You’re no doubt aware that Omega-3 fatty acids are critically important. (A recent JAMA study* reinforced this, concluding that individuals with healthy Omega-3 levels experienced a 65% slower cellular aging process.*) But do you know where the “Essential” in “Essential Fatty Acids” comes from?
Much like essential amino acids, EFA’s cannot be made in the body, but they’re a requirement if the body is to function properly. Therefore, since you can’t make them, you have to consume them.
Further complicating the issue, not all Omegas are created equal. If you’ve explored this topic, you may recall reading about various sources of Omega-3, positives and negatives about Omega-6 (more on that later), and the delicate balances all of these factors need to effectively function in the body.
Among Omega-3 variants, the fish-derived variety is king. EPA and DHA, the most active components of Omega-3, are in their ready-to-use, most bioavailable form in fish oil.
But even people with fish in their diet can be deficient, particularly if they’re consuming farm-raised fish. If a fish is farm-raised, it is not forced to swim upstream. It is this exertion within a fish’s body that causes the development of the critical Omega-3 components EPA (which is critical for healthy triglyceride balance, healthy eyes, heart, skin and systemic function) and DHA (which is critical to cognitive health). Even if Omega-3 is detected in a fish’s fatty lipids, it is highly unlikely that your body will be able to make much use of it.
With standard fish oils, the EPA/DHA yield is the most important relative factor.
Many fish oils will tout themselves as having 1,000 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids per serving. While important, this measurement is only part of a much bigger picture, and is often intentionally misleading to make consumers believe the product is better than it actually is. Why is it that a bargain-brand fish oil costs $10, while a professional-grade product sells for $40?
Most of the time, it comes down to sourcing, processing, dosage yield and purity.
Fish are notorious for storing lead, cadmium, PCB’s, and over 20 other toxic contaminants. Proper purification is critical to clean fish oil. Pelagic (small) fish (which have not yet had a chance to accumulate these contaminants) sourced from Arctic waters tend to be the cleanest and most desirable source for high-quality, professional-grade fish oils. Furthermore, the product’s yield of EPA and DHA should be listed as a sub-set of the total Omega-3 dosage. If they are not listed, or if those components together do not add up to AT LEAST half of the Omega-3 dosage listed (for example, if a fish oil has 1,000 mg of Omega-3, the EPA and DHA added together should equal at least 500 mg), you are looking at a low-quality fish oil. Ideally, those components should also be in a 3/2 EPA/DHA ratio.
In addition, the balance of different types of Omega fatty acids is critically important.
For example, the typical American diet is usually deficient i Omega-3, but usually has an excess of Omega-6, particularly the bad kind. These can cause or aggravate inflammation due to the Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids competing for the same signaling enzymes for systemic delivery. That is why maintaining a healthy ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 (ideally a 1:1 to 3:1) is so critical.
* Farzaneh-Far, R. et al. (2010). Association of Marine Omega-3 Fatty Acid Levels With Telomeric Aging in Patients With Coronary Heart Disease. JAMA, 303(3), 250-257
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