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Understanding Fish Oil Supplements

One of the most commonly used and versatile supplements available on the market is fish oil. Fish oil capsules contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for your health in many different ways. However, the human body does not produce its own omega-3’s, so it is important that you obtain them exogenously. These omega-3 fatty acids are found naturally in many different types of fish, such as mackerel, salmon, and tuna. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends eating 1–2 portions of fish per week. This is because the omega-3 fatty acids in fish provide many health benefits, including helping protect against a number of diseases. Some benefits include:

  • Heart health: may increase HDL, reduce blood pressure, improve circulation, prevent heart disease and stroke, prevent clogged arteries, and reduce chest pain.
  • Mental health: has been known to help with a variety of mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Ocular health: sometimes used to treat dry eyes, cataracts, and glaucoma.

However, it is important that when considering fish oil supplements, you know the differences between the ones available to you and are taking one to provide you with the most benefits.

Omega-3 Triglycerides vs. Omega-3 Ethyl Esters

Over 98% of all fats ingested from foods are in the triglyceride form. When you get your omega-3s naturally from eating fish, you are consuming them as omega-3 triglycerides (TG). These are made up of 3 fatty acids, a combination of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), attached to a glycerol backbone. However, the ethyl ester (EE) form is much more abundant on the market due to the cheaper cost of production.

The EE form is created by breaking the bond between the glycerol backbones and combining it with a molecule of ethanol. This process is critical to the purification and concentration of the omega-3s in order to obtain proper dosage. However, the fish oils could actually be converted back into triglyceride form by removing the ethanol molecule and reattaching the glycerol, where the fatty acids bond to the backbone to recreate the natural omega-3 triglycerides. Many companies do not undergo this process because it is highly expensive to convert back to the TG form, so EE supplements are sold relatively cheaper on the market. But price should not be a sacrifice in regards to your health.

One reason to use omega-3 triglycerides over EE’s is that the TG form has a higher bioavailability. When ethyl esters are consumed, they are processed in the liver where the ethanol is drawn off and the body must then rebuild the resulting free fatty acids back into a triglyceride. The EEs that get digested produce free fatty acids plus ethanol. This is a less efficient absorption process compared with the direct intake of a natural form triglyceride because the EE form must be reconverted back to a TG form in the body. The delay in TG re-synthesis suggests that transport to the blood is more efficient in natural TG fish oils as compared to EE. When in TG form, much more of the EPA and DHA found in the fish oil can be absorbed and utilized by the body. One study showed that the omega-3s in the triglyceride form have a 71% greater absorption rate than the ethyl esters.

Another advantage the TG form has over the EE form is that it’s more prone to rancidity. When the EE fish oils are broken down, they are releasing both free radicals and ethyl alcohol, making it more likely to oxidize. In a comparison of the oxidation kinetics of DHA as an EE or as a TG, the EE form of DHA was more reactive and more quickly oxidized, demonstrating that EE fish oils are far less stable and more readily produce harmful byproducts. Furthermore, in a study that assessed the stability of oil containing DHA during a 10-week oxidation period, the EE form decayed 33% more rapidly than the TG form. This oxidation is what causes the fish oil to go bad, or rancid, sometimes resulting in a fishy taste and after taste.

While we recommend taking a TG form omega-3, the EE form does still hold some value. They are cheaper than the TG form, but not as much of the oils get absorbed into your body. That being said, they still do provide some benefit. It is also a fact that the bioavailability of the EE form is known to be higher when taken on a full stomach. And while the EE form is more prone to going bad, both the TG and EE form fish oils have the ability to go rancid. If you happen to purchase a fish oil supplement, in any form, and it has a spoiled smell or taste, throw it away immediately and seek out a higher quality product.

Omega-3 triglycerides are the natural form of fish oils, and it’s only fair that your body receives these essential oils the way that your body knows how to use them most efficiently. While you may save a few dollars opting out for the EE form, you lose out on quality and risk the increased chance of the supplement going bad. The TG form is much more natural, bioavailable, and resistant to spoiling. While you can take either type of fish oil supplement, It’s important that know the facts about omega-3s before you start taking them.

Fish Oil Comparison Chart

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The statements and claims made on this site have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Accutrition Nutritional Consultants® is not liable for the misuse or misinterpretation of any information on this site. Product ingredients and formulations may change over time. We attempt to keep this information up-to-date and accurate, but it is your responsibility to review all product labels before opening. Always consult with your health care practitioner before implementing a diet or supplement regimen.