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Choosing The Right Omega-3 Supplement

Choosing The Right Omega-3 Supplement

Article by Arnie Gitomer

Choosing The Right Omega-3 Supplement

The health benefits of omega-3 oils are now readily recognized. New research continues to support the value of increased intake of these healthy oils. Increasingly, people are consuming more fish and taking omega-3 supplements. This is a good thing. But as the popularity has grown, so has the array of different, and competing, omega-3 supplements on store shelves.

This has led, inevitably, to confusion. Choosing the right omega-3 supplement is increasingly complicated and difficult. Our good friend, Jack Challem, “the Nutrition Reporter,” a frequent guest on our Willner Window radio program over the years, has written an informative and concise article that should help you better understand some of the differences between various types of omega-3 supplements. We are reprinting some of the highlights of that article below.

Before we do, here are some additional points you should keep in mind:

One source of confusion is the use of “fish oil” when people are talking about dosage. This occurs far too often, and can be very misleading. Talking about a 1000 mg dose of “fish oil,” for example, is almost meaningless. You really need to know the “strength” of that “fish oil.” There are many types of “fish oil,” and the amount of omega-3's in that fish oil is what is really important. It can vary widely. So to be meaningful, when talking about dosage, the amount of omega-3's, or EPA-DHA, is what should be provided. And this is what you should look for on a label. One thousand mg of “fish oil” does not mean one thousand mg of EPA-DHA. Look at the label carefully, and look for the amount of EPA and DHA per capsule (or spoonful). This is what’s important, and this is what you need to use when comparing one product to another, and when calculating your dosage.

There are two ways to increase the level of EPA-DHA in a supplement. One way is to simply increase the size of the capsule. This, of course, is self limiting, as too large a capsule becomes difficult to swallow. The second way is to concentrate the EPA and DHA by removing other components of the oil. If you are looking for the highest potency of “therapeutic” EPA and DHA, you are not concerned with the other fatty acids (omega-6 and omega-9's, for example) that would normally be found in fish oil. Highly concentrated supplements now provide as much as 900 mg of omega-3's in one softgel. Some examples are Solgar’s “Omega-3 950" and Natural Factors “Ultra Strength RxOmega-3 Factors.”

Here are some of the comments made by Jack Challem in his article, “Omega-3 guide: how to choose a supplement”

“Omega-3s can reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer, ease your aches and pains, and improve your mood. But as the products on the shelf multiply, choosing an omega-3 supplement has become downright confusing. Use this glossary to guide your purchase.

“EPA and DHA: These acronyms stand for eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. You need both of these omega-3 essential fatty acids: EPA has stronger anti-inflammatory benefits (read: heart health, joints), while DHA seems to improve brain development and memory. They work together to promote good moods, but EPA seems more helpful for depression. Check labels for about a 2:1 ratio of EPA and DHA per serving—as opposed to just “fish oil,” which can also contain saturated fat.

“Fish sources: Except for salmon and cod-liver oil, most omega-3 supplements come from small species such as anchovies and sardines. Distillation processes make fish oil supplements largely free of heavy metals and contaminants—not the case with many fish we eat.”

This is important. You often hear comments like “don’t take supplements–instead, it’s better to eat healthy food, properly prepared.” Sometimes, the supplement is healthier than the food from which it is derived. This is one good example. Fish often contains contaminants such as mercury. Fish is often “farm raised,” rather than wild. Fish is often not what you think it is. Recent reports continue to reveal gross mislabeling and misidentification of fish. The purification that takes place as part of the “concentration” process is a valuable bonus.

"Whole" omegas: This term, along with full-spectrum and minimally processed, can sometimes be as slippery as, yep, a fish. All omega-3s are extracted via a distillation process, so take the minimally processed claim with a grain of salt. Some “whole” products contain blends of ingredients you probably don’t need, such as omega-9s (plentiful in olive oil). Small amounts of omega-5, -7, and -8 may be just window dressing—you’d need far more to see benefits. Some products also contain added astaxanthin, a reddish antioxidant found in certain algae and salmon that may have antiaging effects.

“Phospholipids: Phospholipids are found in all cell membranes in the body; the omega-3 fats bound to them help keep the membranes supple and may have an advantage when it comes to uptake by the body. Krill and a few fish-oil products (Jarrow PhosphOmega, . .) are phospholipids. The more common triglyceride form—found naturally in fatty fish and flaxseed—must be digested before it enters the bloodstream, but research shows  triglycerides just as effectively treat most conditions, with one exception: people with mood issues, because phospholipids have additional brain benefits.”

Phospholipids is becoming a very popular term in the supplement business. Variations of the term are being used, and you probably think this is some type of new, sophisticated “wonder-supplement.” Supplements containing “phospholipids” are being sold in various forms, alone and in combination with other supplements. This is all well and good, but you might be surprised that the source of these “phospholipids” is none other than one of the oldest nutritional supplements found on health food store shelves–lecithin. Yes, that good old standby, soy lecithin. The oil, that you used to buy in softgels or bottles, contained the equivalent of about 62% phospholipids. And the product long sold as “granular lecithin” contains the equivalent of 95% phospholipids, or phosphatides.

Soy lecithin, and the phospholipids it contains, has historically been used in the food industry (as well as supplements) as an emulsifying agent. The cell membrane, critical to optimal body function, is make of largely of phospholipids. This explains the potential value of lecithin phosphatides as a supplement.

“Krill: Omega-3 supplements sourced from these tiny crustaceans have much less EPA and DHA than fish oil, but proponents say that because krill’s Phospholipids form is better absorbed, they offer similar benefits. There’s still very little human clinical research on krill supplements, so it’s not yet clear they’re better than other omega-3 sources, and they can be more expensive. Krill sustain ability also remains hotly debated. Producers and an international regulating body say current krill harvests are sustainable, but some environmentalists contend they may reduce a key food source for ocean species, including endangered penguins and whales.”

Many people make the mistake of thinking that omega-3 oil supplements from Krill are vegetarian. I’m not sure why. Krill are “tiny crustaceans,” like shrimp. These are animal, not plant.

“Vegetarian or vegan omega-3s: Plant oils, such as those from flaxseed and chi, contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the “parent molecule” of EPA and DHA. Although ALA has some health benefits, most people’s bodies convert very little of it to more research-backed EPA or DHA. Vegetarians seem to have a higher ALA conversion rate.    

“Algae—where fish get their EPA and DHA—is a rising plant source for omega-3s. Sustainably farmed, free of ocean contaminants, and vegan, algal oil supplements now offer DHA as well as both EPA and DHA. Are they as effective as fish oil? Aside from doses, the DHA and EPA are identical to those in fish oils (and krill).”

The quotations above, again, are from an article by Jack Challem (

Jack also recommends that when you buy omega-3 supplements, you store them in the refrigerator or freezer. I don’t usually recommend refrigerating supplements in general, but this is one situation where it would probably not hurt, and might indeed extend the shelf life–especially on liquid supplements after the bottle has been opened. He also suggests “Buy reputable brands from a trusted retailer who sells fresh products.” I agree. I might add that you should look at the expiration date, especially if it is a reputable, or well-known brand.

Jack advises that you take your omega-3 supplements with food that has some fat to stimulate bile secretion, which enhances fat absorption. Good advice. In the light of my comments above on lecithin and phospholipids, if you take lecithin, it would be good to take it at the same time you take your omega-3 supplements.

Don Goldberg