Guide to Omega Fatty Acids + Supplementing with Omega-3

Guide-to-Omega-Fatty-Acids-Supplements

The importance of omega fatty acids in your diet can’t be ignored. Omega-rich foods are crucial in my diet and omega supplements are a non-negotiable staple in my supplement stack. If you want to optimise your health, you may want to pop them in yours too. Here's why:

It is said that we evolved on a diet with a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 of approximately 1:1 [ 1 ]. In Western diets, this ratio is now said to be at least 10:1, with some sources suggesting that some individuals have a ratio as high as 25:1.

Essentially, we are getting too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3. And it’s making us sick.

These shockingly high ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 are one of the reasons why many diseases that are caused by or linked to inflammation (arthritis, allergies, heart trouble, Alzheimer’s, depression and cancer) are becoming epidemics in Western countries.

I have a chronic condition myself, Cystic Fibrosis, which is characterised and worsened by inflammation. So I’ve learnt as much as possible about omegas, from how to optimise your omega-3 to omega-6 balance and omega-3 and -6 testing, to the different types of omega supplements.

Unsurprisingly, the deeper I delved, the more questions I had and no single book, journal or web page could answer them all comprehensively. So this article pulls most of what I learnt together in a way that I hope will help you too. For that reason, it’s a bit of a long one - more of a guide, really (okay, it's an absolute monster of an article!) - but I’ve done my best to split it up into easy-to-digest sections.

I hope that you learn at least one thing from it and that it inspires you to make simple changes to improve your health long-term.

The Benefits of a good omega-3:omega-6 ratio

I’ve already mentioned that if your omega intake is out of balance, you may be prone to a whole host of inflammatory conditions and I’ll describe in the following sections a little more about why this inflammation occurs. (Prepare to get geeky!)

But simply, omega fatty acids are a really important nutrient. Like vitamins and minerals, their role in the body is so broad and so complex that it simply can't be reduced to a couple of paragraphs. Omegas affect many different systems in your body by many different processes and extensive amounts of new research is constantly proving more links.

Signs of omega deficiency

We tend to pay more attention to something when it is causing a problem, so perhaps it will be easier for you to relate to the signs of omega deficiency, rather than trying to explain the benefits (of which there are a lot that can often be hidden!).

If you have a chronic condition associated with inflammation, a worsening of symptoms associated is a big sign of omega deficiency. As a reminder, these include conditions like arthritis, asthma, eczema, psoriasis.

Other indications that you may be deficient in healthy essential fatty acids, include:

  • Dry, lifeless hair
  • Soft, frayed and brittle nails
  • Dry, scaly, itchy skin, or cracked skin, especially on heels and fingertips
  • Keratosis pilaris (pimply ‘goosebump’ skin often found on the upper arms, also known as ‘chicken skin’)
  • Problems with attention and motivation
  • Depression, mood swings, anxiety
  • Sleep problems
  • Impaired immunity
  • Period pain and other symptoms of PMS in women

Ensuring against omega-3 deficiency is especially important during pregnancy as omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, are the critical building blocks of the brain and eyes in foetuses. Omega-3s may also play a role in preventing perinatal depression.

How I can tell if I'm deficient in omega-3

More years ago that I can accurately remember, when I started to learn the immense benefits of omega-3s, I began taking them regularly in decent doses. When you do something for a long time and so habitually, it's easy to it take for granted.

So I’m most strongly reminded of the benefits of taking omega-3s if ever I don’t take them; if I run out or if I switch to a poorer quality supplement because my usual ones are out of stock or because I’m waiting for pay day. Here are a few things that I notice:

  • My nails had never been long. They'd always break long before I needed to cut or file them. Often they'd flake into layers. Since taking omega-3s, they are strong and grow long. As soon as I stop, they become bendy and split easily.
  • My hair had always been quite dry and coarse, never growing very long when I was younger. Now, it's the longest and healthiest it's ever been, but when I stop taking omega-3s, I notice the texture and growth rate change.
  • My skin is naturally dry. With good omega management, it becomes manageable, sometimes even becoming soft and smooth. If I go a while without omegas, it will revert to being dry, flaky and inflamed.

These things are superficial, but they're signs that something significant is changing on the inside.

It’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening internally, so these external cues are important.

