I think the brands need to market that very clearly and tell their customers where the oil is coming from.

Kristina Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gonzalo Caceres: You know what I mean? Because if you see a label and you see, okay, fish oil and they’re going to say anchovy, sardine, mackerel, tuna, or the combination of everything, I think we can do way better than that.

Kristina Harris: (laughs)

Bill Harris: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gonzalo Caceres: I want to know as a buyer that the fish oil that I’m buying is coming from Chile, from Peru, from Morocco, from wherever.  So I think there’s a lot of work that we have to do as an industry. And it is going to start with us as a fishery.

Another thing is that we have to find way more ways to deliver EPA/DHA to the public, regardless of whether it is fish oil, algae oil, whatever. Because at the end of the day it’s not only a business,  we are trying to improve people’s lives.

Bill Harris: Right.

Gonzalo Caceres: So as many people take more EPA/DHA it is going to be better for them.

Bill Harris: Yeah. That a great point to end on think. So we probably better wrap up. Kristina, you got any final comments there?

Kristina Harris: No. That was really fascinating. Thank you for making that clear…

Bill Harris: Yeah.

Kristina Harris: just bringing your real world perspective to it.

Bill Harris: That’s right.

Bill Harris: Well, thank you Gonzalo.

Kristina Harris: Yeah.

Gonzalo Caceres: No, thanks to you guys. And anything you need let me know.

Kristina Harris: Happy week.

Bill Harris: Happy week to you too. Stay safe. Take care.

Gonzalo Caceres: Bye-bye guys.

Bill Harris: Bye-bye.

Kristina Harris: Bye.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This test is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, prevent or mitigate any disease. This site does not offer medical advice, and nothing contained herein is intended to establish a doctor/patient relationship. OmegaQuant, LLC is regulated under the Clinical Laboratory improvement Amendments of 1988 (CLIA) and is qualified to perform high complexity clinical testing. The performance characteristics of this test were determined by OmegaQuant, LLC. It has not been cleared or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.