Everything you need to know about evaluating fish oil


Why use fish oil supplements?

Fish oil supplements are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3's are associated with promoting good physical and mental health, and they are often misunderstood. The proper balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids can be critical, but while omega-6 fatty acids can be found in many foods, omega-3 fatty acids are more limited in nature.

What are omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids?

Of all the various forms of omega fatty acids, it is the families of polyunsaturated fats known as omega-6 and omega-3 that are most critical for health. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids. They are necessary for human health, but the body cannot make them. You have to get them through food or supplements.

Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function, and normal growth and development. Both perform distinct biological functions and offer their own unique health benefits. Omega-6s help stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism, and maintain the reproductive system. Omega-3s help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, as well as enhance brain and joint function, just to name a few.

The foundation of our health is dependent on the balance or 1:1 ratio between these two essential fatty acids. While neither Omega-3 nor Omega-6 is "good" or "bad", excessive amounts of either fatty acid is bad. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and omega-6s are pro-inflammatory. Therefore, a diet with a lot of omega-6 and not much omega-3 will increase inflammation and a diet with a lot of omega-3 and not much omega-6 will reduce inflammation.

The problem: Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio imbalance

Because omega-6 fats are commonly found in vegetable oils, nuts, and grain-fed meats, they aren't a fat most Americans are deficient in. While many Americans may consume omega-3 fats, found in plant-based sources such as nuts and leafy vegetables and fatty fish like salmon and tuna, they aren’t consuming nearly as many omega-3 fats as they are omega-6 fats. Thus, It is easy to see why it is now estimated that we consume (on average) a 12:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 foods.

This is problematic because this ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is associated with an increase in all inflammatory diseases (which is almost all diseases), including but not limited to:

  • Cancer
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Macular degeneration
  • Obesity
  • Depression

The Solution: Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplements

When the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is closer to 1:1, the risk of these diseases decreases significantly, and muscle growth and fat loss are enhanced. Therefore, it is imperative to get as close to a 1:1 ratio as possible. This can certainly be difficult with our modern food supply, which is why many doctors and health practitioners recommend taking fish oil, an omega-3 supplement.

While some people may already know how to pick out a quality fish oil supplement and/or know of the highest quality brands, many people remain clueless, for good reason. If you search Amazon for “fish oil” you’ll see over 100K results– sorting through that many products would not only be a waste of time, but incredibly confusing. This article is an attempt to help guide people in the right direction when purchasing a fish oil supplement.

What should I look for in fish oil supplements?

There are several important factors to consider when evaluating a fish oil supplement such as the freshness, purity, nutrient profile, potency, and bioavailability (absorption) of the product. Were going to simplify things though, by focusing on the most important factor—potency. In order to understand why, one first need to know a bit more about Omega-3 essential fatty acids.

There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA, EPA and DHA. ALA is mostly found in plants, while EPA and DHA are mostly found in animal foods like fatty fish. In order to balance the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio and thereby have the desired anti-inflammatory effect, fish oil must contain an adequate amount of the long-chain omega-3 derivatives EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are active forms of omega-3, whereas ALA is an inactive form and therefore must be converted to either EPA or DHA before the body can use it. However, as a general rule, only 10 percent of the listed ALA will be converted to EPA or DHA. Thus, ALA count should be given little weight, if any, when evaluating a fish oil supplement since its conversion rate is so low.

EPA and DHA content, in contrast, should be the focus of your evaluation. It is important to note that DHA and EPA are separately responsible for providing the anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3. As such, you need both in your diet to get all the positive outcomes. All fish oils contain some amount of EPA and DHA, but many do not contain an adequate amount and some manufacturers try to conceal the amount by only listing the total omega-3 amount.

How much fish oil should I take?

The FDA does not provide Daily Value recommendations for omega-3, EPA, or DHA content. The suggested DHA dose will of course depend upon the condition being treated though If you have a chronic inflammatory condition (heart disease, arthritis, Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, etc.) many doctors would suggest taking between 1 and 2 grams per day. If you are taking it simply for health maintenance 500 mg is probably sufficient.

Some people like taking a very small amount of fish oil to maintain their general health, while others need to take considerably more to target a certain medical condition. If you’re targeting a medical condition, talk to a professional about potential interactions with other medications and/or dosing recommendations. It can take awhile to experiment and find the optimal dose for you.

Rankings and evaluation

Here you can find two useful tools for choosing the right fish oil supplements. First, an objective, data-based ranking shows the potency of each alternative on a per dosage and per price basis. Second, a comparison tool allows direct head-to-head matchups of different fish oil supplements to see the pros and cons of each.

If you appreciate the work put in to collect all this information and create a data-driven ranking, then please consider donating to keep this site running!