Omega 3:Is Your Fish Oil Poisoning You?
You’ve been told to take it for everything from heart and brain health to supple skin and eye disorders. Heck, you even take it to ease sore joints and ease both depression and anxiety.
You hear terms like ALA, EPA, and DHA, as well as three versus six versus nine. And, if you are really in tune, you may even read about mercury toxicity, proper ratios, and environmental sustainability.
In fact, you take this must-have supplement daily, maybe even several times a day. But, what exactly are you taking?
Are you choking down toxins, taking a product made from a poor-quality or ineffective source, or maybe even destroying the environment in your quest for optimum health?
In short, are you truly supplementing your health or simply lining some manufacturer’s pockets?
All Fish Oil is Not Equal…
It’s no wonder people are on the fish oil bandwagon. It is a well studied, scientifically researched, and medically proven supplement that is commonly used and recommended by doctors and medical practitioners to help treat and prevent a wide range of medical conditions, including heart disease, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, cognitive function, inflammation, arthritis, eye disorders, and skin conditions.
Most of these health benefits are due to the incredible health benefits of omega-3 essential fatty acids, most notably docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
EPA is best known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-coagulation effects, making it a critical tool for maintaining heart health. DHA, on the other hand, is most commonly credited with brain and eye health.
Given all the benefits of fish oil, it’s also no wonder that more and more companies are hawking their supplements, claiming that this one or that one is the best, purest, fanciest, etc. But what are they basing this one?
Very little it turns out.
To truly find the best fish oil supplement, there are several things you first need to consider:
- Oil source
- EPA/DHA ratio
To get to the heart of the matter, we need to review each of these in more detail.
Let’s Go Fishing…
When it comes to fish oil, the sourcing seems simple right? Clearly, fish oil comes from fish. But here’s where it gets tricky.
See, there are several fish that are especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including salmon, tuna, mackerel, halibut, swordfish, cod, catfish, flounder, grouper, mahi mahi, anchovy, sardines, herring, and trout. Of these, herring, sardines, mackerel, salmon, halibut, tuna, and swordfish each provide anywhere from one to two grams of omega-3 per three-ounce serving.1
In the past 10 years, two other sources of fish oil have become quite popular: krill oil and squid oil.
Krill is considered a premium source of DHA and EPA. They are small crustaceans that live in the icy waters of the Antarctic near the South Pole.
Krill spend most of their lives eating algae and plankton. And, thanks to their favorite red algae, krill also contain s a powerful antioxidant called astaxanthin. Shrimp, lobster, salmon, and other red-hued seafood also contain astaxanthin, though not nearly in the density that krill does.
Squid oil is another good source of both DHA and EPA. Also known as calamari oil, squid oil’s main claim-to-fame is that it is the most concentrated source of DHA. Fish oils typically contain more EPA than DHA, but the reverse is true for squid oil.
In fact, typical fish-based fish oil supplements typically contain 18 percent EPA and 12 percent DHA, though more purified (read higher in EPA and DHA) fish oil supplements are sometimes available.
When it comes to krill oil, some studies have shown that krill is more effective than fish-based oils. Specifically, the effect of krill oil, at a lower dose of EPA and DHA (62.8 percent), was demonstrated to be similar to that of fish oil.2
Another study, this one a 2004 trial from McGill University in Canada, found that krill oil reduced LDL cholesterol by 34 percent and increased HDL cholesterol by 43.5 percent, as compared to a placebo. Conventional fish oil, on the other hand, reduced LDL cholesterol by 4.6 percent and increased HDL cholesterol by 4.2 percent.3
It is important to note that while this study did have a decent number of participants (120), the type of krill oil used (Neptune krill oil) was manufactured by the same company that funded the study. This should not take away from the findings of the study, but it does underline the necessity of having the study replicated by an independent third party.
Now that we’ve discussed the different sources of fish oil and examined their EPA and DHA concentration, let’s turn our attention to a critical consideration: toxins.
