Oils Ain’t Oils!

Omega-3 Fish Oil

Oils Ain’t Oils!

OMEGA-3 oils are good for you. But which one do you take?

Deborah Taylor, director of NatMed Natural Medicine, contributor to The West Australian newspaper fish oil article, naturopath and member of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids gives us the facts.
Since their discovery in the 1970s, omega-3 fatty acids have been firmly under the scientific spotlight: the subject of discussion, speculation, and multiple studies of their potential health benefits.
A type of polyunsaturated fat found in fish, seafood and several types of plants and plant oils, omega-3 fats have been hailed as a wonder oil for preventing and treating myriad life-threatening conditions.
These include everything from heart disease and stroke, to a host of psychological disorders, including bipolar and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In comparing benefits of different sources it is valuable to compare them on the following areas and possibly in the following order of priority:

  • Sustainability
  • Effectiveness
  • Purity
  • Quality
  • Convenience
  • Price

“Over the past three decades, the fish export trade has grown fourfold, to 30 million tons, and its value has increased ninefold, to $71 billion. The dietary attractiveness of seafood has stoked demand. About 90% of the ocean’s big predators like cod and tuna have been fished out of existence. Increasingly, fish and shrimp farms are filling the shortfall. Though touted as a solution to overfishing, many of them have along with rampant coastal development, climate change and pollution devastated the reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds where many commercially valuable fish hatch.”
(Oceans of Nothing:Time Magazine Sunday Nov 05, 2006)
Small wild fish such as anchovy and sardines replenish faster than large fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. This means that numbers are able to be replenished faster. Getting fish oil from fisheries using a sustainable catch policy is also essential if we are to protect our oceans for the generations to come (watch The Last Ocean available on YouTube).
Current international standards for sustainability clearly have not kept up with demand so the best you can do as a consumer is at least consume fish oil from fisheries who use a sustainable catch policy.
Krill are taken primarily off Antarctica, where scientists have raised concerns the fishery has upset the food web, making life tougher for penguins and other marine life.
Protecting krill is crucial for the long-term viability of other species that depend on it for food (whales, notably). The highly nutritious nature of krill is precisely what makes it so important to the marine food web; its rich omega-3 oils are vital for the dietary needs of whales, penguins and other marine predators.
The Bottom Line:
For sustainability, take an oil from small wild fish such as anchovy and sardine where the fishery uses a sustainable catch policy. Most fish oils sourced in this way will state this on their website.
Efficacy (effectiveness)
Plant vs Fish & Krill Oil
The International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids  of which I am a member, agrees that fish oil is the preferred source of Omega-3 over flax or other plant based oils. However, if you are a vegetarian you will convert far more ALA from chia to the therapeutic or active omega three components of EPA & DHA than you will from other plant sources.
On the surface, plant sources appear to provide a high content of Omega-3. However, while fish oil provides Omega-3 in the active or therapuetic form of EPA/DHA, plant sources provide Omega-3 in the form of ALA (alpha linoleic acid) , which must then be converted to EPA/DHA.
That conversion process is extremely inefficient. While the ability to transform ALA into EPA/DHA depends on the individual, studies have shown that humans convert only 0.3 per cent to 21 per cent of ALA into EPA and 0 per cent to 9 per cent of ALA into DHA. In other words, at least 70 per cent — and perhaps as much as 99 per cent — of ALA goes unused as an Omega-3 source.
Best Vegetarian Source: Chia Seed Oil
Chia seed contains much more omega 3 than any other vegetarian source at 5g ALA per 28g chia, compared to 4.7g per 28g of flax. Chia seeds are naturally higher in antioxidants, keeping them fresher for longer than flax seeds and flax oil. The nutrients in flax tend to go rancid relatively quickly and some studies show this has a negative effect on health, especially thyroid function.
Fish oil vs Krill Oil
The reason krill has become so popular is because producers tell us we need to take less due to its ‘bio availability” and that it is a better anti-inflammatory because it contains astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant to help fight free radicals.
Is Krill Really Stronger?
The omega three epa/dha in krill is potentially more readily absorbed than fish oil, due to the fact that it is bound to phospholipids. As a result, the Omega-3 in krill pass through the cell membrane easier than the Omega-3 in fish oil. However there are still no clinical trials to bear the effectiveness of this theory on actual case studies.
In a recent complaint to the TGA about an advertisement for a krill oil product: (Complaint 2013-03-005 Nature’s Own Krill Oil 500mg + Fish Oil). The TGA found that “the evidence comparing fish oil and krill oil was not sufficiently extensive or robust to support highly specific comparative claims, and in particular did not support claims that krill oil is superior to fish oil, is “more powerful” than fish oil, or is more effective than fish oil, including, where the degree of superiority was quantified (eg “9x stronger for arthritis relief” as in the present case).
The panel was satisfied that the representations comparing the advertised product with “standard 1000mg fish oil capsules” and stating that it was “9x stronger” were likely to arouse unwarranted expectations, were misleading, and abused the trust and exploited the lack of knowledge of consumers, in breach of sections 4(1)(b), 4(2)(a), 4(2)(c), and 4(2)(d) of the code. These aspects of the complaint were therefore justified.
There are hundreds of clinical trials on the efficacy of epa and dha from fish oil and as yet the studies on krill are still pending. Anecdotally, I recently trialled a gentleman with a history of high cholesterol on krill. His cholesterol was under control, using a mixture of red rice protein, exercise, fish oil and diet. When he changed to krill his cholesterol went up. This was not a controlled trial and the change may have been due to diet or exercise changes however now he is back on the fish oil and his cholesterol has reduced again.
If you want to find a list for allowable claims based on research go on line to the Therapeutic Goods website at https://www.tga.gov.au
The Bottom Line
Don’t get caught up on the hype. Fish oil still has more research and quantifiable results than any other epa/dha source which is vital if you are wanting important health issues such as high cholesterol addressed.
If you are particularly interested in the anti oxidant effect of the beta carotene in krill called astaxanthin, my recommendation is that you get it from the green microalga haematococcus pluvialis which is considered the richest and purist source as there is some speculation about the stability of astaxanthin found in commercial krill products.
All fish oils in Australia must be tested for heavy metals and pesticides but the results vary dramatically.
Purity requirements for fish oils are established by global and national organisations, including:

  • GOED Omega-3 (Global Organisation for EPA and DHA Omega-3)
  • EC (European Commission)
  • NFSA (Norwegian Food Safety Authority)
  • CRN (Council of Responsible Nutrition)
  • Therapeutic Goods Administration Australia

Global organisations tend to have more stringent requirements than current national standards both here and in the US.
Consumers should ask retailers for a table of contaminant levels as compared to these global organisations in the fish oil they are buying before purchasing.
The Bottom Line
Farmed fish, cod liver oil and large fish contain the highest level of contaminants whilst krill and small wild fish contain the lowest.
How fresh is your oil?
Freshness is crucial for several reasons. It eliminates fishy taste and fishy repeat. As you increase your intake of omega-3 essential fatty acids by consuming fish oil, you may actually increase your need for even more antioxidant protection if the fish oil has been exposed to excessive amounts of oxygen or has become rancid.
Peroxide vs Anisidine & the Ultimate Taste Test
The freshest fish oil is characterised by minimal levels of oxidation. The key parameters that measure the oxidation level of fish oil are Peroxide Value (PV) and p-Anisidine Value (p-AV).
Krill and small wild fish oil contain the lowest levels of PV and p-anisidine. To test your oil for freshness, puncture the capsule, if the oil tastes even slightly bitter it is likely to be high in these constituents and add to oxidative stress within your body. In fact this is true for all oils, the more bitter the oil the higher the level of oxidation is likely to be.
Another measure is the amount of reflux you suffer with the oil. Cheaper bulk by fish oils tend to be mackerel, salmon or a blend of these together with smaller fish. These fish oils will often give you reflux due to the anisidine and peroxide content.
The Bottom Line
Fish oils naturally low in pesticide residues and pcbs, such as anchovy, sardine and krill will generally be low in anisidine and peroxides.
High Strength Fish Oil
Many companies are now overcoming the inconvenience factor in taking so many capsules by increasing the amount of actives (ie. epa and dha). This process is done by taking the epa and dha off the glycerol back bone and then sticking them back on.
Nowhere in nature do these high strength oils with over 180mg epa and 120mg dha exist. The processing of these oils can increase oxidation of the oil.
The Bottom Line
The general rule for all supplements is to take them as close to how they are found in nature. This increases the inconvenience but is a better option for your health.
Price & Dosage
The price depends on the dosage required. The therapeutic goods administration therapeutic dose guideline for omega-3 supplementation for joint health is 3 caps of natural fish oil three times daily.
The dosage required for high strength fish oil and krill oil to be therapeutic is 1 capsule per 20 kg of body weight. The dosage required for a regular fish oil is 1 capsule per 10kg of body weight.
The Bottom Line
The cheaper fish oils in the bargain bin of your chemist are most likely to be large farmed fish and will generally cost you around 15 cents to 30 cents a day to take a therapeutic amount at 1g per 10kg of body weight, making them the cheaper of the oils but this really is a case of you get what you pay for.
The drawback of krill oil is the cost. A krill oil supplement can cost up to 10 times more than a fish oil supplement. The daily cost of taking krill oil for an average 70kg person is around $1.50 to $3.00 per day at a dose of 1 per 20kg of body weight.
Somewhere in the middle is wild anchovy and sardine oil at a cost of around 35cents to 80 cents a day depending on the deal you can get. NatMed fish oil retails from around 5c to 15c per 1 gram capsule which works out to about 35 to 70 cents per day.
Small wild fish such as anchovy and sardine currently provide the best source of epa and dha in overall terms of sustainability, efficacy, purity (pcbs and pesticides), quality (oxidation level) and price however are potentially quiet inconvenient if you take 1 per 10 kg as recommended.
Krill potentially provides the best oil in terms of bioavailability however it’s effectiveness is still yet to be born out with scientific research. Krill is still more expensive on your purse and the environment.
The Absolute Bottom Line
If you want a scientifically proven, reliable and relatively cheap source of fish oil that is also sustainable on the environment and your purse then wild small fish oil such as anchovy and sardine oil are still the winner.
What Consumers Can Do

  • First you need to make a choice between the sustainability, cost and efficacy issues and decide which oil is best for you.
  • Get your dosage right! 1 g of fish oil per 10kg of body weight, 1g of krill per 20 kg body weight, daily is the therapeutic guideline.
  • Always ask your retailer what the source of your fish oil is.
  • Don’t consume an oil that tastes rancid.
  • Always ask your retailer to provide you a list of contaminants as well as peroxide and anisidine levels
  • Ask your retailer if your fish oil is sourced from a fishery using a sustainable catch policy.


Deborah Taylor
[email protected]