I can't see the internal systems of my body - the insides of my lungs, my gut, my brain or my heart, to know for sure, but if I ever experience a flare up of symptoms related to CF and I increase my dose of omega-3, things seem to improve. It’s one of nature's best anti-inflammatories, after all.

So what exactly are omegas? The essentials on essential fatty acids

To understand omegas, it helps to know that fatty acids are natural components of the fats in your diet.

Based on their chemical structure, fatty acids can be differentiated into the different types of fats that you may be used to seeing on food labels: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Some particular types of fatty acid cannot be synthesised by humans. These are called essential fatty acids (EFA) and it’s essential that you get enough of them in your diet. Makes sense, right?

Only two EFAs are known for humans, both of which are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA): the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid (LA).

So omega-3s and omega-6s are an essential part of your diet.

You may also have heard of omega-7 and omega-9, but as these are non-essential fatty acids, I won’t dwell on them in this guide. (It's long enough already!)

Fun fact (for the geeky among you): if you’re wondering what the ‘-3’ in omega-3 stands for; it refers to the fact that the first double bond occurs at the third carbon atom from the end of the carbon chain that makes up its structure, and the ‘-’ is a minus rather than a dash. They are also sometimes known as n-3 fatty acids. (Likewise with omega-6 fatty acids).

Omega-Pathways-Natalie-Johanna

The Omega-3 Pathway

There are many different types of omega-3 fatty acids, of which ALA (the essential fatty acid) is sometimes referred to as the ‘parent’, because it is a precursor to other omega-3 fatty acids.

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the two most extensively studied omega-3s and these are the components that are usually listed on the labels of omega-3 supplements. They can be synthesized from ALA.

Although EPA and DHA always appear together, they serve slightly different functions in your body. For example, DHA is particularly important for pregnant women and children as it plays a crucial role for growth and development, including of the brain, nervous system and eyes.

From EPA, two important substances - series 3 prostaglandins (PGE3) and series 5 leukotrienes (LTB5) - can be formed. These are beneficial because they are highly anti-inflammatory.

The Omega-6 Pathway

Where the omega-3 pathway starts with ALA, the omega-6 pathway begins with linoleic acid (LA) (the other essential fatty acid, remember?).

This is converted by the body into gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). This is one of the few omega-6s that can have an anti-inflammatory effect, thanks to its production of PGE1.

GLA is also converted to arachidonic acid (AA). Unfortunately AA produces PGE2 and LTB4, which are inflammatory substances.

Therefore, people with chronic inflammatory disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel diseases might consider trying to reduce their AA consumption, so as not to exacerbate their symptoms.

Omega-3-Supplements-Essential-Fatty-Acids-Fish-Oil-Krill-Algae

Omegas and Inflammation Regulation

What is inflammation?

Hopefully, you now have some sense that there are key differences between omega-3s and omega-6s. Before delving into how they play a role in regulating inflammation, I just want to summarise what inflammation is:

Inflammation is your body's form of self-protection against things that might harm it. It’s part of your body’s immune response.

There are two different types of inflammation. Acute inflammation comes on rapidly and is severe in that it is very noticeable. For example, a wound on your skin, a sore throat, or muscle soreness after a workout. Here’s a good article from Medical News Today explaining what happens during acute inflammation.

What we’re talking about here though, is chronic inflammation that is long-term, lasting months or years. This can lead to the destruction of tissue, thickening and scarring of connective tissue (called fibrosis - like in Cystic Fibrosis), and the death of cells or tissues (called necrosis).

This type of inflammation occurs when something causing the acute inflammation (such as a bacteria) in not eliminated, if your body has an autoimmune response (where it attacks its own healthy tissues), or if you have prolonged exposure to an irritant (such as a chemical or allergen).

How can omegas regulate inflammation?

Particularly in the omega-3 pathway, the process of synthesising the various fatty acids is highly inefficient in humans and conversion rates are very low, especially for DHA [ 2 ].

Fish are much better at this job than us.

Omega-3s and omega-6s compete for the same enzymes that are required for the conversion process. Given that we consume up to ten times more omega-6 than omega-3, this spells trouble for our omega-3 synthesis.

Ultimately, the fatty acids at the top of the pathways undergo a process involving enzymes that turns them into chemicals known as prostaglandins (PGE1, 2, 3).

PGE1 and PGE3 are beneficial, with anti-inflammatory effects.

