By Anne-Marie Chalmers, MD
Think fish oil. If your gut reaction is “yuck,” you are in good company. Whether it’s from remembering Grandma’s cod liver oil or taking the foul horse-pills in the cupboard, the majority of us believe that fish oil ought to taste bad. We put up with the fishy taste and smell because, well, it’s hard to argue with the health benefits substantiated in thousands of research studies.
But the truth is omega-3 supplements should not taste like yesteryear’s salmon. If your omega-3 supplement smells like rotting fish or gives you nauseating ‘urpy reminders all day, you most likely have a rancid product on your hands.
Here is what you need to know about freshness and fish oil:
Purity Versus Freshness
The scientific world and the general public have long focused on purity as the major indicator of quality. Your omega-3 product having low toxicity levels is certainly important. And today, most respectable omega-3 manufacturers provide a certificate of analysis that shows the levels of toxins and heavy metals in the oil.
However, the “purity” of a product says nothing about the freshness of the oil. Studies from Canada, New Zealand, Norway and other nations indicate that the freshness of an oil could determine whether or not you experience the benefits of omega-3.
What is Rancidity?
Fish oil, unlike many other oils, has a chemical structure that makes it highly susceptible to oxidation. The oxidation process begins as soon as the fish is caught and continues as the oil is exposed to oxygen, heat and light. As the oil oxidizes, it releases a distinct pungent odor and off-flavors. Most likely, you’ve run into this problem before, either with sour milk or fruits and vegetables left on the counter for too long.
Why Freshness Matters
Aside from tasting and smelling bad, rancid fish oil is a big problem. First and foremost, rancid fish oil is less effective than taking fresh fish oil. There are two members within the omega-3 family that offer important health benefits: DHA and EPA. As fish oil begins to oxidize, or become rancid, the DHA/EPA levels drop, rendering the oil less potent.
Still worse, scientists believe that consuming rancid fish oil could be harmful. Instead of providing heart protection, oxidized oils may actually increase the rate of atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque in the arteries). In animal studies, oxidized fatty acids have been found to cause organ damage and inflammation, among other problems. In addition, researchers speculate that consuming oxidized oil may cause carcinogenesis. This is why it is vital that to consider the freshness level of your fish oil supplement.
How to Combat Rancidity in 5 Steps
While rancid fish oil is unfortunately all too common, fresh fish oil can provide consumers with a relatively inexpensive, safe way to improve health. To name just a few of the commonly cited benefits of getting enough omega-3, they include lowering triglyceride levels and blood pressure, facilitating recovery from traumatic brain injury and stroke, and improving focus and mental health.
To ensure you experience the benefits, seek out a good quality product by doing the following:
Step 1: Evaluate your current product.
The best way to tell whether or not your omega-3 supplement is fresh is to put it through the taste and smell test. If you have capsules, break them open. If your nose gets a whiff of a strong fishy smell, then throw your capsules away and get something else.
Step 2: Make smart purchases.
Fish oil is a food substance that is highly perishable, just like milk or seafood. To a certain degree it can be stabilized, but beware of labels that have a two to three year expiration date. These products have likely been sitting on the shelf for years, and almost certainly contain rancid oil.
Another good idea is to ask manufacturers to share their fish oil’s oxidation numbers, better known as the peroxide, anisidine and TOTOX values. These values will give you a good picture of you oil’s freshness level. Remember, the lower these numbers are, the better.
Step 3: Remember that bigger is not always better.
Look for small containers, not supersized bottles, when buying fish oil. The longer a fish oil is stored, even in gelatin capsules, the greater the chance it will becomes rancid over time.
Step 4: Keep it cold.
Buy fish oil that you can store in the freezer or refrigerator. Low temperatures slow down the enzymatic time bomb that is ticking away.
Step 5: Use it or lose it.
When you first buy fish oil, don’t let it sit around. Use it up within a few weeks. Too often, people hoard old capsules, thinking they are saving money. But remember, you wouldn’t save old fish in the refrigerator, hoping to someday eat it. Think of fish oil supplements the same way, and throw old product out.
About Anne-Marie Chalmers, MD
Anne-Marie Chalmers, MD, is the co-founder and president of Omega3 Innovations. Born and raised in the United States, Dr. Chalmers graduated from Brown University and completed her medical training at the University of Oslo in Norway. In Norway, Dr. Chalmers practiced emergency, family, and preventive medicine for many years. Her research and development work has included nutraceuticals (especially omega-3) and medical delivery device systems to facilitate ingestion of multiple medication combinations.
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