As a naturopath and nutritionist, my goal is to help my clients get well. As quickly as possible, as seamlessly as possible and with as little as possible impact on their wallet. Which is why I get SO upset when I speak to clients who have wasted their money on ineffective (and sometimes counterproductive!) supplements.
The natural medicines market is HUGE and growing rapidly. Every day a new product or brand is launched, and the consumer is bombarded with different claims, cheaper prices and promises of a magic bullet. It would take a novel to discuss each individual product, so for today I would like to focus on the key supplement that I see clients being led astray with most often.
Before I go any further, I would like to preface this post by saying that I do like to work predominantly through food and liquid herbal medicines, and it would be my ultimate goal that each client could eventually be taking no supplements. However, there are some conditions that you simply cannot eat your way out of, especially not if you are working full-time or lead a busy life style. For this reason I see that supplementation does serve a purpose, and it is important to get it right!
How is it that you can walk into the supermarket and purchase 200 capsules of fish oil for less than $15, but then walk into a health food store and purchase 60 capsules for twice the price? They are both 1000mg, so surely they must be the same (and the health food store is probably trying to rip you off). Right? SO WRONG!
Fish oil supplements vary tremendously in terms of quality and as such this is reflected in the price.
1. The type of fish that is sourced
Our oceans aren’t as clean as they once were… in fact they are extremely polluted and our marine life are suffering. If you think about the food chain, the further up you go the more toxins are accumulated as the higher species are ingesting the toxins that were consumed by lower species. The toxins are then stored in the fat cells… i.e. the oil component of the fish. Cheaper consumer brands tend to source their oil from large fish. Large fish = more oil = less fish required for greater output. However, this also equals more toxins including heavy metals such as mercury and lead, dioxins and PCBs (aka endocrine disruptors, immune suppressants and carcinogens). Great! The more expensive brands of fish oil have usually been sourced from smaller fish such as sardines and anchovies and therefore contain lower levels of toxicity. They also tend to use more sustainable and ethical methods of sourcing their fish (that is, not sweeping the oceans en masse to get what they want).
2. The extraction process
This is probably more important than the type of fish that is sourced. Cheaper brands of fish oil tend to extract the oil component using heat, chemical processes and under conditions where the oil is exposed to oxygen. Not only does this destroy some of the active constituents (making it less therapeutic), but it also causes the oil to become rancid and PRO-INFLAMMATORY. Yep, the OPPOSITE of why you are taking it.
Ever taken a fish oil and experienced reflux? The most likely reason is not that fish oil causes reflux, it is because the particular oil that you took was rancid. When you open up a fish oil capsule it should not smell fishy. Certainly not strongly so. And while some people are very sensitive and will get reflux regardless of the brand, the majority of us should be fine.
More concerning than this, is the fact that fish oil that has been exposed to oxygen in the processing will become pro-inflammatory. So you know how people talk about anti-oxidants to counteract oxidative stress? Well oxidised fish oil causes oxidative stress. One particularly study concluded that “Oxidised lipids have numerous harmful effects on health, including the potential to increase the risk of atherosclerosis and thrombosis. These effects have been seen with relatively low levels of oxidised product, similar to those that could be obtained from the regular consumption of ﬁsh oil capsules”*. While other studies have suggested that this is not the case, it must be pointed out that those studies were only undertaken for between 3 and 7 weeks… if you think you’re taking fish oil to relieve arthritis or reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease then chances are you are looking to take it ongoing. I must also add that in this trial the fish oil was “artificially oxidised” (not a true reflection of the oil on your supermarket shelf) and was given to healthy subjects – not ones with existing arthritic, cardiovascular, inflammatory concerns.
Superior brands of fish oil use a nitrogen process of extraction which means that the oil is never exposed to oxygen and there is a reduced need for heat. Therefore more of the active constituents are preserved and the integrity of the oil is not compromised.
3. The form in which it is delivered
Now to get a little into chemistry… Retail fish oil products are delivered in an ethyl ester molecular form, which is a synthetic, laboratory derived form, which has only been present in the human diet for the last 30 years (i.e. since we started playing around in laboratories). In this form, the fish oil is LESS bioavailable and therefore less effective in terms of therapeutic outcomes. Have you been taking your fish oil for ages and feel like it is doing nothing? Once you have overcome points 1 and 2, it is time to look at whether your body is ACTUALLY absorbing and utilising it. In the ethyl ester form it won’t be. At least not to full capacity.
Superior brands of fish oil come in the natural triglyceride form. When we look at the years of data regarding the therapeutic effect of fish oil, it is the triglyceride form that is being examined. In fact, new research shows that this form of fish oil will be absorbed up to 70% more than the ethyl ester form**.
The purpose of this article was not to slag or promote particular brands of fish oil, but rather to educate you on exactly what you are getting and why finding the lowest price should not be the only factor in your decision making. As a side note, I personally use the Nordic Naturals brand when I take fish oil, as it vehemently adheres to all of the points above.
As with any supplement, it is best to seek guidance from a practitioner so you that you know you are taking what is right for you. Click HERE to get in touch, or leave a comment below to let me know your thoughts!
*Turner R, et al. Are the health beneﬁts of ﬁsh oils limited by products of oxidation? Nutrition Research Reviews (2006)
**Dyerberg J, et al. Bioavailability of marine n-3 fatty acid formulations. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids (2010)