Omega-3 fatty acids are very important for your health.
If you don't eat a lot of fatty fish, you may want to consider taking a supplement.
However, there are hundreds of different omega-3 supplements available. Not all of them have the same health benefits.
This detailed guide explains everything you need to know about omega-3 supplements.
Fish oil comes in both natural and processed forms.
The processing can affect the form of the fatty acids. This is important, because some forms are absorbed better than others.
- Fish: In whole fish, omega-3 fatty acids are present as free fatty acids, phospholipids, and triglycerides.
- Fish oil: In conventional fish oils, omega-3 fatty acids are mostly present as triglycerides.
- Processed fish oil: When fish oils are refined, food chemists often convert the triglycerides into ethyl esters, allowing them to adjust the concentration of DHA and EPA in the oil.
- Reformed triglycerides: The ethyl esters in processed fish oils can be converted back into triglycerides, which are then termed "reformed" triglycerides.
All of these forms have health benefits, but studies indicate that the absorption of omega-3 from ethyl esters is not as good as from the other forms, although some studies suggest they are equally well absorbed (
Summary Omega-3s come in several forms, most commonly as triglycerides. Some fish oils that are more processed may contain omega-3 ethyl esters, which don’t seem to be absorbed as well.
This is the oil that comes from the tissue of oily fish, mostly in the form of triglycerides.
It’s the closest thing you can get to real fish.
Natural fish oil contains several important nutrients.
Summary Natural fish oil contains EPA and DHA. It also contains vitamins A and D.
Processed fish oil is purified and/or concentrated. It consists of ethyl esters or triglycerides.
Purification rids the oil of contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs. Concentrating the oil can also increase EPA and DHA levels. In fact, some oils may contain up to 50–90% pure EPA and/or DHA.
Processed fish oils make up the vast majority of the fish oil market, as they’re cheap and usually come in capsules, which are popular with consumers.
The body doesn’t absorb processed fish oil as well as natural fish oil when it’s in the ethyl ester form. Ethyl esters also seem to be more prone to oxidation and rancidity than triglycerides (7).
These oils are referred to as reformed (or re-esterified) triglycerides. They’re the most expensive fish oil supplements and only make up a small percentage of the market.
Summary Processed fish oils are purified and/or concentrated. They are more vulnerable to oxidation and less easily absorbed by the body, unless they're converted back into triglycerides via a synthetic process.
Krill oil is highly resistant to oxidation, as it naturally contains a potent antioxidant called astaxanthin (
Additionally, krill are very small and have a short lifespan, so they don't accumulate many contaminants during their lifetime. Therefore, their oil doesn't need to be purified and is rarely found in the ethyl ester form.
Summary Krill oil is naturally low in contaminants and contains a potent antioxidant. It provides EPA and DHA in both triglyceride and phospholipid form, which are well absorbed.
The green-lipped mussel is native to New Zealand, and its oil is usually in the form of triglycerides and free fatty acids.
Other than EPA and DHA, it also contains trace amounts of eicosatetraenoic acid (ETA).
Consuming green-lipped mussel oil, rather than fish oil, is considered to be environmentally friendly.
Summary Green-lipped mussel oil is another source of omega-3 fatty acids. This shellfish contains several forms of omega-3s and is considered to be an environmentally friendly choice.
Mammalian omega-3 oil is made from seal blubber and is in the form of natural triglycerides.
In addition to EPA and DHA, it also contains relatively high amounts of docosapentaenoic acid (DPA), an omega-3 fatty acid with several potential health benefits (
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Bottom Line: Mammalian oil is also a good source of DPA in addition to EPA and DHA in triglyceride form.
ALA is short for alpha-linolenic acid. It’s the "plant form" of omega-3.
Summary ALA oils are made from plant sources and contain both omega-3 and omega-6. They don’t contain any EPA or DHA, the types of omega-3s that are active in the human body.
Marine algae, particularly microalgae, is another triglyceride source of EPA and DHA.
