By BO MARTINSEN, MD
Fish oil is now the most commonly used non-vitamin, non-mineral supplement in the USA, according to the National Center for Health Sta-tistics. But as omega-3 has grown in popularity, so has the misinformation and confusion about this powerful nutrient.
Let’s clear up some of the most common myths about omega-3 supplements:
Myth 1: Omega-3 coming from plant sources like flaxseed and chia seeds is just as potent as omega-3 coming from fish.
Reading about omega-3 in popular health magazines, we get the impression that there are lots of ways to get omega-3 fatty acids — salmon, flaxseed, walnuts, etc. But not all of these sources provide the same value.
When we talk about omega-3, we’re talking about a family of fat molecules. Only fatty fish and breast milk contain all the members of the omega-3 family, including the best known EPA and DHA molecules. On the other hand, plant sources of omega-3, like flaxseed or chia seeds, contain only one type of omega-3: ALA.
In order for the ALA molecules to be effective in the fight against inflammation, they have to be elongated into EPA and DHA molecules. This conversion step is more difficult and limited than most people realize. For example, you’d need to drink about a cup of flaxseed oil to get one teaspoon worth of EPA. This is why eating fatty fish or taking cod liver oil is more effective than flaxseed in putting a damper on inflammation and why the vast majority of omega-3 research has been conducted on fatty fish and fish oil.
Myth 2: The best way to get enough omega-3 is to eat fish regularly.
Eating fatty fish is a wonderful way to increase your omega-3 intake. But it’s important to know that the amount of omega-3 you get from eating fish can vary dramatically. Factors like what the fish ate, the time of the year, and how you prepare your meal can have a significant impact on the fatty acid content.
Take, for instance, the question of what the fish ate. Now farm fisheries are a popular source of fish staples like salmon. In October 2016, however, a report from BBC News found that the omega-3 content of farmed salmon has been cut by 50% over the last five years. So depending on the source of your salmon, you may be getting less omega-3 than you expect.
What you do in your own kitchen can also do damage. For instance, some studies suggest that frying fatty fish, like tuna, can reduce the omega-3 content of a fillet by 70 to 85 percent. That’s why it’s important to be aware of how your cooking techniques can impact the omega-3 content of your meal.
Myth 3: Getting a little omega-3 is better than nothing.
Just as with medications, you need to reach a certain omega-3 dose to experience benefits. What is that threshold dose? For reducing inflammation, numerous studies show that the omega-3 molecules’ anti-inflammatory benefits require consuming at least 2700 mg of EPA/DHA daily. In terms of capsules, that’s the same as swallowing 8-10 regular fish oil capsules every day or drinking 1 tablespoon of liquid fish or cod liver oil.
If you are getting too little omega-3, it’s unlikely you’ll see much of a result from the supplement. That’s why, if you are first going to spend the money on fish oil supplements, it’s best to fully commit to taking an effective dose every day.
Myth 4: Fish oil is supposed to smell and taste fishy.
When you eat fresh seafood, you don’t expect it to taste or smell fishy. In the same way, truly fresh fish oil has no fishy taste or smell. If your oil tastes and smells fishy, it has started to oxidize and turn rancid.
Besides tasting and smelling bad, rancid fish oil is concerning from a health perspective. Rancid fish oil is likely toxic, and may increase the risk of cancer and heart disease when consumed regularly. To check whether the oil is rancid, break open the capsule to taste and smell the oil inside. You can also measure an oil’s rancidity level by looking at its oxidation values. Fresh fish and fish oil have oxidation levels (specifically a TOTOX value) below 5 mEq/kg.
Myth 5: To determine whether a fish oil supplement is still fresh, you should look at the supplement’s expiration date.
Fish oil should be thought of as any other fresh product. If you buy a gallon of milk and let it sit in the sun, it will turn rancid in a few hours, no matter the expiration date. The same rule applies to fish oil. If fresh fish oil is stored in the freezer, it can easily last for up to a year. If you leave fish or fish oil out in the bright sun or exposed to air, it will quickly turn rancid.
Unfortunately, studies show that most fish oils have turned rancid long before their stated expiration date. Therefore, the best way to assess the quality of your fish oil supplement is to use your taste buds – just the same way you would assess another fresh food.
Myth 6: Concentrated fish oils are the best.
Concentrated omega-3 oils are popular because they deliver higher amounts of the effective EPA/DHA molecules per capsule serving size. But concentrated fish oils have a dark side too.
First of all, to create concentrated omega-3 oils, the manufacturer destroys the oil’s natural fatty acid balance, leaving consumers without the full spectrum of the omega-3 family, as well as the other nutrients found in the natural oil. Concentrated omega-3 oil is more likely to be rancid because the oil contains more reactive DHA or EPA molecules.
In comparison, natural liquid fish oils allow people to get the same EPA/DHA dose found in concentrated fish oils in just a few teaspoons. And if the oil is fresh, consumers typically have an easy time drinking the oil straight without the need for a capsule encasing.
Myth 7: All these wild claims about the health benefits of fish oil suggest it’s just too good to be true.
If a nutrient can help relieve chronic pain and dry eyes, fight depression, improve cognitive functioning, and reduce the risk of dementia and certain cancers, it’s got to be too good to be true, right?
To understand why omega-3 delivers many different health benefits, it’s important to know how omega-3 works in the body. Omega-3 molecules make up a portion of the cell membrane and are crucial for cell nutrient and waste exchange. In addition, they are involved in the signaling between cells in the brain, help regulate or balance the body’s immune system, and act as an attachment system for cell membrane receptors.
It is estimated that omega-3 is involved in more than 10% of all cellular metabolic actions. No wonder fish oil, which is the most potent source of omega-3 fatty acids, can produce varied and widespread effects in the body.
About Dr. Bo Martinsen
Bo Martinsen, MD, 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. Dr. Martinsen has extensive experience practicing 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.