7 Reasons Why the Omega-3 Industry Is on the Wrong Track

By Bo Martinsen, MD
8 years ago

Having worked with omega-3 fish oil as both a physician and a businessman for the past 16 years, I’ve seen the omega-3 industry evolve. In just the last decade, omega-3 has gone from being a little-known supplement mostly consumed in the Scandinavian countries, to a worldwide, multi-billion dollar industry.

I firmly believe that the increased consumption of fresh omega-3 fatty acids has the potential to improve the health of millions. But I see a disturbing industry trend: the rapid shift towards highly processed and heavily concentrated omega-3 capsules at the expense of natural, fresh fish oil.

Why should we be concerned about the concentrated, “pharmaceutical grade” omega-3s that are flooding the market, and how do they compare to natural, high quality fish oils? Concentrated omega-3s fall short by a number of different standards:

How Concentrated Omega-3s Compare:

1. Concentrated omega-3s are chemically modified. 

In order to make concentrated omega-3 supplements, manufacturers have to chemically alter the EPA and DHA omega-3 molecules. Through heavy processing, the EPA and DHA transform into new chemical structures known as ethyl esters. The ethyl esters do not exist in the human body or in nature.

Whenever we are dealing with new chemical structures and substances, we should be skeptical. Since the body has evolved to process fatty acids in a particular way, it will respond differently to chemically modified EPA and DHA molecules than it will to the fatty acids found in natural fish oils. The problem is, we don’t have enough information about how the body will respond to long term consumption of artificial oils. At this time, it is worth noting that pregnant women and children are recommended against using ethyl ester products for safety concerns.

2. There are fewer fatty acids in concentrated omega-3s. 

Fresh fish and cod liver oil contain more than 50 different fatty acids plus metabolites, all of which work together and have specific metabolic effects.

Highly concentrated omega-3 fish oils feature only two kinds of fatty acids: EPA and DHA. While the majority of omega-3 research has focused on EPA and DHA from fish oil, we don’t know how these fatty acids work in isolation. Medical studies on various vitamins suggest that taking a vitamin supplement often provides fewer health benefits than consuming a food rich in the vitamin. Researchers speculate that one reason for the discrepancy may be the body responds better to the synergistic effects of the vitamins found in food than it does to a vitamin acting in isolation in pill form.

In the same way, when omega-3 manufacturers produce products containing just one or two omega-3 fatty acids, they are destroying the natural balance found in fish oil without really knowing how that will ultimately compare to eating fish or taking natural fish oil.

Vitamin supplements typically don’t provide the same healthy benefits as natural food products.

3. Concentrated fish oils have been stripped of naturally occurring vitamins. 

Natural fish oils, like cod liver oil, are rich sources for vitamin A and D, in addition to omega-3. But the process of concentrating omega-3 destroys the naturally occurring vitamin A and D content of the fish oil. Consumers taking concentrated omega-3s thus miss out on the positive health benefits of the vitamins found in natural fish oils.

4. Concentrated products are more likely to contain rancid fish oil. 

In their natural state, the fragile omega-3 molecules are somewhat protected from oxidation by vitamins and a delicate balance of other occurring fatty acids. Concentrated omega-3s, however, undergo hefty processing that destroys the oils’ natural protection system. In order to combat the rancidity problem, manufacturers have to add new antioxidants to the oil. Even so, the concentrated oil is more reactive to oxygen than natural oil. And as a result, concentrated omega-3 products are more likely to contain rancid oil.

5. Concentrated omega-3s are environmentally problematic. 

The process of refining natural fish oil into concentrated versions poses environmental concerns. Consider, for instance, that for every gram of pure EPA/DHA created, 60 percent of the oil goes to waste.

People can easily get the same amount of EPA/DHA found in concentrates by increasing their daily dose of fish oil. So, the question remains: what’s the purpose of misusing fish oil and energy resources in order to make concentrated supplements?