Want Some Fresh Fish With a Small Side of Toxic Mercury?
There is a bit of a catch-22 when it comes to fish and omega-3s. See, one of the reasons large, predatory fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel are rich is omega-3s is that they eat up other fish that are also high in omega-3s, therefore boosting levels in the predator.
Good, right? Yes, but with a price. See, fat stores hold toxins. So, the fattier the fish, the greater the likelihood of toxins. And the bigger the fish, the higher the concentration of toxins.
The risk is so great that the FDA actually recommends limiting consumption of certain (predatory) fish species (namely albacore tuna, shark, king mackerel, and swordfish) due to high levels of toxins.4 Chief among these toxins are:5
- Dioxin (found in many herbicides)
- Chlordane (used a pesticide)
If all of these toxins can be found in large fish, it stands to reason that they could end up in fish oil supplements made from these fish. Turns out, that can be the case when it comes to less expensive, more cheaply produced brands.
According to a March 2010 lawsuit filed by a California environmental group, eight brands of fish oil supplements contained excessive levels of PCB’s.6 These brands included CVS, Nature Made, Rite Aid, GNC, Solgar, Twinlab, Now Health, Omega Protine, and Pharmavite. The majority of these products were made from either cod liver or shark liver oils.
It is important to note that toxicity in fish oil supplements is quite rare. The reality is most toxins accumulate in the flesh of the fish, not the oil. That, combined with refining and processing, usually results in safe supplements. This was confirmed in 2006 by an independent test of 44 fish oils on the US market that found all of the products passed safety standards for potential contaminants.7
And when it comes to mercury, a 2003 report from Harvard Medical School found that, in the five brands of fish oil they looked at (including the CVS brand), there were “non-detectable” to “negligible” amounts of mercury.8 They felt this suggested that either the mercury is removed as part of the manufacturing process or that the fish sources used are low in mercury.
One option is to choose supplements made with smaller fish. For example, sardines and anchovies are very rich sources of fish oil, and they are at significantly lower risk of toxic contamination than salmon because they’re much lower on the food chain.
Ditto for krill and squid. Krill oil is less likely to be polluted because they live in the cold, clean waters of the South Atlantic and lead shorter lives than many of the larger fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel. This gives them less of an opportunity to absorb pollution from the water they live in.
Similarly, squid tends to have a short life cycle (about 450 days). Therefore, they are less likely to accumulate toxins in their bodies.
This shorter versus longer lifespan leads us to the next consideration. What cost does our quest for great health have on the environment?
Avoiding the Scorched Earth Mindset…
When it comes to fish-sourced omega-3s, the majority comes from salmon, tuna, herring, sardines, and anchovies.9 As a result, the growing demand for fish oil has seriously depleted stocks of these fish. Worse yet, in an effort to reduce the risk of toxicity, many fishermen opt for smaller fish, which is a threat to ocean ecology.
On the flip side, there are farmed fish and fisheries, but these raise a whole other barrel of issues. Most notably, farmed fish are frequently given antibiotics, fed grain versus algae and other omega-3 rich foods, and have higher toxin levels. According to a 2003 report from the Environmental Working Group, farmed salmon has the highest levels of PCBs. This was reinforced by a January 2004 article in Science, which found that farmed Atlantic salmon had higher levels of PCBs and other toxins than wild Pacific salmon.10
When it comes to krill, the industry seems to have pulled away from harvesting wild krill, due to ecologic concerns. The main issue is that krill is a critical food source for penguins, seals, and many whales. For this reason, krill oil may come from krill that have been farmed. Yet, even when harvested in the wild, krill is considered to be more sustainable than the harvesting of the fish utilized to acquire fish oil.
On the squid front, the fact that squid tend to have a very short life cycle indicates that there is likely a constantly renewing supply. As such, experts believe there is little to no threat of over-fishing.
