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Holistic Health News: Not All Fish Oil is Created Equally, Part 1

Not All Fish Oil is Created Equally -Some May Actually be Bad for Your Health!

By now, most people have heard that fish, and fish oil supplements, are beneficial for health.  Hundreds of research studies link the consumption of cold-water fish or fish oil with heart health, joint and arthritis relief, mood elevation, etc.  If you aren’t familiar with the benefits of fish oil, you may wish to read other articles on

The focus of this article is to teach you how to purchase effective and safe fish oil.  Yes, we said safe.  Poor quality fish oil may not just be a waste of your money, but may actually be dangerous for your health!  Below we’ve detailed some of the issues to look out for when choosing a good fish oil supplement.

Naturally Processed or Manipulated with Chemicals? How to Reap the Natural Health Benefits of Your Fish Oil Supplement.

During the first step in fish oil production, oil is taken from the tissues of fatty fish and then processed into the supplements that you take.

Natural fish oil and other natural fats occur in triglyceride form and their fatty acids are bound to a glycerol backbone.  Prior to processing, a natural fish oil in its triglyceride form will contain a mixture of long and short-chain fatty acids bound to the glycerol backbone.

Put another way, the fatty parts of fish in their natural state are a jumble of different types of fatty acids, all attached in various combinations to a molecule of “glycerol,” an organic compound composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.  This “glycerol” is where we get the term “triglyceride.”  In order to separate and concentrate the EPA and DHA (the omega-3 fatty acids that have so many health benefits), supplement manufacturers have to separate out the EPA and DHA from all the other types of fatty acids present in the fatty parts of the fish.

Unprocessed fish oil contains fairly low amounts of EPA and DHA (only 10-20% of the total fatty acids).  Without this separation and concentration, you would have to take many, many more pills or teaspoons of a fish oil supplement to receive the full health benefits.

The way manufacturers do this, however, varies, and is an important distinction in choosing a high quality fish oil supplement.

Some companies will use chemicals such as solvents to remove the essential fatty acids from the rest of the fat, then distill out the pieces they don’t want, and synthetically piece it all back together, creating an unnatural essential fatty acid that is different from what occurs in nature. 

Other companies use alcohol to remove the unwanted pieces, then put them back together in combination with ethanol.  Still others use excessive heat, which can destroy the natural fish oil.  In all these scenarios, a synthetic molecule is created but it may still be labeled as “natural.”  For those of you familiar with how olive oil is created, or have read our past articles on this subject (available at, you can see the similarity in how the processing of the oil can make a big difference in the quality of the final product.

A better way of processing fish oils used by high quality supplement manufacturers are to concentrate the long-chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA) in the fish oil without the use of alcohol or chemical solvents.  Methods used by well respected companies include using water and clay filters as well as an enzymatic molecular distillation process, eliminating the need to use chemicals or heat.  Another company we recommend uses natural lipase enzymes (the same enzymes our pancreas creates to help our bodies naturally break apart fats) to remove just the shorter chain fatty acids from the fish oil triglyceride, leaving the EPA and DHA untouched.  This process mimics the first stages of our natural digestive process, producing a concentrated fish oil that looks just like what would be created by nature.

Naturopathic Doctors Say Be Aware if Your Fish Oil Smells or Tastes like Rotten Fish!

Another way to tell if your fish oil supplement is of high-quality is by the smell and taste.  Good products will be palatable, lacking fishy odors or aftertaste.  Bad fish oils often smell like low-tide, like rotten fish, like a fish market.  They may also taste disgusting, and lead to belching of fishy odor for hours after consumption.  No wonder so many people don’t like to take their fish oil!!

The reason for this may be from poor quality original ingredients, particulates such as protein that haven’t been properly filtered, or rancidity due to unstable products that haven’t been properly preserved.  Occasionally this side effect is seen in patients who have suboptimal digestive functioning, and may have nothing to do with the fish oil supplement itself.  In general, quality fish oils should taste fresh, and shouldn’t cause any aftertaste or belching. 

Additional Issues in Choosing a Fish Oil Supplement

There are other issues to consider when choosing a fish oil supplement including environmental toxicity, quantity of the active ingredient, and reading labels.  We detail these other very important concerns in our Part II and Part III articles.

Holistic Health Article Sources:
1: Marz, Russell, ND.  Medical Nutrition from Marz, 2nd Edition.  Portland, Oregon: Omni-Press, 1999.
2: Gatpandan, Nelda, Account Executive at Genestra/Seroyal.  Emails to Dr. Kristina Lewis, May 6 and June 26, 2009.
3: Foran SE, Flood JG, Lewandrowski KB. Measurement of mercury levels in concentrated over-the-counter fish oil preparations: is fish oil healthier than fish?
Arch Pathol Lab Med, 2003; 127(12):1603-1605.
4: Virtanen J, Voutilainen S. Mercury, Fish Oils, and Risk of Acute Coronary Events and Cardiovascular Disease, Coronary Heart Disease, and All-Cause Mortality in Men in Eastern Finland. Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 2005;25:228.
5: Foran JA, Good DH, et al. Quantitative Analysis of the Benefits and Risks of Consuming Farmed and Wild Salmon. J. Nutr., 2005;135:2639-2643.
6:  Leslie G Cleland, Michael J James, and Susanna M Proudman. Fish oil: what the prescriber needs to know.  Arthritis Res Ther. 2006; 8(1): 202.
7.  Perlmutter, David, MD.  What are Environmental Toxins? April 2008:
8:  Melanson SF, Lewandrowski EL, Flood JG, Lewandrowski KB.  Measurement of organochlorines in commercial over-the-counter fish oil preparations: implications for dietary and therapeutic recommendations for omega-3 fatty acids and a review of the literature.  Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2005 Jan;129(1):74-7.  Clinical Laboratories Division, Department of Pathology, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.
9:  Foran SE, Flood JG, Lewandrowski KB.  Measurement of mercury levels in concentrated over-the-counter fish oil preparations: is fish oil healthier than fish?  Arch Pathol Lab Med. 2003 Dec;127(12):1603-5.  Division of Laboratory Medicine, Department of Pathology, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass 02114, USA.

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