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BY Bo Martinsen, MD Jan 14, 2016

Fish Oil, Salmon Oil, Cod Liver Oil, Krill Oil: What’s the Difference?

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Today, the omega-3 industry is specializing more than ever. On the supermarket shelf, you don’t just find fish oil any longer, but a broad range of products under that main heading.

As we get a greater selection of omega-3 products, how do you decide what to pick? One helpful method is to consider the source of the oil.

Regular Fish Oil

Fish oil is in many ways a wide category term. It’s oil made from fish. If you are talking about fish oil, you could mean an oil coming from a particular variety, including cod or salmon. For the rest of this article, however, I’m going to discuss regular fish oil as a specific category, and one that is manufactured in a different way from cod liver and salmon oils.

Where Does Fish Oil Come From?

The great majority of the world’s fish oil is a byproduct of the animal feed industry (1). This includes the capsule products sold at Walgreens and Costco, as well as the fish oil used as a base for pharmaceutical omega-3 oils. The oil comes from anchovy, herring, sardines and mackerel, typically fished off the coast of South America or North Africa. While the fish meat gets ground into pellet feed, the oil is multi-purposed. Some of it goes towards fish feed and pet food. The rest is refined and encapsulated for human consumption.

As the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten explained, there’s usually no quality control differentiation between the oil destined for people and animals prior to refining (2).

Norwegian fishing boat

Although fish oil manufacturers would often like you to believe otherwise, the vast majority of the world’s fish oil comes from South America and North Africa. Because the oil is later refined in Norway, it is often branded as Norwegian, regardless of the oil’s origin story. 


This origin story explains why regular fish oils typically taste and smell bad and often produce ‘fish oil burps’. Since the main goal of the industry is to produce fishmeal, the manufacturers have little interest in maintaining the quality of the fish oil. The oil is usually extracted last and often goes rancid within a short period of time. New techniques enable manufacturers to make the oil taste less offensive. However, you can never restore a rancid fish oil back to freshness.

As for the nutritional profile, these fish oils typically have the highest omega-3 content – up to 30% combined EPA/DHA (3). On the other hand, half of the fats are saturated, or the double of what is found in salmon or cod liver oil.

How Much Fish Oil Should I Take Daily?

Depending on the fish oil product, it typically takes 8 to 10 capsules to get the 3000 mg of EPA/DHA omega-3 recommended for anti-inflammatory benefits. For more information on getting the right omega-3 dose, read this blog.

FISH OIL PROS

FISH OIL CONS

Contains the highest percentage of EPA/DHA.

Byproduct of the animal feed industry.

Typically rancid.

Half of the fats are saturated.

 

Fish Oil vs. Salmon Oil

Salmon oil sounds good. You visualize a beautiful salmon fillet, and imagine you get the same quality you would if you ate wild caught fish. The reality is not as pretty. Because salmon is an expensive fish, it’s the leftovers – head, intestines and fins – that get turned into the oil, not the fillet. To be fair, those parts of the fish are fine to consume, so no negative comments there.

Most salmon oils, however, come from sea farmed salmon, which nutrition-wise is very different from its wild cousin. The fish delivers the same nutrition it gets, and sea farmed salmon typically gets its omega-3s from pellet feed. But how much omega-3? The problem is, it can be hard for consumers to find out what the farmed fish are fed, especially if the fish comes from a foreign country.

salmon oil vs. fish oil sea farmed vs. wild

Is Sea-Farmed Salmon Better than Wild Salmon?

What we do know is that sea farmed salmon usually contain more omega-6 (4) and saturated fats than wild salmon (5). In addition, depending on the type of salmon, the EPA/DHA content is relatively low, typically ranging from 8 to 16% of the oil. That means, you would need twice as many salmon oil capsules to get the same EPA/DHA dose found in regular fish oil capsules. As for getting a clinical dose of 3000 mg EPA/DHA, you would need around 20 capsules per day. That low dose also makes salmon oil more costly per unit than typical fish oil capsules.

On the plus side, sea farmed salmon oil is often fresher than the wild version because the time from harvesting the fish to processing the oil is shorter.

