Omega-3 Fats - What to Look for While Choosing a Supplement

supplement of Omega-3 fats - Nutrova

Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important to our well-being. They play many roles in our body, including regulating inflammation, immunity, heart health, and brain function. Their varied set of health benefits affect every age group – right from even before our birth, to a ripe old age [1].

The diversity of India is also reflected in our cuisine, with Indians following a range of diets, including but not limited to vegetarian, vegan, and non-vegetarian.

Despite the variety of foods that all of these diets would include, dietary sources of omega-3 fats have dwindled over the years. Omega-3 fats are primarily found in fatty fish, and people who don’t consume this regularly (at least 2-3 times a week) are likely to have a difficult time getting an adequate amount of these essential fatty acids [2].

In that case, taking a supplement can be a quick and convenient way to get more omega-3 fats for all their health benefits!

Choosing an omega-3 supplement can get tricky; a huge number of options are available in the marketplace, with varying degrees of the quantity, purity, and types of omega-3 fats they contain.

So, here are some features of an omega-3 supplement that you can keep in mind while picking one that’s suitable for you:

The Source [3]

1. Fish oil

As the name suggests, fish oil is derived from fish. The important omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are normally sourced from fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, and anchovies.

Fish oil is healthy to consume if it has been purified, tested for pollutants (like heavy metals), and meets all the points that we will cover in this blog.

How to choose of supplement of omega-3 fats - Nutrova

2. Krill oil

Krill oil is extracted from Antarctic krill, a small shrimp-like aquatic animal. Krill oil has the same omega-3 fatty acids (EPA + DHA) as fish oil, usually in smaller proportions.

3. Algal oil

Algal oil is sourced from marine algae. It’s an excellent source of DHA (and has EPA in smaller amounts) and is suitable for everyone, including vegans.

EPA and DHA are mostly found in fish-based omega-3 products. Vegetarian options of omega-3 fats usually contain just ALA, with the only exception of algal oil. Algae is actually the primary source of EPA and DHA; it’s eaten by smaller fish, which then move up the food chain by being consumed by the fatty fish that we generally consume!

As of now, of all the three sources above, fish oil provides us with the highest amount of omega-3 fatty acids.

The Purity

The purity of fish oil can be calculated by the amount of omega-3 fats it contains. Fish oil supplements usually mention their content to be 1 g (or 1000 mg) of fish oil on the front of the packaging, but the nutritional information on the back of the pack shows the amount of EPA and DHA it contains. The total EPA+DHA would amount to the majority of omega-3 content present in it.

Typically, fish oil capsules have a purity of about 30% EPA and DHA– for example, a standard 1000 mg capsule of fish oil has only 180 mg EPA and 120 mg DHA. The remaining 70% of the (usually large) capsule is other fats and fillers. Then there are the ‘triple strength’ fish oil capsules, which have about 60-70% EPA+DHA. These capsules are even bigger, with the remaining content generally being saturated fats [4].

Here’s how to read a nutrition label for an omega-3 supplement and determine its purity:

How to choose of supplement of omega-3 fats - Nutrova
  1. Start Here: The serving size is the amount of fish oil (capsules/quantity) you’d have to consume to receive the mentioned dose of EPA and DHA. High-purity supplements of fish oil contain more EPA and DHA in fewer capsules or servings.

  2. Look at the omega-3 ‘Total’: omega-3 should be the most prevalent form of fatty acids in each dose. If the ratio of fillers and other fats is more than omega-3, then it may not be the best quality option.

  3. Add the EPA and DHA Levels: EPA & DHA are the major reason one supplements for omega-3. Also, the higher the EPA + DHA content, the fewer the fillers and other fats in the capsule. Fish oil usually contains a higher amount of EPA and DHA, as compared to algae and krill oil.

The Form

There are three forms of marine oils (oil derived from aquatic sources) – triglyceride (TG), ethyl ester (EE), and free fatty acids [5].

The free fatty acids form is very prone to oxidation (which makes it rancid), so the TG and EE forms are often used in fish oil supplements. Between them, the triglyceride (TG) form of fish oil is generally touted for being more bioavailable than the ethyl ester (EE) form. However, several studies show no difference in absorption [6, 7, 8, 9, 10]. Differences in test materials, subjects, analyses, and duration generally make it hard to compare the efficiency of both forms. The claim that the TG form is, in any clinically significant way, more advantageous or beneficial than the EE form (or vice versa) is controversial at this time.

