Fish oil is now the most commonly used non-vitamin, non-mineral supplement in the USA, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (1). But as omega-3 fish oil has grown in popularity over the last decade, so has the misinformation and confusion about this powerful nutrient.
Let’s clear up 12 of the most common myths about omega-3 fish oil supplements, focusing particularly on dose, source, and freshness.
Reading about omega-3 in popular health magazines, we get the impression that there are lots of ways to get these essential fatty acids — salmon, flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, etc. But not all of these sources provide the same value.
When we talk about omega-3, we’re talking about a family of fat molecules. Only fatty fish and breast milk contain all the different members of the omega-3 family, including the best known EPA and DHA molecules. On the other hand, plant sources of omega-3, like flaxseed or chia seeds, contain only one type of omega-3 – ALA.
In order for the ALA molecules to be effective in the fight against inflammation, they have to be elongated to EPA and DHA. This conversion step is more difficult and limited than most people realize. For example, you’d need to drink about a cup of flaxseed oil to get 1 teaspoon worth of EPA (2). This is why eating fatty fish or taking cod liver oil is more effective than flaxseed in putting a damper on inflammation and why the vast majority of omega-3 research has been conducted on fatty fish and fish oil.
Eating fatty fish is a wonderful way to increase your omega-3 intake, but it’s important to know that the amount of omega-3 you get from eating fish can vary dramatically (3). Factors like what the fish ate, the time of the year it was caught, and how you prepare your fish dinner can have a significant impact on the omega 3 fatty acid content.
Take, for instance, the question of what the fish ate. In the wild, a salmon eats in the same way the species has for millennia. While you get some dietary variations, you can expect a wild caught salmon to contain omega-3. In a fish farm setting, however, the fish eat whatever food they are given. In many cases, this can be a grain-rich diet devoid of omega-3. When that grain-fed fish ends up on the dinner table, the consumer doesn’t get much omega-3 either. While there are good farm-fisheries out there that feed omega-3 to their fish, you as a consumer have no way of knowing what you are getting without doing careful research.
It’s important to know that what you do in your own kitchen can also do damage. For instance, some studies suggest that frying fatty fish, like tuna, can reduce the omega-3 content of a fillet by 70 to 85 percent (4). That’s why it’s important to be aware of how your cooking techniques can also impact the omega-3 content of your meal.
Just as with medications, most studies show that you need to reach a certain omega-3 threshold dose to experience benefits. What is that threshold dose?
For reducing pain and inflammation, numerous studies show that the omega-3 molecules’ anti-inflammatory benefits require consuming at least 2700 mg of EPA/DHA daily for at least 3 months (5). In terms of capsules, that’s the same as swallowing 8-10 regular fish oil capsules every day, or drinking 1 tablespoon of liquid fish/cod liver oil.
Looking at other touted omega-3 benefits – like improved cognitive health – studies again reveal the need to reach a certain dose before results kick in (6). If you are getting too little omega-3, it’s unlikely you’ll see much of a result from the supplement. That’s why, if you are first going to spend the money on fish oil supplements, it’s best to fully commit to taking an effective dose every day.
An individual’s omega-3 dose requirements depends on many factors, including the age, genetics, and diet. For instance, a person eating less refined foods containing pro-inflammatory omega-6s will often need less omega-3. Perhaps the most important dose determinant, however, is the person’s clinical condition. The more aggressive the person’s inflammation, the higher the omega-3 dose needed to combat it.
When you eat fresh seafood, you don’t expect it to taste or smell fishy. In the same way, truly fresh fish oil has no fishy taste or smell. If your oil tastes and smells fishy, it has started to oxidize and turn rancid.
Besides tasting and smelling bad, rancid fish oil is concerning from a health perspective too. Rancid fish oil is likely toxic, and may increase the risk of cancer and heart disease when consumed regularly (7).
To check whether the oil is rancid, break open the capsule to taste and smell the oil inside. You can also measure an oil’s rancidity level by looking at its oxidation values. Fresh fish and fish oil have oxidation levels (TOTOX values) below 5 mEq/kg. Omega Cure has a TOTOX value typically around 3 to 4 mEq/kg when bottled, which explains its excellent taste.
If you don’t know the freshness measurements (peroxide and anisidine values) of your omega-3 supplement, the best way to assess the freshness is to taste and smell the oil. Break open your capsules to check what’s inside.
