Are Some Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplements Better Than Others?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplements

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

truth about omega-3 fish oil supplementThe ethyl ester form of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil has been the industry standard for high purity omega-3 fish oil supplements for many years. It is very stable, easily purified, and well absorbed by the body. What’s not to like?

If you believe some recent advertisements, there is a lot not to like about the ethyl ester form of omega-3s. These ads each claim that their particular form of omega-3s is more natural, better absorbed, and more efficiently incorporated into cell membranes, or some combination of those features. They each cite clinical studies “proving” that their products are superior. These advertisements seem so plausible and so compelling.

However, most of these advertisements come from relatively new companies that are trying to make a name for themselves in a very profitable and competitive product niche. Are the advertisements true, or is it all just smoke and mirrors? Most of these advertisements rate at least one Pinocchio.

However, it is almost impossible to tell you why I consider these advertisements omega-3 fish oil supplements to be misleading without getting a little “techie”, so let’s start with some basic definitions. I call this section “Omega-3s 101.”

 

Omega-3s 101

 

Let’s start with some basic definitions:

  • Free fatty acids (FFA) are long chain hydrocarbons with a single acid group at the end. They are only slightly water soluble. They are important intermediates in metabolism, but they are almost always combined with something else in the body.
  • Saturated fatty acids contain no double bonds, monounsaturated fatty acids contain one double bond, and polyunsaturated fatty acids contain multiple double bonds. The number of double bonds primarily affects whether they are liquids (polyunsaturated) or solids (saturated) at room temperature.
  • omega-3 fatty acidsThere are two classes of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential because the body cannot make them. Those with a double bond 3 carbons from the end are called omega-3s(If you think about the Greek alphabet, omega is at the end). Those with a double bond 6 carbons from the end are called omega-6s.
  • When 3 fatty acids are combined with a single molecule of glycerol they form very water insoluble compounds commonly referred to as fats or triglycerides. The proper chemical name is triacylglycerol, which is abbreviated TAG.
  • If one of the fatty acids on the glycerol chain is replaced by a compound containing phosphate and other charged residues, the resulting complex is called a phospholipid (PL). Because these compounds have a hydrocarbon surface that is attracted to fats and a highly charged surface that is attracted to water, they are good at emulsifying fats and are an important part of membrane structure. One phospholipid that is a major component of membranes is called phosphatidylcholine (PC), also known as lecithin.

Next, let’s look at how omega-3 fatty acids are metabolized:

  • The omega-3s in fish oil are primarily in the form of triglycerides, with small amounts of phospholipids. The omega-3s in most omega-3 supplements are in the form of ethyl esters for the reasons stated above.
  • Before the omega-3s leave the intestine they are hydrolyzed to free fatty acids.
  • In the cells that line the intestine the omega-3s are reconverted back into triglycerides and phospholipids and incorporated into special lipid-protein complexes for transport through the blood.
  • Once these lipid-protein complexes reach our cells, their contents are delivered to the cell where they can be stored as fat (TAG), used for energy (FFA), or incorporated into membranes (PL). It is primarily the omega-3s incorporated in cellular membranes that are thought to be responsible for the beneficial effects of omega-3s.

Finally, we should ask how one measures the bioavailability of the various forms of omega-3s:

While there are some nuances that I did not cover, the basic mechanisms of absorption and metabolism of omega-3s are remarkably similar regardless of whether they start out in the ethyl ester, triglyceride, phospholipid, or free fatty acid form. The questions then become, how does one test how efficiently the various forms are utilized by the body and how much do these individual test actually tell us?

  • When we look at what happens in the bloodstream, we need to be aware that we are looking at a combination of two effects – how rapidly the substance enters the bloodstream and how rapidly it leaves from the bloodstream. There are three important parameters we can measure when looking at delivery of omega-3s to the bloodstream:
    • The maximum concentration achieved (Cmax)
    • How rapidly that maximum concentration was achieved (Tmax)
    • The total amount in the bloodstream over time (AUC)
  • When you look at some of the ads touting specialized forms of omega-3s, they are usually based on studies looking at either the maximum levels of omega-3s in the bloodstream (Cmax) or how rapidly those maximum levels were achieved (Tmax). (One suspects the ads may have selectively featured whichever parameter made their product look best). However, the parameter that really matters is the total concentration of omega-3s achieved over time (AUC).
  • Finally, the most important question is how much of the omega-3 is actually incorporated into cellular membranes. Once again, there is more than one parameter that can be measured.
  • One can measure the level of omega-3s found in cellular membranes in a short term study (a few hours) or in a long term study following many weeks of supplementation.
  • The short term studies only measure the rate of incorporation. The long term studies measure the steady state levels attained over time, which is a much more relevant measure.
  • Once again, the ads touting specialized products are usually based on short term studies which are really measuring an initial rate of incorporation of omega-3s into cellular membranes, not on long term studies that measure the steady state level of omega-3s achieved over time.

 

Are Some Omega-3 Fish Oil Supplements Better Than Others?

omega-3 fish oil supplementThere has been a lot of confusion in the literature about whether the form of omega-3 supplements matters. Various studies have been published supporting the superiority of one form or another of omega-3s. Most of these studies have been supported by manufacturers who have a particular form of omega-3s they want to sell, and, as I mentioned above, the parameters tested seem to have been selected to make their supplement look good.  So, are some omega-3 fish oil supplements better than others?