Actually, the EPA and DHA in fish originate in algae, and are then eaten by smaller fish and move up the food chain.
Studies show that algal oil is even more concentrated in omega-3s, particularly DHA, than fish oil.
It may also contain important minerals like iodine.
Furthermore, algal oil is considered to be environmentally friendly and sustainable. It may help serve the growing world population's need for omega-3 fatty acids.
Additionally, algal oil doesn't contain any contaminants, such as heavy metals. This makes it a particularly good option.
Summary Microalgae is a plant source of EPA and DHA in triglyceride form. It is environmentally friendly and considered an excellent omega-3 source for vegetarians and vegans.
Omega-3 oils are commonly found in capsules or soft gels.
These are popular with consumers, since they don't have a taste and are easy to swallow.
The capsules are usually made from a soft layer of gelatin, and many manufacturers also use enteric coating.
Enteric coating helps keep the capsule from being dissolved until it reaches the small intestine. This is common in fish oil capsules, as it prevents fish burps.
However, it can also mask the foul smell of rancid fish oil.
If you take omega-3 capsules, it may be a good idea to open one from time to time and smell it in order to make sure it hasn't gone rancid.
Summary Capsules are a popular way to take omega-3. However, capsules can mask the smell of rancid oil, so it's best to open one up occasionally.
When shopping for an omega-3 supplement, always read the label carefully.
Also check the following:
- Type of omega-3: Many omega-3 supplements often contain little, if any, EPA and DHA — the most important types of omega-3. Make sure your supplement contains these.
- Amount of omega-3: A supplement may say on the front that it contains 1,000 milligrams of fish oil per capsule. However, on the back you’ll read that EPA and DHA are only 320 milligrams.
- Form of omega-3: For better absorption, look for FFA (free fatty acids), TG, rTG (triglycerides and reformed triglycerides), and PLs (phospholipids), rather than EE (ethyl esters).
- Purity and authenticity: Try to buy products that have either the GOED standard for purity or a "third party tested" stamp on them. That shows they’re probably safe and actually contain what they say they do.
- Freshness: Omega-3s are prone to going rancid. Once they go bad, they’ll have a foul smell, and become less potent or even harmful. Always check the date, smell the product, and see if it contains an antioxidant like vitamin E.
- Sustainability: Try to buy fish oil that the MSC, the Environmental Defense Fund or a similar organization has certified. Small fish with short lifespans tend to be more sustainable.
Summary Check your product for type and amount of omega-3. It should contain EPA and DHA in satisfactory amounts, and preferably an antioxidant to combat rancidity.
A regular fish oil supplement is probably the best choice for most people just looking to improve their well-being.
However, just remember that natural fish oil usually consists of no more than 30% EPA and DHA, which means 70% is other fats.
You can also buy supplements that contain a higher concentration of omega-3s. EPA and DHA can be as high as 90%. Look for brands that contains omega-3s as free fatty acids (best), triglycerides, or phospholipids.
Here are a few good omega-3 supplement brands to check out: Nordic Naturals, Green Pasture, Bio-Marine Plus, Omegavia, and Ovega-3.
Summary A regular fish oil supplement is probably enough for most people just looking to optimize their health. If you need large doses of omega-3, take a supplement with concentrated omega-3s.
For most people, a regular fish oil supplement is probably sufficient.
However, make sure the supplement actually contains what it says it does, and pay special attention to the EPA and DHA content.
EPA and DHA are most often found in animal-based omega-3 products. Vegetarian options are available, but they usually only contain ALA. One exception is algal oil, which is an excellent source of quality omega-3s and suitable for everyone, including vegans.
It’s best to take these supplements with a meal that contains fat, as fat increases the absorption of omega-3s (
Finally, keep in mind that omega-3s are perishable, just like fish, so buying in bulk is a bad idea.
At the end of the day, omega-3s may be one of the most beneficial supplements you can take. Just make sure to choose wisely.