How to Purchase Omega-3 Supplements? – Part 1: Comparing Product Labels & Omega-3 Sources.

Not all omega-3 products are made equal.

We are back! — and we missed you. It’s been a while folks. Gotta admit, it’s so easy to get lazy during summertime, especially during the current state of a pandemic as we try to catch every bit of the outdoor fun… What have you been up to this summer? Comment below👇 and let us know! Nevertheless, we’re back and we’re ready to tackle yet another nutrition topic! A continuation of our last post on omega-3, today we’re going to discuss how you can choose the right product for you.

One thing I have been having a lot this summer is pan-seared salmon – it is easy to prepare and makes a perfect summer meal with simple salads. And if you have read our last blog post Omega-3 Supplementation For Liver Health, you would know the other reason I love this dish: the omega-3 fatty acids (EPA+DHA) in salmon😉

In addition to the liver health benefits mentioned in the last post, omega-3s have been widely investigated for other benefits in human health. It will take at least another 10 posts to cover all the researched topics (Should we do that?! Hmmmmm). Just at a quick glance, some of the areas omega-3 health benefits touch on include:

  • Coronary/heart health
  • Brain health
  • Skin health
  • Metabolism
  • Liver health

With the knowledge that omega-3s can be helpful for us, the next question is how should we consume it? It is generally agreed that their consumption is beneficial when:

  • The supplemented individuals have a low omega-3 level to start with
  • Consumed in a substantial dose

EPA and DHA are mostly sourced from diets. A large proportion of the world population doesn’t have the access to frequent consumption of omega-3 rich food (e.g. fatty, coldwater fish), meaning that these people likely have a low omega-3 level if they aren’t taking supplements. Hence many people are taking or considering getting some omega-3 supplements. There are so many options available on the market – different doses, sources, even the chemical composition of omega-3-rich oils can vary.

All the above information now has led to the questions:

Which one to choose out of all the available products on the market?

And what to look for when comparing similar products?

1. Doses

Health organizations and governments have different recommended doses for omega-3, but it usually ranges between 250 – 1,000 mg. Literature shows that, for healthy adults, 500 mg of EPA + DHA (the two main omega-3 fatty acids) per day is recommended for preventing coronary heart disease, and >1 g of EPA +DHA for additional health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and triglycerides [1].

To achieve the above amount of supplementation, we need to understand the amounts of omega-3 provided by our chosen products. Sometimes the product label can be misleading for marketing purposes, making us think it contains more omega-3 than it does.

The product below has a big “1200 mg” on the front of the bottle, but we can’t tell it is enough to meet the 500 mg or 1 g recommendation yet. Why?

The 1200 mg is the amount of fish oil, not the amount of omega-3 (omega-3 is not the only fatty acid in fish oil!). To figure out if this product is enough, we need to look into its nutrition facts table, which looks like this:

The circled line is what really matters. With each softgel, you ingested 1200 mg fish oil, but only 312 mg of the total 1200mg is what you really want. What about the rest fat (1200 – 312 = 888 mg)? They aren’t EPA or DHA and your body likely doesn’t need it. This 888 mg may even be unwanted, depending on the source of this fish oil – we will talk about it next.

2. Sources (and chemical composition)

Omega-3 supplements can be sourced from fish, other ocean organisms, and plants.

Fish oil

Fish oil is the most common omega-3 supplement on the market. It’s extracted by cooking the fish, pressing it, decanting the liquid, and centrifuging (spinning at a high speed) the liquid to separate the oil part [2]. The separated oil is further refined to remove impurities, such as oxidation products, heavy metals, and pesticides [2]. Most fish oil products are extracted from salmon, sardines, anchovies, cod liver, or use a blend of some of these fish oils.

Among oils from different fishes, salmon oil generally has the highest proportion of omega-3 fatty acids. EPA+DHA alone accounts for 30% of salmon oil, while saturated fatty acids account for ~20% and monounsaturated fatty acids ~30% [3]. Salmon is an expensive fish though, therefore the salmon oil is usually extracted from the inedible parts, such as the head, fins, and guts.

Where do salmon fishes get their omega-3? Like humans, they get it from their food. Farmed salmons consume omega-3-rich fish feeds, while in the wild, the salmon fishes eat smaller fishes like herring and other omega-3-rich ocean organisms.

Among the smaller fishes, sardines and anchovies are the most popular for product fish oil supplements, since they are cheaper than salmon yet also good sources of omega-3. In fact, sardine and anchovy oils are responsible for 80% of the omega-3 products on the market [4]. However, you may need to consume more sardine and anchovy oils than salmon oil to achieve the same amount of omega-3. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture database, EPA+DHA alone only accounts for ~20% of sardine oil, which is 10% less than salmon oil. Where does this 10% go? Saturated fatty acids [5]. Anchovy oil is slightly better with ~25% being EPA+DHA, but its saturated fatty acids account for ~32% [6].