If you happen to find a salmon oil that comes from wild salmon, the fatty acid balance resembles cod liver oil, but contains less omega-3. In addition, wild salmon oil is often rancid because of the long transportation time and because the fish is often stained with blood, which oxidizes the oil.

SALMON OIL PROS

SALMON OIL CONS

Often fresh because of short time from harvest to processing.

Often made from sea farmed salmon, potentially impacting nutritional value.

Less saturated fats than regular fish oils.

Low omega-3 levels compared to other sources.

More expensive per EPA/DHA dose.

 

Fish Oil vs. Cod Liver Oil

Cod liver oil is the original omega-3 source. Already in the 1700s, doctors were recommending cod liver oil for patients with joint pains, although its rich history dates back further (6). Considered a safe food product, cod liver oil is especially recommended for children and pregnant women in countries like Norway (7).

Part of the reason cod liver oil has been used for so many years is that the oil is easy to extract. The cod liver contains its omega-3-rich oil in small vacuoles. When the oil is extracted, there is limited amounts of rancidity-creating blood present. However, since cod liver oil was historically left in open vats and exposed to heat and oxygen, the poor taste became notorious and limited its popularity.

With modern technology and increased focus on freshness, cod liver oil has come a long way. For instance, Omega Cure® is tasteless and can even be used in chocolates and cookies. However, not all cod liver oils are alike. While Omega Cure is a fresh, full-spectrum cod liver oil, store-bought cod liver oils are typically highly refined and often rancid.

Nutritional Benefits of Cod Liver Oil

Cod liver oil is the only omega-3 source that also contains significant amounts of vitamin A and D.*

As for the omega-3s, it typically contains around 20% EPA/DHA, and has only half the amount of saturated fats of regular fish oils. To get a clinical dose of 3000 mg EPA/DHA, you would need to consume one tablespoon (15 ml) of oil or 15 capsules.

COD LIVER OIL PROS

COD LIVER OIL CONS

Long history of medicinal use & safety.

If not manufactured correctly, vitamin A content may exceed dietary recommendations.

Can be a good source of vitamin A, D.*

Less saturated fats than regular fish oils.

Often comes in liquid form, making it easier to get an effective dose.



* The vitamin A and D in modern cod liver oils is typically reduced due to the necessary refining and purification of the oil.

Krill Oil vs. Fish Oil

Although not derived from fish, krill oil is also a popular omega-3 source. So what’s the difference between krill oil and fish oil?

Like regular fish oils, krill oil is a byproduct from the animal feed industry where the main goal is to make feed for chicken or sea farmed fish. Compared to the above fish oil sources, however, krill oil is much harder to extract. The manufacturers typically use solvents to extract the oil. In some cases, the use of these chemicals can have serious consequences. In 2012, for instance, chemicals caused a deadly explosion at one krill oil facility (8).

Nutritional Makeup of Krill Oil

Depending on the product, krill oil typically contains somewhere between 15 to 25% EPA/DHA. Krill oil has become popular because the labels claim you only need one capsule a day. Looking at the research, however, you have to wonder what that one capsule is supposed to be achieving. Even the krill oil manufacturers’ own studies show that you need more than 4 capsules per day to get any meaningful increase of omega-3 in the body (9). And if you look at the amount of EPA/DHA per capsule, it would take more than 20 capsules to reach a clinical dose of 3000 mg EPA/DHA.

Krill Oil EPA/DHA chemical makeup

Krill oil typically contains between 15 to 25% EPA/DHA, although usually significantly less DHA than EPA.


Is Krill Oil As Good As Fish Oil?

So far, krill oil lacks the amount of independent scientific research that cod liver oil and fish oil have in spades. The manufacturer’s claim that the astaxanthin antioxidant renders additional benefits has not been proven, nor that the special phosholipid form makes any difference in terms of bioavailability relative to fish oils (10, 11).

The krill oil manufacturers also struggle with rancidity issues. At the cost of 5 times as much per omega-3 unit than regular fish oil, you’ve got to wonder if krill oil is worth it. Particularly until researchers learn more about its efficacy and safety.

KRILL OIL PROS

KRILL OIL CONS

Claims of better bioavailability, but the jury is still out on this question.

