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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Finding a Good Fish Oil

Fish and seafood are critical for good health because they contain two essential omega-3s that we don’t get anywhere else in our diet: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). These two irreplaceable fats are only found in substantial amounts in fish and marine animals.

Technically, they’re also found in algae – which is why the fish that eat them are such good sources themselves – but the edible varieties don’t contain enough DHA and EPA to meet human needs. Nori and hijiki contain such miniscule amounts that their nutrition labels report zero grams of fat.

It’s also true that the liver can convert other omega-3s (like ALA) to DHA and EPA but some people don’t make the enzyme necessary for the reaction (delta-6-desaturase) and according to research studies, the process is “unreliable” and “severely restricted.”

So we have to get these essential fats from fish or fish oil. People who don't eat non-toxic fish and seafood daily often benefit from supplementation. But fish oil supplements aren't all created equal.

Because so many species of fish and seafood are now contaminated with toxic environmental chemicals, the quality of fish oil is extremely important. While there are no standards for fish oil quality in the United States, international standards do exist. The Norwegian Medicinal Standard (NMS) and the European Pharmacopoeia Standard (EPS) both set maximum allowances for heavy metals, dioxins, PCBs, and peroxides.

It's also important to consider the source of fish oil. Over- harvesting and other harmful fishing practices threaten the environment as well as the future of fish and seafood. Use your power as a consumer to support companies that only use sustainably harvest fish to make their products.

When you're shopping for fish oil, look for products that meet these criteria:
  • The fish oil is  processed without chemicals or excess heat (to maintain the integrity of the fatty acids)
  • The fatty acids exist in the natural triglyceride form 
  • The manufacturer meets NMS and EPS standards
  • The manufacturer controls fish oil for freshness (measured by markers called peroxide and anisidine)
  • Manufacturers only use sustainably-harvested fish to make their products

In my practice I often recommend Nordic Naturals products because they meet and even exceed these criteria (their fish oil is tested by independent laboratories for more than 200 environmental toxins). Their products have also been chosen for clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health, Stanford, and UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).

Fish oil can be taken as a liquid or soft gels (capsules). Liquids are usually less expensive because you’re not paying for encapsulation. And because there's no capsule, they're usually easier to swallow and digest. Depending on the concentration of the oil, you may have to take 8 capsules to get the same amount of DHA and EPA in a teaspoon and a half of liquid fish oil.

Whether you choose liquid or capsules, ALWAYS keep fish oil in the fridge. The fragile unsaturated fatty acids in fish oil easily oxidize in the presence of light and warmer (room) temperatures. Capsules can even be kept in the freezer and swallowed frozen.

Some of my patients report a fishy after-taste, but this problem is usually solved by taking frozen fish oil capsules at the very beginning of meals. Long term use of fish oil can deplete vitamin E, so small amounts of vitamin E are often added to fish oils. Individuals who are allergic to fish or seafood should avoid fish oil. 

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