For now, it’s safe to assume that both the TG & EE forms have similar biological outcomes, and can be chosen for supplementation.

The Dosage

Supplementing with 300 mg of EPA + DHA, which can be found in a typical fish oil supplement, is probably enough for people looking to add some omega-3 into their diet.

Having said that, a dose of 900-1000 mg of EPA + DHA would significantly help optimise our overall health [11].

There is limited data about this in India, but a smaller fish-consuming population tends to have an O3I (short for Omega-3 Index, a metric used to show the levels of omega-3 fats in our red blood cells) of about 3-5% – much lower than the recommended ≥8% for good heart health [12]. If you wish to or need to consume a higher dose of omega-3, then choosing one with higher purity would be ideal and easier to consume.

The Capsule

While knowing what’s inside your supplement is important, there are other attributes that make consuming a supplement, especially fish oil, more convenient and likeable.

  1. Size of capsule

A typical 1000 mg fish oil capsule is about an inch long, and half an inch wide. Any triple strength fish oil capsule would be even larger (more than 1 inch long and about half an inch wide). If you have trouble swallowing a large capsule, it would be ideal to pick smaller-size capsules. A higher purity would be an absolute plus since it would limit the number of capsules you’ll need and/or the amount of fillers that come with a lower-purity one.

  1. Coating of the capsule

Post-consumption fishy burps are something that often dissuade people from taking fish oil capsules. Even algal oil, which is a vegan source of omega-3 fat, tends to smell and taste fishy.

To avoid the fishiness, you can look for an ‘enteric-coated’ or a ‘burp free claim on the product. Enteric-coated means that the capsules disintegrate lower in the gastrointestinal tract, and therefore don’t give a fishy aftertaste or a fishy burp [13].

Moreover, disintegrating in that area also improves its bioavailability – which, ultimately, ensures that a higher amount of you're consuming is being put to actual use by your body!

The Shelf Life

How to choose of supplement of omega-3 fats - Nutrova

Marine oils are very prone to oxidation, which causes the rancid off-flavour and degradation of essential nutrients, affecting their sensory and nutritional qualities, and their shelf life.

The shelf life of omega-3 can be affected by a few things, including but not limited to the temperature. Check the expiry date, storage instructions (most brands recommend storing below 25 degrees celsius, so it would make sense to store it in the refrigerator), and smell the product to check whether the capsules are good to consume. A foul smell is a strong sign that they’ve gone bad, which makes them less potent and possibly even harmful.

The Testing and Processing

Fish oil is processed through either molecular distillation, enzymatic processing, or CO2 extraction, in order to remove harmful contaminants and avoid rancidity [14].

One important contaminant to check for are heavy metals. These are natural elements present in the earth’s crust and in our food insignificant amounts. However, their multiple industrial, domestic, agricultural, medical, and technological uses have led to their widespread distribution in the environment. This has made their concentration higher in our food supply, including in fish and marine algae.

Some of these heavy metals, like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, have a high degree of toxicity and are considered harmful beyond certain doses. Health authorities have cut-off values for metal contaminants, beyond which the food is not considered safe for human consumption [15]. Testing these levels are important for safety. It is a good idea to ask for this data from sellers if it isn’t available on their website/store. Third-party analyses can help confirm the absence of heavy metal contaminants as well.

Knowing your supplement is crucial, whether it’s omega-3 or any other nutrient. Check for the aforementioned points and you’ll be able to find yourself a suitable omega-3 supplement.

If you’d like to know how to choose other supplements, let us know in the comments below. In the meantime, stay healthy!

Dr Meghna Motwani, Ph.D.

Dr Motwani is Nutrova’s Head Research Scientist with a PhD in Stem Cell and Biomaterial Research. She led India’s one-of-its-kind clinical study, where the effects of oral consumption of collagen were evaluated on several skin health parameters. She is the brain and backbone of research at Nutrova with her work published in the prestigious Nature Materials and Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology.

More by Dr Meghna Motwani

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