Expensive compared to other omega-3 products.

Solvents are used to extract the omega-3s, raising safety questions.

Not enough independent studies to support manufacturers’ claims of efficacy at recommended doses.

 

What’s the Main Message?

Taking a clinical EPA/DHA dose of any of these omega-3 oils should lower triglyceride levels in the blood and potentially deliver other positive health benefits as well. However, the manufacturing methods, the freshness factor, and the nutritional profiles of the oil will also impact clinical effects.

As you go forth looking at different omega-3 supplements, consider the source of the oil and read the supplement label to determine what kind of a daily dose you would need to consume. And if you haven’t already, try Omega Cure. With the lowest oxidation levels on the market, it is the freshest omega-3 oil available.

You can learn more about how Omega Cure is made here.

fresh full spectrum fish oil dose omega 3 innovations

References:

1. Halvorsen, Johannessen, Ida and Randi. Vi skal jo selge et produkt’: Oljen er produsert i anlegg som lager dyrefor – i Sør-Amerika.” Aftenposten. May 20, 2008.

2. Halvorsen, Johannessen, Ida and Randi. “Nordmenn kjøpte overpriset fiskeolje fra Sør-America for 285 millioner kroner i fjor.” Aftenposten. May 15, 2008.

3. Omega-3 Fatty Acid, Fish Oil, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). WorldHealth.Net. American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. December 30, 2005.

4. Hamilton et al. Lipid composition and contaminants in farmed and wild salmon. Environmental Science and Technology. 2005 Nov 15; 39(22):8622-9.

5. Kirkpatrick, Kristin. Fish Faceoff: Wild Salmon vs. Farmed Salmon. Health Essentials. Cleveland Clinic. March 3, 2014.

6. Guy, Ruth.  The History of Cod Liver Oil as a Remedy. The American Journal of Diseases of Children. 1923; 26(2):112-116. doi:10.1001/archpedi.1923.04120140011002.

7. Kosthold for gravide. Helsedirektoratet.no. November 1, 2015.

8. Neptune at fault in deadly plant explosion, CSST rules. CBC News. May 8, 2014.

9. Burri, Lena. Optimizing the Omega-3 Index with Krill Oil. Superba Krill. Aker BioMarine.

10. Daniells, Stephen. Krill and fish oil supplements equally effetive at boosting omega-3 levels, says DSM study. NutraIngredients-USA. September 10, 2015.

11. Salem, Norman and Kuratko, Connye. A reexamination of krill oil bioavailability studies. Lipids in Health and Disease 2014; 13:137. DOI: 10.1186/1476-511X-13-137.

We put a cod liver oil, krill oil, prenatal omega-3 and fish oil capsule to the taste test. Watch what happens next:

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20 Comments on "Fish Oil, Salmon Oil, Cod Liver Oil, Krill Oil: What’s the Difference?"

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My last Bone Density test (May 2015) was slightly below normal. I was asked to stop my cod liver oil. Could you please tell me why???

Hi–
I have read (if I understand the study correctly!) that it is “oxidized” fish oil fats which have an anti-inflammatory effect. The study said “omega-3 fatty acids, such as EPA, are highly poly-unsaturated and readily undergo auto-oxidation”. It sounds like cod liver oil, with its higher level of polyunsaturated fats that you talk about in the above article, would thus have the anti-inflammatory effect–have I got that right? I am not sure whether this particular anti-inflammatory effect would be applicable to my type-2 diabetes.
Thanks for your thoughtful website articles!

I have been taking Omega Cure for several years but wonder if it is tested for Mercury and other pollutants?

Absolutely, Omega Cure is both purified and tested for mercury and other pollutants. We cover this topic more in-depth on the About Our Oil page in the “Excellent Purity Standards” section: https://www.omega3innovations.com/about-our-oil

If you have more questions about this important subject, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

Does this product increase prostrate cancer developing? Thanks,

Hi Gary. Omega Cure should not increase the risk of developing prostate cancer. It is a GRAS product, meaning it is Generally Regarded as Safe by the FDA. We do understand your concern, however, given the much-publicized study from 2013 that suggested fish oil could be linked with an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. What you should know is that within the scientific community, that study was heavily criticized for its hastily drawn conclusions and poorly designed research protocol (The same study had, amongst other strange conclusions, also found that smokers had a lower risk of developing prostate cancer… Read more »

I am interested in the comparison of Flaxseed Oil to other oils? I have been using Barlean’s Flax Oil , organic pure and unfiltered, freshly cold pressed. It does not contain Vitamin A or D.

