Omega-3 fatty acids have impressive health benefits — including protecting your heart health. These acids are found naturally in foods like fish, shellfish and some vegetable oils. You can also take them as supplement pills. With many different omega-3 supplements on the market, it can be hard to know which one is best — both for your health and for the environment.
For example, the last thing you want is to buy a supplement only to find out the oil has gone rancid. And many consumers are concerned about their supplement choices contributing to overfishing and other environmental concerns. So join us as we explore how to choose the best omega-3 supplements.
What Are Omega-3s?
Omega-3 fatty acids (or omega-3s for short) are a type of healthy fat found in oily fish and shellfish and in certain vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. There are 3 types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), known as long-chain omega-3s, are found in oily fish, white fish and shellfish.
- ALA (alpha-linoleic acid) is found in certain plant oils, such as flaxseed, soybean and canola oils. It’s also in certain nuts and seeds, such as chia seeds and walnuts.
So which should you choose? Well, ALAs are a less efficient way to get omega-3s, because your body has to convert them into EPAs and DHAs before you can use them. So many people choose to get their omega-3s from fish and shellfish sources. But if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, ALA omega-3s from plant sources may be a better choice for you.
Health Benefits of Omega-3s
There are a range of potential health benefits you can get from foods with omega-3 fatty acids or from taking omega-3 supplements:
- Heart health — Regularly eating fish and shellfish rich in omega-3s can help prevent heart disease. However, research has found no link between taking omega-3 supplements and a lower risk of heart disease. So if you’re interested in omega-3s for heart health, it’s best to get them directly from fish and shellfish.
- Healthy pregnancy and breastfeeding — Omega-3s are important for people who are pregnant and breastfeeding, as they help with the development of the baby’s nervous system. It’s healthy to eat fish and shellfish during pregnancy, but you need to cook it thoroughly and choose types that are lower in mercury. Check out this guide to eating seafood during pregnancy and breastfeeding from the Food and Drug Administration.
- Disease prevention — A recent study found that, when taken along with vitamin D, omega-3s may help prevent autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. There’s also ongoing research into the benefits of omega-3s for preventing brain and eye diseases — but there’s currently not enough evidence for these benefits.
Concerns About Fish Oil Supplements
When it comes to choosing omega-3s, you may be concerned about both the quality of the supplements and the impact that the production has on fisheries and the marine environment.
The main quality issue with fish oil-based omega-3 supplements is oxidation. This is a reaction that happens when oxygen comes in contact with the fish oil, causing it to break down, turn rancid, darken in color and take on unpleasant odors and flavors.
When fish oils oxidize, the amount of omega-3 fatty acid they contain also decreases. Not only do oxidized fish fail to provide the same level of health benefits, they also become a source of free radicals, which can damage our cells. So it’s important to choose high-quality supplements with low levels of oxidation.
Increased demand for omega-3 supplements has also raised concerns about overfishing and sustainability. Certain omega-3 supplements contribute to the overfishing of “keystone species,” such as krill, that support the entire ecosystem. Fish harvesting can also generate byproducts that change ocean ecosystems. For example, when fish waste is flushed overboard, it can change nutrients and oxygen consumption in the ocean.
How to Choose the Best Fish Oil Omega-3s
Here are some tips to help you choose healthy, stable and sustainably sourced omega-3 supplements:
- Check the label for info about quality. Look for words like raw, extra-virgin, minimally-processed and cold-pressed. These are good clues that the supplement has not been subject to harsh commercial processing. Choose products that have been tested for heavy metals and contaminants. These can build up in fish oil, so it’s important to know that the manufacturer has tested for these problems.
- Avoid fortified supplements. Fish oil is a natural source of vitamins A and D. But if the label boasts “fortification,” this means that natural vitamins were removed through harsh processing and synthetic vitamins were added back in.
- Look for info about sustainability. Choose products that advertise sustainable fishing practices from artisan fishing vessels. Avoid products made from krill or other keystone species.
- Check the expiration date. Don’t buy or use out of date products. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s storage guidelines, as some fish oil supplements need refrigeration.
- Check the color and smell before taking supplements. Check for unpleasant odors or unusual colors. If your fish oil seems rancid, then play it safe and replace it.
Fish Oil Alternatives: Plant-Based Omega-3s
Choosing plant-based omega-3 supplements is another way to support the health of the planet — and to avoid animal products if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.
- Algal oil is a high-quality omega-3 product made from commercially grown algae. As with fish products, it contains long-chain omega-3s (EPAs and DHAs). It’s typically farmed in controlled environments, so it doesn’t need purification processes to remove contaminants. It’s a good choice for vegans, vegetarians, people with fish allergies and anyone who wants to avoid animal products.
- Seed and bean oils are rich sources of ALA omega-3s. You can choose flaxseed, chia seed, hemp seed, canola or soybean oils. However, the human body converts only a small percentage of ALAs to EPAs and DHAs, so these are far less efficient sources of omega-3s.
As with any dietary supplement, it’s important to talk with your doctor before trying new omega-3 supplements. Ask your doctor about the best way to get more omega-3s for your health.
- “Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth” via National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
- “Vitamin D and marine omega 3 fatty acid supplementation and incident autoimmune disease” via British Medical Journal
- “Fishing for Answers: Is Oxidation of Fish Oil Supplements a Problem?” via Journal of Nutritional Science
- “Fish oil supplements, oxidative status, and compliance behaviour” via PLoS ONE
- “From Fish Waste to Value: An Overview of the Sustainable Recovery of Omega-3 for Food Supplements” via Molecules