7 Reasons Why the Omega-3 Industry is on the Wrong Track

doctor handing omega-3 fish oil prescription

Having worked with omega-3 fish oil as both a physician and a businessman for the past 16 years, I’ve seen the omega-3 industry evolve. In just the last decade, omega-3 has gone from being a little-known supplement mostly consumed in the Scandinavian countries, to a worldwide, multi-billion dollar industry.

I firmly believe that the increased consumption of omega-3 has the potential to improve the health of millions. But I see a disturbing industry trend: the rapid shift towards highly processed and heavily concentrated omega-3 capsules at the expense of natural, fresh fish oil.

Why should we be concerned about the concentrated, “pharmaceutical grade” omega-3s that are flooding the market, and how do they compare to natural fish oils? Concentrated omega-3s fall short by a number of different standards:

How Concentrated Omega-3s Compare:

1. Concentrated omega-3s are chemically modified. In order to make concentrated omega-3 supplements, manufacturers have to chemically alter the EPA and DHA omega-3 molecules. Through heavy processing, the EPA and DHA transform into new chemical structures known as ethyl esters. The ethyl esters do not exist in the human body or in nature.

Whenever we are dealing with new chemical structures and substances, we should be skeptical. Since the body has evolved to process fatty acids in a particular way, it will respond differently to chemically modified EPA and DHA than it will to the fatty acids found in natural fish oils. The problem is, we don’t have enough information about how the body will respond to long term consumption of artificial oils.

2. Concentrated omega-3s contain fewer fatty acids. Fresh fish and cod liver oil contain more than 50 different fatty acids plus metabolites, all of which work together and have specific metabolic effects.

Highly concentrated omega-3 fish oils feature only two kinds of fatty acids: EPA and DHA. While the majority of omega-3 research has focused on EPA and DHA, we don’t know how these fatty acids work in isolation. Medical studies on various vitamins suggest that taking a vitamin supplement often provides fewer health benefits than consuming a food rich in the vitamin. Researchers speculate that one reason for the discrepancy may be the body responds better to the synergistic effects of the vitamins found in food than it does to a vitamin acting in isolation in pill form.

In the same way, when omega-3 manufacturers produce products containing just or two omega-3 fatty acids, they are destroying the natural balance found in fish oil without really knowing how that will ultimately compare to eating fish or taking natural fish oil.

A mix of pills and supplements

Vitamin supplements typically don’t provide the same healthy benefits as natural food products.

3. Concentrated omega-3s have been stripped of naturally-occurring vitamins. Natural fish oils, and especially cod liver oil, are rich sources for vitamin A and D, in addition to omega-3. But the process of concentrating omega-3 destroys the naturally occurring vitamin A and D content of the fish oil. Consumers taking concentrated omega-3s thus miss out on the positive health benefits of the vitamins found in natural fish oils.

4. Concentrated omega-3s present greater rancidity risks. In their natural state, the fragile omega-3 molecules are protected from oxidation by vitamins and a delicate balance of other occurring fatty acids. Concentrated omega-3s, however, undergo a hefty production process that destroys the oils’ natural protection system. In order to combat the rancidity problem, manufacturers have to add new antioxidants to the oil. Even so, the concentrated oil is more reactive to oxygen than natural oil. And as a result, concentrated omega-3 products are more likely to contain rancid oil.

5. Concentrated omega-3s are environmentally problematic. The process of refining natural fish oil into concentrated versions poses environmental concerns. Consider, for instance, that for every gram of pure EPA/DHA created, 60 percent of the oil goes to waste.

People can easily get the same amount of EPA/DHA found in concentrates by increasing their daily dose of fish oil. So, the question remains: what’s the purpose of misusing fish oil and energy resources in order to make concentrated supplements?

6. Concentrated omega-3s are less cost-effective. When you compare the dose of different omega-3 supplements, concentrated prescription omega-3s are less cost effective than natural sources*. Physicians recommend taking close to 3500 mg of EPA and DHA to lower blood lipids. Those 3500 mg of EPA and DHA can be found in a typical eight-ounce salmon dinner serving, a large tablespoon of cod liver oil, or four prescription omega-3 pills. Concentrated prescription omega-3s come out as the priciest option:

  • Half pound serving of wild salmon filet costs around $ 5.50
  • One tablespoon fresh Omega Cure cod liver oil costs around $ 2.00
  • Four capsules Lovaza prescription omega-3 costs around $ 6.00
A comparison of the price of salmon versus liquid fish oil versus prescription omega-3 supplements

*Prices vary depending on distributor, season, and other considerations.