Hi Zona, That’s a good question. The reason we didn’t include flaxseed oil in this discussion is that it does not contain the same type of omega-3 you get in the marine-sourced oils discussed above. When you get your omega-3s from flaxseed or other plant sources like walnuts and chia seeds, it’s important to know that these plant sources only contain ALA omega-3, which has significant limitations. To quote from another one or our blogs, 12 Myths about Omega-3 Fish Oil: “In order for the ALA molecules to be effective in the fight against inflammation, they have to be elongated… Read more »

Is it better to have Cod Fish Oil Carlston brand or Omega coming from anchovies and sardines? which of these two is better?
Thanks for your reply,
Nelly

Hello Nelly, Of course we recommend our Omega Cure cod liver oil to you as the best omega-3 supplement. Besides being exceptionally fresh, it is also a full-spectrum oil, meaning it has not been skimmed in the same way as most other cod liver oils and fish oils. You can read more about how Omega Cure compares here. To answer your question, however, we suggest you evaluate the best brand based on these two factors: 1) Is the oil fresh? Taste and smell your chosen brands. Open up the capsules, if necessary. If the oil has a strong fishy smell… Read more »

Hi – I’ve read in a Duke research study by Dr. Stephen Ilardi that the optimal dosage for depression is 1000mg of EPA and 500mg DHA and its multiples (2000mg EPA to 1000mg DHA and so on). I’ve noticed that your products tend to contain a 1:1 ratio. What is your opinion on the dosage for this health issue (and other mental health issues)?

It’s a good question, Jay. Here are my thoughts; While current research indicates that EPA seems to be more effective than DHA for helping patients with depression, DHA seems to play a bigger role for patients with neurodegenerative conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease. Studies using a combination of EPA and DHA also show statistically-significant improvements in symptoms for patients with bipolar depression, whereas trials using just one or the other fatty acid do not appear to deliver the same benefits. The takeaway message is that both EPA and DHA (as well as other omega-3 members, like DPA) are important for the… Read more »
Thank you for your fast reply Dr. Martinsen, That was an interesting study that you linked me. 7 years is a long time and a lot of data. I’ve read that in some trials these high mega-doses have been used for mental illness. However, I’m reluctant to take such a high dose, as 1600mg of EPA seemed to make me feel worse. I am willing to try your product at your recommended dose for some time before passing a judgement on the effectiveness for depression. That is the next best option that I see. I am currently taking this fish… Read more »
It is true, Jay, that taking a high dose of omega-3 can make some people feel unwell. This is most often the case when a person is consuming a rancid, oxidized omega-3 oil (which, unfortunately, includes the majority of the omega-3 products on the market). I’ve discussed some of these issues in a blog focused on cancer patients, who are often recommended very high doses of EPA/DHA: https://omega3innovations.com/blog/omega-cure-with-melatonin-increasing-efficacy-of-cancer-treatment/ Whether you decide to increase your daily dose or not, make sure that the product you take is fresh and non-oxidized, like Omega Cure. Besides getting an effective dose, the freshness of… Read more »

Please tell me omega3 supplement from salmon fish is better or omega3 from anchovy,sardine and mackerel?

Hi Sona, You really have to evaluate the individual products to assess whether they are fresh and how many servings you would need to take in order to achieve an effective anti-inflammatory dose.

Of course, we would recommend that you consider our Omega Cure cod liver oil, which has the best freshness levels of any omega-3 product on the market. It also has no fishy taste or smell, so it’s painless to swallow.

I stay in India and want to know ig you have a distributor in india. Secondly in case i buy the fish oil in USA , can i bring to india. Pl reply.
Thanks

Hi Chalak, We don’t have a distributor in India. But if you buy our products in the USA, you should be able to bring them back in your checked luggage for personal use.

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