A doctor asked me today how fish oil companies handle the contaminants, pollutants and heavy metals that are found in our fish supply. He asked if fish oil supplements were purified. He asked me because he hadn’t known anyone to ask.
The question took me by surprise as I forget that doctors don’t know these things, and they usually don’t have qualified people to ask. Doctors are trained in the use of drugs, not nutrients. If doctors don’t know, how can they educate their patients?
What follows here is my answer:
Most of the fish oil on the market comes from sardines and anchovies. These small fish are omega-3 rich and not endangered.
The fish oil sold at ‘big box’ and ‘volume’ stores is referred to as commodity fish oil, it is the inexpensive/volume priced product and provides 12-30% omega-3. This fish oil is slightly filtered slightly and put into capsules. Most of the mercury is usually removed especially since this toxic metal is ‘on the radar’ of consumers. These inexpensive products may or may not be oxidized (rancid). They tend to have an ‘off’ flavor (oxidation and contaminants) but they are cheap. They also tend to have trans fats, saturated fats and cholesterol; if only 15-30% is omega-3, what is the rest? It is other fats. Compliance with patients is usually low with these products and this bad flavor/unpleasant experience is the unfortunate experience of many people.
Fish oil concentrates, offering 50% or more omega-3 (EPA and DHA) go through a multi-step purification process (beginning with chilling to remove saturated fats, then clay filtering, etc) and then are distilled to concentrate the EPA and DHA. As the level of omega-3 increases, the amounts of other fats are reduced. These products are handled with much more sophistication, as the challenge lies in maintaining freshness through the concentration process. Flavoring may be added, and natural antioxidant stabilizers, such as d-alpha tocopherol, are added. These products cost more, but the benefits are many: more omega-3 per capsule, less unhealthful fats, avoiding free radical pro-oxidants, and of course the greatest benefit, significantly better patient compliance. These products don’t need to be coated to ‘hide’ or ‘mask’ oxidation and bad flavor.
The other challenge is that folks may be taking 1 gram of fish oil, unaware of how much omega-3 they are getting. 1 gram of commodity fish oil can provide 120-300 mg of omega-3. 1 gram of better fish oil provides up to 700-800 mg omega-3. That’s up to 6 times as much in one capsule. There are only a few companies who offer these products. The company I work for is one. The amount of omega-3 consumed makes all the difference – to nutrition status, restoring health and reducing chronic disease. It is sad to watch people take omega-3 supplements, believing that they are doing themselves some good, when in fact, they are not getting enough of the product, or they are getting a poor quality product. Would you eat bad fish for good nutrition?