7. Concentrated omega-3s provide no added purity benefits. Prescription omega-3s often play up the fact that they do not contain heavy metals and pesticides. But neither do high quality natural fish oils from reputable manufacturers.

Why We Don’t Need Omega-3 Concentrates:

Manufacturers producing omega-3 concentrates argue that their products contain more EPA and DHA per capsule. Since consumers have to take fewer capsules a day to achieve a clinically effective dose, they are more likely to comply with the dose regimen and experience health benefits as a result.

The dose concern is certainly valid, especially since few people are willing to consume the handfuls of capsules a day required to lower triglyceride levels and reduce joint pains.

But the argument falls short when we know people can easily get the same dose of EPA and DHA from non-concentrated forms in just a tablespoon of liquid fish oil. Furthermore, a liquid fish oil should be no less palatable than consuming capsules. If the oil is truly fresh, it should have no fishy taste or smell and should be easy to add into juices and smoothies.

So, if natural liquid fish oils provide as much EPA and DHA as concentrated omega-3 products, why is the industry increasingly leaning towards concentrates as the wave of the future?

Money of course, is a big part of the equation. It is more expensive to invest in high quality, fresh fish oil than concentrated capsules that can be produced relatively cheaply and have an extended shelf-life of many years.

The Alternative to Concentrated Omega-3s:

Physicians and dietitians agree that eating fresh fruits and vegetables is superior to taking a multivitamin every day. That same principle goes for fish oil. Eat fish five to six times a week or use fresh, natural fish oil in liquid form. Those two options are less expensive and more likely to improve your health than highly processed, concentrated omega-3 pills.

Omega Cure, Omega Cookie, Omega Passion

Bo Martinsen, MD

Bo Martinsen is the co-founder and CEO of Omega3 Innovations. Born and raised in Norway, Dr. Martinsen received medical training at the University of Bordeaux in France and at the University of Oslo. He is ECFMG-certified in the United States. Dr. Martinsen has extensive experience practicing psychiatry, general medicine, neurology and preventive medicine, in addition to training in epidemiology (Ph.D program at the University of Oslo) and business administration. He has served as medical consultant to large international corporations focusing on stress management and synergistic medicine.

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2 Responses

  1. schetrumpf@talktalk.net' John Schetrumpf says:

    I would like to see some comment on the cooking of fish. I am under the impression that light and heat damage Omega 3 oils yet the containers you show your oil in are clear. Of course if the’re in the fridge light is not an issue. Upmarket and boutique olive oils tend to come in dark glass presumably to reduce tendency to rancidity. Some markers on heat would be helpful. Out of interest I skin my salmon splitting the ‘dermis’ so to speak to encompass the area one would expect the need for omega 3′s to be greatest in the physiology of the fish in cold waters.

    • admin says:

      You bring up a very good point by mentioning the impact of light and heat on the quality of an omega-3 product. It is something that we are concerned with and that we do our best to educate people about (you might be interested in reading our blog on how cooking fish impacts the omega-3 content).

      You are absolutely correct that you want to reduce the oil’s exposure to light and heat in order to prevent rancidity. With our Omega Cure, however, the product isn’t designed to sit on the shelf (in contrast to the boutique olive oils you mentioned). We ship our clear Omega Cure bottles directly to the consumer, and the consumer is instructed to put the oil immediately in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as they receive it. Because of our unique shipping model, the bottle is hardly ever exposed to light. And because we ship our bottles frozen and wrapped in cool packs, we minimize the exposure to heat during the shipping process as well.

      However, we do have new Omega Cure single-serving sized bottles coming soon. Because these miniature bottles are designed for traveling and we’re assuming the consumer will keep them outside the refrigerator whilst traveling, the miniature bottles will be amber. The dark glass in this case will help protect the oil.

      That’s the logic behind our bottle choices, and I hope it helps answer your question. Please let us know if you have others!

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