The persistent message that omega fatty acids are good for us is loud and clear, but what does this mean and why are there so many different types of omegas? Of the hundreds of options, how do you know which are the best sources for your diet and the ideal supplements for a specific ailment?
Maintaining sufficient levels of ‘good fats’ in the diet has been associated with a plethora of health benefits, from reduced cardiovascular disease and healthy brain function to enhanced longevity. It’s no wonder that so much attention has therefore been given to the benefits of increasing certain types of these fats in our diets. With such strong scientific evidence highlighting the health benefits, numerous ways of enhancing omega-3 intake now fill the shelves making it difficult to know which one to choose.
In addition to recommendations of increasing oily fish intake (as long as you restrict this to two portions of oily fish weekly due to contaminants), aisles are now filled with foods fortified with omega-3 such as yoghurts and bread. There are numerous different types of omega supplements ranging from plant-based seed oils to cod liver oil, fish oil and targeted pharmaceutical-grade oils. The contents and benefits of these sources differ significantly, however – not all omega-3s are the same! This is especially important if you are seeking support for a clinical condition, since many supplements do not contain the right concentration or type of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids to deliver therapeutic benefits.
Types of omega-3 supplement
If you have established that you may benefit from taking an omega-3 supplement, it is important to be able to understand the benefits offered by the different types, as the quality of the raw material and its active ingredients can determine health benefits as a result. Fish oil supplements containing active omega-3 ingredients (EPA or DHA) range from 10% to 90% in concentration and therefore quality and benefits differ considerably. Purified concentrated fish oils provide an easy and safe alternative to eating oily fish, meaning that higher doses can be taken for therapeutic purposes without exposure to harmful chemicals or excessive doses of fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamin A and vitamin D.
Cod liver oil – offers a low level of support
Until the 1950s, schoolchildren were routinely given cod liver oil. As the liver is the site of storage of vitamin A (toxic in high doses) and also contaminants such as methylmercury, dioxins and PCBs (through manmade contamination of the oceans), cod liver oil is less safe now than when it was consumed by our grandparents. Also, the low amounts of omega-3 found in cod liver oil prevents this widely available product from offering the heart and brain health benefits that omega-3s are famed for.
Generic fish oil – mid-level support for general wellbeing
Generic fish oil refers to oil that has been extracted from the flesh of fish (rather than the liver) and filtered to remove contaminants to legal limits, but not molecularly distilled or concentrated. They tend to be easy to spot on the shelves, as they typically contain 180 mg EPA and 120 mg DHA per 1000 mg of omega-3 fish oil and are relatively cheap to buy. In other words they amount to about 18% EPA and 12% DHA. Low concentration oils therefore give an unrealistic impression that they are good value for money. Generic fish oils may be satisfactory for some, however for those thriving for optimal health, or for those with an inflammatory health condition, they may need a more concentrated fish oil with higher levels of active ingredients.
Pharmaceutical-grade concentrated fish oil – intensive support for targeted health concerns or conditions
Pharmaceutical-grade fish oil undergoes rigorous molecular distillation and/or concentration. Molecular distillation ensures that the oil is free from contamination and from vitamin A. By concentrating the EPA, the amount of physiologically active EPA in the final product is increased and uptake in the body is enhanced. Pharmepa STEP 1: RESTORE, for example, comprises 90% EPA concentrate, in a pure, safe and well-tolerated rTG triglyceride form that offers clinical dosing of 1-2 g daily. Comparing 18% concentration of EPA seen in generic fish oil with a concentrated 90% EPA fish oil may highlight the varying degree of benefits seen when taking different types of fish oil products. Igennus EPA is highly concentrated and therefore offers a cost-effective source of EPA; though the initial outlay is likely to be more, the health outcomes are far greater.
Pharmaceutical-grade fish oils also offer various ratios of EPA and DHA, and some (like ours) concentrate the oil to offer much higher EPA concentrations, to target and maximise its benefits in the body. Without the competing actions of DHA, EPA is free to exert its potent anti-inflammatory actions, offering numerous health benefits. Recent evidence suggests that in combined EPA and DHA oils, the anti-inflammatory actions required for a therapeutic benefit are derived from the excess amounts of EPA. In the generic fish oil example cited above, the ‘free’ amount of EPA is only 60 mg (180 mg EPA minus 120 mg DHA). A strong advantage of concentrated fatty acid supplements is that they also contain lower amounts of unnecessary, biologically ‘redundant’ fats compared with generic oils – further enhancing our absorption of the active omega-3 fatty acids, since the body has a limited capacity for fat absorption.
Plant oils versus fish oils
Plant-based short-chain omega-3 fatty acids and fish-sourced long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are often grouped together on the shelves, so it is important to be able to distinguish between them. Plant oils such as flaxseed oil tends to be much cheaper than fish oils, which can also lead to a misconception about ‘value for money’. Because humans aren’t efficient at converting short-chain fatty acids to long-chain fatty acids, plant oils cannot offer the same health benefits as fish oils – so, unless you are vegetarian it is advisable to seek out a purified and concentrated omega-3 fish oil supplement with the ‘active’ long-chain omega-3 fatty acids already in bioavailable form. The concentration of omega-3 determines the dose you obtain in a capsule, so look out for the actual does of EPA or EPA+DHA on the product label and not just the total omega-3 content.
Most foods fortified with omega-3 tend to be those containing plant-based omega-3 fats and, for the same reasons as discussed above, will not provide the brain-boosting and heart-protecting benefits associated with fish oils.
Vegetarians and vegans
For vegetarians, vegans and those allergic to fish seeking to boost their omega-3 levels, it may seem like there are many obstacles in your way for obtaining the health beneficial long-chain fatty acids. Fortunately, there are good alternatives.
Until recently, flaxseed oil has been the default choice for vegetarians, but it is not the best source of omega-3 as it contains the short-chain omega-3 ALA which is poorly converted to the long-chain fatty acids, EPA and DHA. A superior source is the newly available vegan-friendly source of omega-3 stearidonic acid (SDA) from echium seed oil, which is rich in the omega-3 stearidonic acid (SDA) – a precursor to EPA. SDA is a closer relative to EPA and requires fewer enzyme steps to convert to EPA, so it produces approximately 5 times the amount of EPA compared with ALA in flaxseed. Being much more efficient at raising EPA levels means that more of EPA’s beneficial anti-inflammatory by-products are produced too.
Want to know more?
We’ve dedicated ourselves to the field of omega fats in human health for over ten years and this specialist focus has enabled us to become the leading UK brand in the application of omega-3 EPA therapeutics for inflammatory conditions. This is a very complex area of nutrition and one that we hope to clarify for those who seek to understand the science. If you’re unsure about any of the content here and would like further explanation or tips on further reading, our nutrition scientists would be very happy to point you in the right direction.