Ask Pharmaca: How Do I Choose a Fish Oil?

Q. So many choices for fish oil! Why do I need it and how do I pick one?

A. Not all fish oils are created equal! And there are definitely some things to know before buying, since there is a huge variety in the quality of different fish oils—such as purity, freshness, potency and absorbability—that can affect their therapeutic benefits. (Check out our Buyer’s Guide to Choosing a Fish Oil for information at a glance.)

First, let’s talk about essential fatty acids (EFAs) and why we recommend fish oil in the first place.

Essential fatty acids are healthy fats our bodies have to have, but don’t produce, so must be consumed through diet or supplements. There are two families of EFAs (omega-3s and omega-6s) that are best consumed in equal ratios to achieve optimal health.

Diets today are heavily skewed toward omega-6 fats (e.g. from corn, palm, soybean, safflower and sunflower oils) and sorely lacking in omega-3 fats (salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, lake trout, anchovies—which are even lower in omega-3s when they’re farm raised). In fact, American diets are on average 10 times higher in omega-6s than omega-3s! This Imbalance predisposes us to a variety of chronic health problems, such as cardiovascular disease and depression. Some signs of omega-3 deficiency include mood swings, fatigue, poor memory, heart problems, dry skin and eczema, weak immunity and reproductive problems.

Here are a few things you can do to address an omega-6/omega-3 imbalance

1) Decrease dietary sources of omega-6s

2) Increase dietary and premade sources of omega-3s

3) Increase dietary sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 found in flax and chia seeds, fruits and vegetables that converts to EPA and DHA in the body (albeit inefficiently—only about 10% of ALA is converted to EPA/DHA).

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the two most beneficial omega-3s, offering support for body functions including cardiovascular, immune, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, brain and nerves, and are critical in maintaining healthy inflammation levels.

Finding a quality fish oil

Outside of eating fish, purified fish oil is the best biologically active source of omega-3s. But beware, fish oil quality varies greatly. Quality concerns include purity (chemical contaminants), freshness (stability of the oil) and potency (omega-3 content).

The International Fish Oil Standards Program (IFOS) is the gold standard for certifying good fish oils, and offers free consumer reports on specific brands and products. Any good supplement company will also be cGMP certified (current good manufacturing processes) through the FDA.

What to look for in a fish oil:

  • The right form: There are two primary forms of fish oil—the triglyceride form and the ethyl ester form—each with different therapeutic properties. While the natural triglyceride form may be better absorbed, the ethyl ester form helps concentrate DHA and EPA to therapeutic levels.
  • IFOS certification: See if your brand has an international third-party certificate of analysis to verify purity and freshness of oils.
  • Current Good Manufacturing Processes certification (cGMP): Regulated by the FDA, cGMP ensures that supplement manufacturers use proper design, monitoring, and control of their processes and facilities.
  • Sustainable fishing practices: The Marine Stewardship Council works with scientists, fisheries, seafood producers and brands to promote sustainable fishing and safeguard seafood supplies for the future. Any environmentally responsible fish oil manufacturer should offer transparency into their fishing practices.
  • Normal smell and taste: Does the fish oil smell or taste fishy? Are you burping fish flavor? These are strong signs of rancid oil. Rancid (oxidized) oils should be avoided as they yield less-than-healthy effects. Be sure to store your oil as directed on the bottle and stick with far-out expiration dates to avoid rancidity.
  • The right potency: A plethora of products exist with varying levels of EPA and DHA (listed on the back of the bottle). Talk to your doctor or a Pharmaca practitioner about formulations appropriate for your health needs.

Here are some of my top picks for quality fish oils:

Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega – An excellent, quality product containing potent levels of EPA and DHA. Available in softgels or liquid.

Pharmax Finest Pure Fish Oil – A very popular, effective product. Available in softgels or liquid.

Nordic Naturals EPA Xtra and DHA Xtra – Two high-potency formulas, each heavily balanced toward EPA or DHA to suit specific health needs.

Renew Life Critical Omega or Super Critical Omega – These quality formulations include lipase, the fat-digesting enzyme. Can be taken on an empty stomach.

Metagenics EPA-DHA 720 or OmegaGenics EPA-DHA 1000 – Metagenics products are tested for purity and quality and provide a great source of omega-3s.

Dr. Mercola Antarctic Krill Oil – Many people prefer to get their omega-3s from krill, which are at the bottom of the food chain and therefore found to be much freer from pollution.

Barlean’s Omega Swirls – Potent, pure and delicious alternative to pills or oil. Try Mango Peach, Lemon Zest, Pina Colada or Key Lime.