Foul-tasting fish oil burps are a typical symptom of rancid fish oil. When a manufacturer brags about a special capsule system or technology that prevents fishy burping, however, they are not necessarily saying that they have corrected the rancidity problem.
Regardless of whether or not your fish oil capsules make you burp, break them open. Taste and smell the oil inside to check whether the oil is still fresh.
Fish oil should be thought of as any other fresh product. If you buy a gallon of milk and let it sit in the sun for a day, it will turn rancid in a few hours, no matter the expiration date. The same rules apply to fish oil. If fresh fish oil is stored in the freezer, it can easily hold for up to a year. But if you leave fish or fish oil out in the bright sun or exposed to open to air, it will quickly spoil.
Unfortunately, studies show that most fish oils have turned rancid long before their stated expiration date (7, 8). Therefore, the best way to assess the quality of your fish oil supplement is to use your taste buds – just the same way you’d assess another fresh food.
Every fish is fresh in the beginning,and every fish oil turns rancid at one point or another. An expensive brand does not guarantee quality.
To determine the quality of a fish oil supplement, look at the source of the fish, read up on how the fish were harvested and the oil processed, examine the dose needed to achieve results per serving size, and – of course – taste and smell the oil.
Yes, the freshness of a fish oil is crucial for both having a good taste experience and for gaining health benefits. And yes, the omega-3 industry has set limits for how oxidized an oil can be. But consumers should know that these numbers are set by the manufacturers themselves and help retailers get the products to consumers before expiration.
Consider this: Fresh fish has a peroxide value (PV) below 1.0 mEq/kg. You would have a hard time eating it if the value was above 2.0 mEq/kg because as the peroxide values increase, so do the taste and smell of the oil. Despite this, the omega-3 industry sets the cut off limit at 5 mEq/kg (9) – considerably higher than what most consumers would be able to tolerate! It is fully possible to manufacture fresh fish oil with PV values close to that of fresh fish, but that necessitates the manufacturer paying strict attention to protecting the oil from the time the fish is caught to the time the bottles arrives at the consumer’s home.
Concentrated omega-3 oils are popular because they deliver higher amounts of the effective EPA/DHA molecules per capsule serving size. But concentrated fish oils have a dark side too.
First of all, to create concentrated omega-3 fish oils, the manufacturer destroys the oil’s natural fatty acid balance, leaving consumers without the full spectrum of the omega-3 family, as well as the other nutrients found in the natural oil. In addition, the manufacturing process often includes using solvents and extreme heat that may produce trans fats in the oil. Finally, concentrated omega-3 oil is more likely to be rancid because the oil contains more reactive DHA or EPA molecules.
In comparison, natural liquid fish oils allow people to get the same EPA/DHA dose found in concentrated fish oils in just a few teaspoons. And if the oil is fresh, consumers typically have an easy time drinking the oil straight, without the need for that capsule encasing.
Omega-3 manufacturers often write about EPA/DHA ratios, based on the idea that different omega-3 molecules provide different benefits for the human body. For instance, EPA seems to be especially effective for lowering inflammation, whereas DHA is most important for brain function.
However, concentrating on the EPA/DHA ratio ignores the fact that all nutrients act through gene expressions and work together in the body to complete a complex series of reactions (10). EPA and DHA do not operate alone. They need each other – as well as the other omega-3 members and nutrients – to deliver optimal health benefits.
It is not essential to have oils that predominantly contain EPA or DHA. But it is essential that your oil provides all the fatty acids and nutrient substrates so the body can choose what it needs.
If a nutrient can help relieve chronic pain and dry eyes, fight depression, improve cognitive function, and reduce the risk of dementia and certain cancers, it’s got to be too good to be true, right?
To understand why omega-3 delivers many different health benefits, it’s important to understand how omega-3 works in the body. Omega-3 molecules make up a portion of the cell membrane and are crucial for cell nutrient and waste exchange. They are also involved in the signaling between cells in the brain, help regulate or balance the body’s immune system, and act as an attachment system for cell membrane receptors.
It is estimated that omega-3 is involved in more than 10% of all cellular metabolic actions. No wonder fish oil, which is the most potent source of omega-3 fatty acids, can help produce varied and widespread effects in the body.
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8. Albert BB et al. Fish oil supplements in New Zealand are highly oxidised and do not meet label content of n-3 PUFA. Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 7928 (2015) doi:10.1038/srep07928
9. Fish Oil Standards/Testing Limits from Leading Organizations & Experts. NordicNaturals. http://www.nordicnaturals.com/images/pdfs/ChartTesting.pdf
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