6. Concentrated omega-3s are less cost-effective. 

When you compare the dose of different omega-3 supplements, concentrated prescription omega-3s are less cost effective than natural sources*. Physicians recommend taking close to 3500 mg of EPA and DHA to lower blood lipids. Those 3500 mg of EPA and DHA can be found in a typical eight-ounce salmon dinner serving, a large tablespoon of cod liver oil, or four prescription omega-3 pills. Concentrated prescription omega-3s come out as the priciest option:

– Half pound serving of wild salmon filet costs around $ 5.50

– One tablespoon fresh Omega Cure cod liver oil costs around $ 2.00

– Four capsules Lovaza prescription omega-3 costs around $ 6.00

*Prices will vary depending on distributor, season, and other considerations.

7. Concentrated omega-3s provide no added purity benefits. 

Prescription omega-3s often play up the fact that they do not contain heavy metals and pesticides. But neither do high quality natural fish oils from reputable manufacturers.

We Don’t Need Omega-3 Concentrates

Fish oil brands producing omega-3 concentrates argue that their products contain more EPA and DHA per capsule. Since consumers have to take fewer capsules a day to achieve a clinically effective omega-3 dose, they are more likely to comply with the dose regimen and experience health benefits as a result.

The dose concern is certainly valid, especially since few people are willing to consume the handfuls of capsules a day required to lower triglyceride levels and reduce joint pains.

But the argument falls short when we know people can easily get the same dose of EPA and DHA from non-concentrated forms in just a tablespoon of liquid fish oil. Furthermore, a liquid fish oil should be no less palatable than consuming fish oil capsules. If the oil is truly fresh, it should have no fishy taste or smell and should be easy to add into juices and smoothies.

So, if natural liquid fish oils provide as much EPA and DHA as concentrated omega-3 products, why is the industry increasingly leaning towards concentrates as the wave of the future?

Money of course, is a big part of the equation. It is more expensive to invest in high quality, fresh fish oil than concentrated capsules that can be produced relatively cheaply and have an extended shelf-life of many years.

The Alternative to Concentrated Omega-3s:

Physicians and dietitians agree that eating fresh fruits and vegetables is superior to taking a multivitamin every day. That same principle goes for fish oil. Eat fish five to six times a week or use a fresh, natural fish oil in liquid form for the best omega-3 sources. Those two options are less expensive and more likely to improve your health than highly processed, concentrated omega-3 pills.

Bo Martinsen, MD

Dr. Martinsen is an omega-3 specialist, innovator, and advocate for natural foods. As co-founder and CEO of Omega3 Innovations, he has created multiple patented technologies for medical devices designed to improve consumer compliance. He is also the creator of several medical food products that combine dose-effective ingredients of omega-3 fish oil with soluble fibers and other nutrients. Before Omega3 Innovations, Dr. Martinsen practiced medicine in Norway for 20 years. During his career, he also served as a medical consultant to large international corporations, focusing on stress management and synergistic medicine.

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  • I would like to see some comment on the cooking of fish. I am under the impression that light and heat damage Omega 3 oils yet the containers you show your oil in are clear. Of course if the're in the fridge light is not an issue. Upmarket and boutique olive oils tend to come in dark glass presumably to reduce tendency to rancidity. Some markers on heat would be helpful. Out of interest I skin my salmon splitting the 'dermis' so to speak to encompass the area one would expect the need for omega 3's to be greatest in the physiology of the fish in cold waters.

    • You bring up a very good point by mentioning the impact of light and heat on the quality of an omega-3 product. It is something that we are concerned with and that we do our best to educate people about (you might be interested in reading our blog on how cooking fish impacts the omega-3 content).

      You are absolutely correct that you want to reduce the oil's exposure to light and heat in order to prevent rancidity. With our Omega Cure, however, the product isn't designed to sit on the shelf (in contrast to the boutique olive oils you mentioned). We ship our clear Omega Cure bottles directly to the consumer, and the consumer is instructed to put the oil immediately in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as they receive it. Because of our unique shipping model, the bottle is hardly ever exposed to light. And because we ship our bottles frozen and wrapped in cool packs, we minimize the exposure to heat during the shipping process as well.

