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Health & Food

Confused Day Tuesday: How Do I Choose a Fish Oil Supplement?

Working in a supermarket I probably answer the question “which fish oil do you take?” about once a week.  It’s a great question, because fish oil supplements are a confusing industry.  Here are some things that seem to confuse customers;

  • On the front of most fish oil containers you see the claim “1000 mg fish oil”, but theactual amount of the important long chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA) is always much less.
  • No one really knows how much EPA and DHA they should be getting.
  • People on TV sometimes report things on his show that (from what I can find….) are just not true.
  • Rumors are spread constantly about the “contamination of fish oil” and how fish oil supplements contain mercury and other scary impurities.

Source: iStock Photo

Are you confused about any of these?  Read on, and I’ll attempt to clear up the confusion, so the next time you go to choose a fish oil supplement you won’t stop in your tracks and stare at the hundreds of options….and get frustrated beyond belief.

  • On the front of most fish oil containers you see the claim “1000 mg fish oil”, but theactual amount of the important long chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA) is always much less.

Yes, you will always see the amount of fish oil listed on the front of a fish oil supplement label.  This does not coincide with the amount of EPA and DHA.  What you need to do is look at the nutrition facts on the back and find where it says “Omega-3”.  Many times the label will list the amount of Omega-3 (all fish oils should list this) and then break those down into EPA and DHA (types of omega-3).  These are the numbers that truly matter, not the amount of total fish oil listed on the front of the label.

  • No one really knows how much EPA and DHA they should be getting.

Check out the American Heart Association’s recommendations to see the amount of EPA and DHA you should aim for, depending on your health status.  The amount for someone with documented heart disease is different than those with high triglycerides, which is also different than that for the general population.  In fact, it’s not recommended to take fish oil if you don’t have documented heart disease or high triglycerides.  Instead the recommendation is to consume fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, or tuna) twice a week.  This comes out to about 500 mg EPA/DHA per day.  But, for those of you (like my husband) who see this meal below and cringe, taking fish oil may be your only alternative.

Source: iStock Photo

  • People on TV sometimes report things on their show that (from what I can find….) are just not completely accurate.

I know many people watch Dr. Oz, and assume he knows everything.  While I really do think Dr. Oz is an incredibly smart man, and has done a lot of great things for those who watch his show (I love the way he teaches his viewers about specific topics through the use of props, they often help me understand a certain concept better!) I sometimes have trouble finding evidence to back up what he says on his show.  I wish he gave references for his information, wouldn’t that be nice? For example, in this episode of his show he claimed that you should only buy fish oil supplements with at least 600 mg DHA. He also claims that EPA can only be absorbed with DHA.  After countless numbers of customers asking me for fish oil with at least 600 mg DHA, I finally decided to look into where this information came from.  I couldn’t find any research to back this up, and I even e-mailed my graduate professor from The Ohio State University, who specializes in fatty acids, and she was also confused.  If you know of any evidence to prove that Dr. Oz is right, I would love to know about it.

If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, remember that the converison of ALA (plant based Omega-3, found in chia, flax, and soy) to DHA is slightly weaker than that to EPA (and for both it’s only about 3% (DHA) and 6% (EPA)) so maybe that’s why Dr. Oz is saying to look for at least 600 mg DHA?  Who knows.

In addition, Dr. Oz says that Krill Oil has more EPA and DHA.  That might be true with some brands of Krill oil, but not all.  One very popular brand contains 74 mg EPA/DHA, total, per serving.  Ummmm……. that’s not enough.  In fact, I have yet to find a brand of Krill oil that contains close to 500 mg EPA/DHA (let alone one that contains what 600 mg DHA!!).  So again, I’m very confused.

  • Rumors are spread constantly about the “contamination of fish oil” and how fish oil supplements contain mercury and other scary impurities.

Even Dr. Oz agrees, “most brands of fish oil have been proven safe”.  But, if you’re still not convinced, look for the “USP” (United States Pharmacopeia) symbol on your favorite fish oil, which assures you that your product has been third-party tested for quality and lack of contaminants.  You can also call the company to see if they have been third party tested, as not all companies pay for the USP symbol.  There is always a phone number on the back of fish oil labels (and all supplements). Just give the company a call and ask about their quality assurance practices.  They are almost always happy to share them with you, their paying customer!

QUESTION:  Do you take fish oil supplements? Is there anything else that confuses you when trying to choose a product?If you’re still confused, skip the supplements and just eat fish. Period!  Aim for 2 servings (4 ounces per serving), at least, each week
Source: iStock Photo

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