It’s estimated that around 4.5 million people in the UK regularly take fish oil. It’s the one supplement that consistently stands up to scrutiny over its health claims and has been studied in over 14,000 clinical trials. The reason we take Omega 3 is for the two fatty acids, EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) – essential for good health for many reasons.
There’s little debate over whether it’s important in our diets, however the importance of how we get it (and from where) is not widely known. Even people who take great care over the quality of the food they buy and the things they put on their skin are often unaware that buying a cheap Omega 3 capsule from the supermarket is not a good health choice, and indeed not a good financial choice.
So, how do we choose from the hundreds of products available?
To make that judgement, you’re reliant on manufacturers providing clear and transparent information plus your own research (highly time consuming). I’ve done all this work for you and with this article I hope to give you a clear check list for choosing an Omega 3, hopefully making the selection process simple and easy.
Number 1: Purity – where’s the evidence?
With growing concerns about toxicity in fish (the Norwegian government has recently gone on record warning people not to eat too much farmed salmon), this is a real concern. Sadly, due to the state of our oceans, fish can carry high levels of pollutants like mercury, lead, arsenic, PCBs and dioxins. Surely all Omega 3 supplement manufacturers would ensure the highest level of purity? Unfortunately, not so.
There’s no regulation around using terms like ‘pharmaceutical grade’, ‘unrivalled purity’ or ‘high strength’.
Any product of any quality can make those claims. If a supplement claims to be third party tested or certified, you should be able to read the test results. There should be hard, written evidence. Manufacturers also have “Certificates of Analysis” which gives information on all aspects of the oil, from purity to freshness to strength. When I was researching brands for my own family, I only found one brand in the UK that publishes results.
Conclusion: look for a brand that publishes its Certificates of Analysis (COA) or that publishes third party tests such as the The International Fish Oil Standards programme (IFOS).
Number 2: Strength – how much EPA & DHA per dose?
The average amount of EPA & DHA per dose across a selection of leading brands is 427mg. It’s misleading because so called ‘High Strength’ 1,000mg capsules actually only contain about 25% to 30% EPA & DHA.
The average Greenland Inuit eats around 18,000mg a day of Omega 3 where there is virtually no cardiovascular disease. The majority of the clinical trials we read about in the press, that show good results from supplementing Omega 3, use daily doses of around 3,000mg of EPA & DHA and sometimes more.
Here’s an example: For normal blood pressure, 3,000mg per day of EPA & DHA is the recommended dose (EFSA approved claim). If you took a well known, average priced, 1,000mg capsule this is what it would mean:
2 capsules contain 214mg of EPA & DHA, so you’d need to take 28 of them!
Now, that’s 28 x 1,000mg capsules of which only 214mg is EPA & DHA and the remaining 22,000mg (22g!) is just fish fat or even sunflower oil (which is too high in Omega 6, a separate blog on this subject to come!).
You would have a pretty upset stomach. You’d be consuming 220 calories. It would cost £2.38 a day. I repeat, that’s 28 capsules!
Conclusion: read the label to see exactly how much EPA & DHA per dose. You’ll find that not many brands make this clear and often it’s not even stated. Reputable brands are transparent about what exactly you’re getting for your money.
Number 3: Freshness & stability – is the oil you’re taking rancid?
This is very important – for taste, digestibility and adverse effects of rancid fats on our system. We take Omega 3 for its anti-inflammatory benefits, but it’s a pro-inflammatory agent if rancid.
Fish oil is highly volatile and oxidizes very quickly. If an Omega 3 tastes awful or repeats on you, it’s almost certainly rancid. Unlike liquid, encapsulated products can hide the initial taste of rancid oil but after digestion the telltale sign is the fishy burp. Also, it’s a good idea to steer clear of liquids with lots of other things added – what flavour are they trying to mask?!
Now this isn’t something that would be stated on the label, but the Certificates of Analysis or third party test results would tell you the levels of peroxide, anisidine and total oxidation. IFOS only award a 5 star rating to oils that fall well below the cut off point for oxidation.
Conclusion: look for supplements with third party accreditation and published results and avoid very low budget brands. It costs much more money to purify and handle the fish oil carefully and companies cut costs to boost profits.
Number 4: Type of fish used – are they small & sustainably fished?
Look for brands that use small fish like Mackerel, Anchovy and Sardine. They have shorter life spans, don’t eat other large fish and therefore have fewer pollutants in their flesh. Tuna, for example, from which many supplements are made is very high in mercury (pregnant women and children are advised to eat it sparingly) and is also an endangered species. Good brands will openly state the type of fish used, if there’s no information on the pack and it just says ‘from fish’ it’s probably tuna or salmon. Also, look for a brand that only uses Friends of the Sea or IFFO-RS certified fisheries.
Conclusion: read the ingredients to see which fish are used, if it doesn’t say – don’t buy it.
Number 5: Natural triglyceride (TG) or Ethyl Ester (EE) form?
Most encapsulated supplements are Ethyl Esters, if the pack doesn’t state TG form then it probably isn’t. Ethyl Esters are much cheaper to manufacture but are a type of synthetic fat, not easily recognized by the body and a type of alcohol that the liver has to process. Supplements in the triglyceride form (the natural molecular structure of fats) have been shown to have 70% more absorption and are easier on the stomach.
Conclusion: look for TG on the packaging, if it doesn’t say it’s TG – it most probably isn’t.
Number 6: Added ingredients – what else has been added?
All you need is the fish oil, a bit of Vitamin E for stability and if it’s liquid, there’s usually citrus oil added for flavour. Obviously, added active ingredients like Vitamin D are OK. Look for things like sunflower oil and other unnecessary bulking agents, some brands are naughty and pad the fish oil out with other things to make up a ‘high strength’ large capsule.
Conclusion: look for brands with as few ingredients as possible.
Number 7: Cost – what’s the price per gram of EPA & DHA?
Don’t just look at the cost of the pack, look at how much you’d need to take each day to get the dose you want. Then calculate the cost per day and the cost per gram of EPA & DHA.
Conclusion: it’s the EPA & DHA you want, so look at how much that costs.
So, that’s the checklist for buying an Omega 3 fish oil. There are many reputable brands – you just have to know what to look for. They do cost more than the bargain buckets of capsules in supermarkets and the like, but those cheap ones are a false economy and could actually be doing you much more harm than good.
Written by Melanie Lawson for That Girl™
About the author
Melanie Lawson is the founder of Bare Biology, specialising in the highest quality Omega 3 fish oil for purity, strength and taste. Their first product, Lion Heart, was launched in September 2013 and is the only British brand to be certified by the International Fish Oil Standards programme and has ten times more EPA & DHA than standard brands.
Melanie is a mum of three who, like many entrepreneurs, spotted a gap in the market when researching products for her own family. Her previous career in marketing, plus her love of quality food and good health came together in her quest to make Omega 3 supplements as they should be.
Lion Heart is available from barebiology.com, Liberty London & other select retailers.
That Girl says…
Full disclosure: we received complimentary samples of Lion Heart but this is NOT a sponsored post. We only write about or collaborate with brands who we truly believe in and would indepentantly choose for ourselves and clients. We love Lion Heart fish oil here at That Girl HQ and 100% recommend it as the best fish oil product we;ve come across on the UK market!