Let’s do some math 👀 To achieve 500 mg EPA and DHA, you need:

500 mg/30% = 1,500 mg salmon oil

500 mg/25% = 2,000 mg anchovy oil

500 mg/20% = 2,500 mg sardine oil

That extra 500 to 1,000 mg fat isn’t much compared to our daily fat consumption, but it isn’t necessarily good quality fat nor what we mean to pay for.

Cod liver oil contains only ~18% EPA+DHA, but its saturated fatty acid content is better than sardine and anchovy oils (~23%). Monounsaturated fatty acids account for ~47% of total fatty acids in cod liver oil [7], indicating a better fatty acid profile than sardine oil.

It should be noted that the fatty acid composition of fish oil varies from season to season, and between producers to producers. Moreover, supplement companies have some formulation strategies to improve omega-3 content in their product. The point isn’t all about different fish species, but rather highlighting the importance of reading the nutrition facts table and find the proportion of EPA+DHA in this product 😊

Other ocean organisms

How do small fishes get their omega-3? By now you probably know – from their food, again. This includes krills, and…(drumroll please) their food microalgae, the maker of omega-3!

Not all the microalgae can synthesize omega-3 though (scientific name insert alarm 🔈): the Schizochytrium spp are DHA-rich microalgal species, while Phaeodactylum tricornutum and Odontella aurita are two microalgae rich in EPA [8]. The DHA-rich microalgae have been produced in an industrial scale, but the mass production of EPA-rich microalgae is still under development.

This article by Healthline summarized many good points about microalgae-sourced omega-3 supplements, whose potency is comparable to fish oil supplements. In addition, microalgae have less buildup of impurities, as they are at the bottom of the food chain in the ocean. Something else notable is the environmental sustainability of microalgae [9].

  • They can adapt to different kinds of water due to their ability to tolerate different pH levels and temperatures
  • They grow fast and don’t require too many specific nutrients. Instead, they consume CO2, nitrogen, and phosphorous. Therefore, they can be used for wastewater treatment
  • They can grow in saline waters, therefore their cultivation doesn’t danger our already-limited freshwater resources
  • They can be used as fuel, feed, and food. The omega-3 extracted from microalgae is vegan-friendly

Krills get their omega-3 from consuming microalgae. However, there is an interesting difference between krill oil and microalgae/fish oils – the molecular structure containing omega-3 fatty acids.

In fish and microalgae oils, omega-3 exists in the form of triglycerides, a form of dietary fat that is most commonly consumed in the human diet. In contrast, omega-3 in krill oil is in the form of phospholipids. Phospholipids exhibit amphiphilic properties (= both water- and fat-loving), which assist in the digestion and absorption of fatty acids [10].

Indeed, there are a few studies showcasing the comparable or even superior bioavailability (= ability to be incorporated into our body) of krill oil vs. fish oil [11] [12] [13]. Nevertheless, the sample size in these studies was relatively small, and the other outcomes (e.g. inflammation) were not measured, hence the superiority of krill oil over fish oil is still uncertain and requires more research.

Plant-based sources

People on a vegetarian or vegan diet face a smaller selection of omega-3 supplements. Microalgae oil is a good option, but it could be a bit more expensive and not yet as accessible as fish oil. The other options are plant-based omega-3 supplements.

Something to keep in mind – plants don’t produce EPA or DHA. We can only obtain ALA (= alpha-linolenic acid) from plants, which can be converted to EPA and DHA in the human body, but at a very low rate. Therefore, if you are vegetarian/vegan and not consuming algae products, the only way to get EPA and DHA is to consume a large amount of ALA-rich foods (mostly seeds and nuts). This article by Healthline did a great job summarizing the good sources of plant-based omega-3.

Also, some vegetable oils have high ALA contents, e.g. flaxseed oil (no surprise! ~54%), canola (~10%) and soybean oils (~7%) [14][15]. Nevertheless, if you want to take advantage of their ALA, it is better to use them uncooked to avoid heat degradation/oxidation.

Summary for Part 1

This blog post focused on the dosage and sources of omega-3 supplements. The key messages are:

  1. Not all the oil in the supplement is omega-3 — they only account for a portion of the total softgel/supplement content
  2. Read the nutrition facts table, and get the products with a higher proportion of EPA+DHA
  3. If you’re vegan, choose microalgae-based supplements, or eat lots of ALA-rich food

As a customer, I would love to see the content of other fatty acid groups in the nutrition facts table, which will help me compare the products better and make easier decisions. If you’re interested in knowing more about specific products, Labdoor testing is a great resource showing the quality of omega-3 supplements on the market.

Stay tuned if you’re interested in knowing more about how to choose products with different formats (e.g. softgels, liquid oil, gummies). Stay safe and see ya again soon!