      However, we do have new Omega Cure single-serving sized bottles coming soon. Because these miniature bottles are designed for traveling and we're assuming the consumer will keep them outside the refrigerator whilst traveling, the miniature bottles will be amber. The dark glass in this case will help protect the oil.

      That's the logic behind our bottle choices, and I hope it helps answer your question. Please let us know if you have others!

  • question-----where in Venice Fl, does your fish oil actually come from? Fish from Gulf ? Oil from fish pressed locally ?

    • Hi Jim! Our oil actually comes from cod caught off the coast of Norway. I would recommend looking at our "About Our Oil" page here for more information. If you have additional questions, do let us know.

  • I won't deny it; I love to be pedantic :-) Unfortunately your reasoning is incomplete and based on the false premise that your customers will firstly be able to follow your instructions, and secondly that they actually will follow your instructions.

    The truth is that you cannot know the personal circumstances of your customers, but it is reasonable to assume that they willl certainly not all think like you. Though you obviously know your business and make a good product, if I was buying some for my elderly mother, I would rather play it safe and get some in an opaque container, if I thought that exposing it to light would degrade it in any significant way. As I understand it, with flax oil at least, keeping it in the fridge is similar to keeping coffee in the fridge. i.e. it keeps it a bit fresher but is not especially significant if it will be consumed within a month or so. However on exposure to air, I believe that the PUFAs degrade to harmful substances, and I assume that the same thing happens with fish oil? Is exposure to light really that significant?

    • You're right, Jon, that many people struggle with following instructions. But with any product - whether it's medication or fresh foods - you've got to provide the user with the necessary information and hope for the best. In our case, we make it clear that our regular Omega Cure bottles must be stored in the refrigerator or freezer. This is not just because fish oil is sensitive to light. It is also because the cold temperature makes a difference.

      You bring up flaxseed. Flaxseed oil turns rancid too. But fish oil and cod liver oils are more sensitive to oxidation than flaxseed because they contain the highly reactive EPA and DHA (flaxseed only contains the shorter-chained ALA omega-3, which has to convert into the EPA and DHA to be effective in the body). It's a funny phenomenon - the thing that makes fish oil so good for us is also the thing that makes it demanding to work with and challenging to store.

      The more you can minimize a fish oil's exposure to oxygen, heat and light, the better you'll maintain the oil's freshness (of course, you also have to start with a fresh product to begin with for these tactics to make a difference). Exposure to oxygen and heat have the highest impact on the oil, but exposure to light over time also makes a difference.

      We try to teach our customers to handle Omega Cure in the same way they would fresh fish. If you get a piece of fresh fish from your local farmers market, you don't leave it exposed to the sun before preparing it. You put it in the refrigerator when you get home. You are right that this kind of messaging is not foolproof, especially in an age where many people assume fish oil only comes in capsules, don't know how to prepare fish or seafood, and don't eat a lot of fresh food to start. But we believe that this kind of education is the way to make progress.

  • Fish contain heavy metals such as mercury. I believe the purpose of processing fish oil is to get rid of these dangerous components. How do you get rid of the heavy metals?

    • You are right that all fish oils have to be purified to remove mercury and other heavy metals. Our Omega Cure goes through a stringent purification process to remove heavy metals and other pollutants, and this is crucial for safety reasons. You can learn more about how Omega Cure is made and purified here.

      However, there are additional kinds of processing techniques that fish oils are often subjected to beyond purification. For instance, most fish oils are winterized, and others are also concentrated to increase the EPA and/or DHA levels. These are the kinds of processing techniques that we are concerned about and discussing in this blog.

    • Hi Jia, Yes, we are not big fans of omega-3 concentrates. You can learn a little more about why and how different types of fish oil concentrates are made in this blog.

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