The biggest fish oil mistakes

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos Originally published in the Kingston Whig Standard, June 2013

By now, you’ve probably heard about the benefits of taking a fish oil supplement. When you see something on the shelves of the big box stores, you know it has become extremely popular.

Fish oil’s popularity is well deserved. A daily dose of it has been shown to have multiple benefits: preventing heart attack, reducing depression, alleviating allergies and contributing to brain development in babies. In fact, intake of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish is associated with a reduced risk of death from any cause. No wonder so many people are getting on the fish oil bandwagon.

The idea is that you are supposed to take fish oil each day, so it’s a natural impulse to try to save money by buying the least expensive brand. Those big-box stores mentioned above supply nutritional supplements at very low prices, but do not be fooled — the lowest price does not always give the best value. This is especially true when it comes to fish oil. Avoid these common mistakes when buying your fish oil:

Buying a brand that may be contaminated — Fish are susceptible to becoming contaminated by the pollutants in the ocean. It is important to make sure that these contaminants have been filtered out of the fish oil you take, so that the fish oil isn’t doing you more harm than good. Take a couple minutes to check your brand out on the Internet, and see if the brand undergoes third-party testing, which means that they hire an independent company to ensure that their product is as pure as possible. Brands doing this will say so up front, but feel free to call the company if you cannot find the information.

Not getting the proper dosage — Most studies done using fish oil look at the ingredient eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, short. Different conditions require a different daily dosages of EPA. If you are not getting enough EPA, the fish oil will not be doing its job as well as it could. Some very popular brands do not even report how much EPA is in each serving. Make sure your brand does by looking at the fine print under ingredients. Also, make sure that you are taking a fish oil that has more EPA than DHA. DHA is another omega-3 fatty acid. Taking more DHA than EPA is only recommend from infancy to toddlerhood.

Using a liquid instead of a capsule — Fish oil is very susceptible to a process called oxidation. Once it is oxidized, it’s best not to eat it. The words of my nutrition prof were, “I wouldn’t even feed it to my enemy’s dog.” Oxidation happens when the fish oil is exposed to air. If you are taking fish oil as a liquid, each time you open the lid, a little more oxygen enters the bottle, allowing more oxidation to occur. Instead, buy your fish oil in capsules. The capsules protect the oil from meeting with the oxygen in the air, preventing oxidation.

Taking a mixed omega 3-6-9 supplement — Unlike the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids are much easier to get in your diet — there’s no need to worry that you aren’t getting enough and there is no need to supplement them. In fact, supplementing with omega-6s and omega-9s may counteract some of the benefit of supplementing with omega-3s; there is some evidence to suggest that we need to get a balance of these fatty acids and that the typical North American diet is very heavily imbalanced in favour of omega-6s and omega-9s.

If you want to supplement with omega-3s, and for most people it is a good idea, take the little bit of extra time and spend the extra money to get a brand that actually delivers the results you are looking for.

Vegetarians often ask about where they can get the same benefits of fish oil in a non-animal product. The answer, at this time, is: nowhere. Some brands advertise algae-derived omega-3s as a substitute, but these are not at all equivalent in their EPA content, and therefore, we have no idea whether or not they provide the same benefits that fish oil does. Many companies are hard at work trying to develop a process for deriving EPA from algae, and they will likely be successful sooner or later but it’s impossible to say when it will hit the market.

Fish oil thins the blood, so caution is warranted for those with clotting disorders and those taking blood-thinning medications. It should be discontinued before surgery.

A last note for pet owners, or should I say pet parents? Your furry friend can benefit from omega-3s as well, but I would not choose to deliver it in an enriched kibble. Kibble undergoes a great deal of processing — I suspect that most of the omega-3 content would be destroyed by the time it reaches Fido’s bowl. For your pet to receive the benefits of omega-3s, I recommend breaking open a capsule on their food.