So much to think about! Sources, toxins, environmental concerns, and even EPA/DHA concentrations. But that’s not all. You also need to think about who is approving your supplement as safe for consumption.
Like all things with fish oil, it’s not as straightforward as you might think.
Safe? Says WHO?
There are three different organizations that test and approve fish oil products. They include the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Fish Oils Standard (IFOS).
Throughout their history, the CRN and WHO have written the last word on acceptable standards regarding contaminants in fish oil. However, many people feel that these standards are not strict enough, especially for those wishing to take large doses of fish oil, namely more than a gram.
This is problematic, because as you’ll see when I discuss dosing, the average person frequently takes more than a gram a day. However, the CRN and WHO recommend one gram only, due to contamination risks.11
For this reason, Nutrasource Diagnostics, Inc., in Ontario, Canada, created the International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) program. This is widely considered to be the most stringent current standard in fish oil safety.
The IFOS program evaluates fish oil supplements along five parameters:
- Passes all CRN/WHO testing categories;
- Greater than 60 percent omega-3 concentration;
- Oxidation levels less than 75% percent of CRN standard;
- PCB levels less than 50 percent of CRN standard; and
- Dioxin levels less than 50 percent of WHO standard.
Now that I’ve given you a lot to think about, let’s distill it down and talk recommendations.
Your Best Fish Oil Solution…
When it comes to choosing an actual fish oil supplement, look for one that contains a blend of small fish (anchovy and/or sardines), krill, and/or squid. The squid is particularly important due to its high DHA concentration. These oil sources also have the lowest risk of toxicity and the least impact on the environment.
Next, the supplement should include some vitamin E to help prevent oxidation, as well as B vitamins, which help your body absorb, convert and metabolize omega-3s. Finally, you’ll want to choose a product that has been given the IFOS seal of approval.
Once you’ve narrowed down your options using these criteria, you have one more factor: EPA and DHA concentration. The amount of EPA and DHA present in a supplement determine the dosages for that supplement. It is also a point of major difference between a good quality and a lower quality supplement.
A good quality supplement provides a higher concentration of EPA and DHA, while a lower-end supplement provides you with lesser concentration. For example, a lower quality supplement containing 1 gram of fish oil may provide just 180 mg of EPA and 120 mg of DHA, while a high quality product may have two to three times those amounts.
This is particularly important when you consider dosages. Even the FDA recognizes that up to 3,000 mg (3 grams) of omega-3s a day is safe.12 Therefore, the greater the concentration in EPA and DHA per supplement could mean the difference between 10 pills a day and four to six. Given this, when checking concentrations, aim for products that contain at least 150 to 200 mg of EPA and 350 to 400 mg of DHA.
But, like sunshine, too much of a good thing can be problematic. If you have liver disease, diabetes, fish or seafood allergy, or are on blood-thinning medication, check with your doctor before using fish oil, as it can have negative consequences for some people.13
And, most important, remember to keep an open mind to new ideas, but ALWAYS do your own homework…and combine that with common sense to figure out what’s best for YOU.
1Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids. American Heart Association.
2Ulven, SM et al. Metabolic Effects of Krill Oil are Essentially Similar to Those of Fish Oil but at Lower Dose of EPA and DHA, in Healthy Volunteers. Lipids. 2011;46(1):37–46.
4“Fish Consumption Advisories”. EPA (2007-01-31).
6Lawsuit says fish oil supplements contain PCB, San Francisco Chronicle. March 3, 2010.
7Product Review: Omega-3 Fatty Acids (EPA and DHA) from Fish/Marine Oils. ConsumerLab.com. 2005-03-15.
8Foran, SE et al. Measurement of mercury levels in concentrated over-the-counter fish oil preparations: is fish oil healthier than fish? Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2003 Dec;127(12):1602-5.
10Landau, E. Farmed or wild fish: Which is healthier? Cnn.com.
12Can you overdose on DHA and EPA? DHA/EPA Omega-3 Institute.
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