 

Finally, someone has designed a comprehensive study to clear up all the confusion and provide answers that can be trusted (West et al, British Journal of Nutrition, 116: 788-797, 2016). Interestingly, this research was supported by a pharmaceutical company (Vifor Pharma) that does not appear to sell an omega-3 product currently. Perhaps they simply wanted to find out what worked best before designing their own product. What a novel concept!

The authors tested 4 different forms of omega-3 fish oil supplements:

  • Unmodified fish oil containing the omega-3s primarily in triglyceride form (uTAG).
  • An omega-3 supplement in which the omega-3s in the fish oil had been hydrolyzed to free fatty acids (FFA).
  • An omega-3 supplement in which the omega-3s in the fish oil had been hydrolyzed to free fatty acids and converted back to triglycerides (TAG)
  • An omega-3 supplement in which the omega-3s in the fish oil had been hydrolyzed to free fatty acids and converted to ethyl esters (EE)

All 4 supplements contained 1.1 grams of EPA and 0.37 grams of DHA.

The authors conducted two studies:

  • One was a cross-over study where healthy men consumed each of the supplements in random order on different days with 14 days between tests. Blood samples were collected over the next 6 hours and levels of EPA and DHA in the blood and cellular membranes was determined.
  • The other was a long term study in which a randomized group of healthy men and women consumed one of the supplements for 12-weeks and incorporation of the EPA and DHA into cellular membranes was measured.

The results were pretty clear cut:

  • In the short term study there were no significant differences between the various supplements in the rate of uptake, maximum concentration achieved, or the total concentration over time when uptake of omega-3s into plasma triglycerides and phospholipids was measured.
  • The ethyl ester form was less efficiently incorporated into plasma free fatty acids than the other forms as reported in some previous studies, but this is perhaps the least important parameter measured, and there was large variability from subject to subject.
  • In the long term study, no significant differences were seen between the various supplements in omega-3 incorporation into cellular membranes.

The authors concluded: “Together, these findings show that in healthy individuals neither the lipid structure nor the overall fatty acid composition of supplements influence their bioavailability during dietary supplementation, despite the apparent lower postprandial availability [in short term studies] of EPA + DHA ethyl esters compared with triglycerides or free fatty acids.”

What Do These Studies Mean For You?

You can forget all those ads hyping the newest, greatest form of omega-3 fish oil supplements. Objective research has shown there is not a dimes worth of difference between the various forms of omega-3 supplements.

A far more important question is the purity of the omega-3 supplement you are using. Purity of omega-3 supplements is a huge issue. You need to remember that the EPA + DHA supplements you purchase come from polluted fish. Unfortunately, many manufacturers have inadequate purification and quality control standards. In other words, neither you nor they know whether their omega-3 products are pure. You need to make sure that the omega-3 supplement you purchase is made by a manufacturer with stringent quality control standards.

Sustainability is also an issue, so you should choose manufacturers who source their omega-3s in a sustainable manner. There are two comments I will make about sustainability so you won’t be misled.

  • Krill oil is marketed as a more sustainable source of omega-3s. Krill reserves are quite large, but they are not infinite. Krill is also the very foundation of the food chain that supports a large percentage of our ocean’s fish. We need to be very cautious about depleting our krill reserves.
  • Omega-3s derived from algae are also marketed as a more sustainable source of omega-3s. Algae-derived omega-3s have purity issues of their own, but may become an important source of omega-3s once those issues have been resolved.

 

The Bottom Line

  • The ethyl ester form of omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil has been the industry standard for high purity fish oil supplements for many years. It is very stable, easily purified, and well absorbed by the body.
  • However, in recent years, some manufacturers have been claiming that their omega-3 fish oil supplements were better utilized by the body because their supplements contained the omega-3s in triglyceride or free fatty acid forms.
  • Unfortunately, the clinical studies supporting those claims have been supported by the manufacturers making the products. There is reason to suspect that the data has been “cherry picked” to support the conclusions that support the manufacturer’s claims.
  • Finally, an independent and comprehensive study has compared the various forms of omega-3 fatty acids. It found that neither the lipid structure nor the overall fatty acid composition of omega-3 supplements influenced their bioavailability during long term dietary supplementation.
  • A far more important question is the purity of the omega-3 supplement you are using. Purity of omega-3 supplements is a huge issue. You need to remember that the EPA + DHA supplements you purchase come from polluted fish. Unfortunately, many manufacturers have inadequate purification and quality control standards. In other words, neither you nor they know whether their omega-3 products are pure. You need to make sure that the omega-3 supplement you purchase is made by a manufacturer with stringent quality control standards.

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Comments (3)

  • Peggy Shearin

    |

    very, very interesting..

    Reply

  • Gary & Cynthia (Tommie) Hearrell

    |

    If a person has an allergy to fish can they take Shaklee’s OmegaGuard?

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Shaklee’s OmegaGuard is highly purified, so it should contain no allergens. You should probably start with one capsule first.

      Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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