PGE2 (derived from omega-6s), however, has many pro-inflammatory effects. It causes inflammation. In fact, some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), like ibuprofen, work by directly interfering with PGE2 formation.

If you consume too many omega-6s, you overload this pathway and increase unwanted PGE2. Things that worsen this include:

  • Excess insulin production (due to excess sugar intake)
  • Excess milk and gluten consumption (as the opioid peptides in milk proteins and gluten blocks the enzyme required for the production of anti-inflammatory PGEs)
  • Lack of nutrients required (especially zinc, magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin C)
  • Under consumption of omega-3
  • Smoking, stress, pollution exposure, alcohol and trans-fat consumption (a.k.a. all the stuff that we know is bad…)

This explanation is keeping this fairly top line. There are many other omega-6 derived eicosanoids besides PGE2 which have been implicated in inflammatory processes including vasoconstriction (the constriction of your blood vessels, which increases blood pressure) to bronchoconstriction (the narrowing of your airways). [ 13 ]

Omega-3 and -6 Testing

There are a few different tests that can serve as indicators of your omega levels.

  • EPA/AA ratio looks only at EPA and AA as indicators
  • Omega-3:omega-6 ratio looks at multiple omega-3s and omega-6s as indicators
  • Omega-3 index looks predominantly at EPA and DHA amounts

These tests look at the amount of fatty acids deposited in the membranes of red blood cells. Since red blood cells live up to four months in the body, the test results reflect eating habits over the past one to four months.

I decided to get my levels tested and took the Omega 3 and 6 (Essential Fatty Acids Check) from MediChecks*

This is the second time that I have tested with MediChecks (the first being when investigating the role of testosterone in women). I tend to use their services for convenience, as they have more than 1200 tests and health checks available through their online blood testing and health screening services. Getting this particular test carried out by MediChecks costs £99.

This blood test looks at your ratio of omega-6 AA to omega-3 EPA. This is likely to provide a good indication of the level of cellular inflammation in the body and is considered a simple and reliable method for determining fatty acid status.

The optimal EPA/AA ratio is between 1.5 to 3. I found this table pretty helpful for indicating the implications of different AA/EPA ratios on health:

AA/EPA ranges Cellular Inflammation Future State of Wellness
1.5 - 3 Low Excellent
3 - 6 Moderate Good
6 - 15 Elevated Moderate
15 + High Poor

Source: http://www.drsears.com/resources/cellular-inflammation-testing/

My Omega Blood Test Result

My result was 3.93. I was told by the experts at MediChecks that this is an excellent score. I still have a little way to go to be absolutely optimal, but I’m really happy with this.

It's worth noting that it look a lot of effort for me to get to this score - a lot of attention to diet and consistent supplementation.

The team at MediChecks said that they could generally predict whether someone was supplementing with omega-3 by the result they saw. Many people who take this test have ratios over 10:1, which the team in the lab find surprising, given that if people take enough interest to invest in the test, it’s likely they have an already healthier lifestyle!

Medichecks-Omega-3-6-essential-fatty-acid-test-results
Medichecks-Omega-3-6-essential-fatty-acid-test-results

Should you have your omega levels tested?

Before tweaking your diet in any way, you may like to have your fatty acid balance tested so that you know your starting point.

However, if you have not been consuming many omega-3s and eat a lot of processed foods, it is highly unlikely that your levels will be optimal, and you would likely benefit from supplementing with omega-3s regardless.

If you are already eating a healthy diet and have been supplementing with omega-3s long-term, it may be worth you having your levels checked to ensure that they are healthy, as I did.

Finding omegas in foods

Foods containing omega-3

The omega-3 ALA can be found in plant-sources. The highest amounts are found in things like flaxseed, chia, and hemp, but can also be found in a wide range of other seeds and nuts, such as walnuts, pecans and almonds.

The more readily used form of omega-3, EPA and DHA, is most widely available from fish and seafood sources (having originally come from the plankton on which fish feed). Oily fish, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines and great sources. Other fish such as tuna also contains omega-3 but in smaller amounts. Krill is also a popular source for omega-3 supplements.

Ultimately, fish get their omega-3 from eating algae. Algae-sourced omega-3 is a great vegan alternative that might also appeal from a sustainability standpoint.

Aside from these sources, omega-3 can also be found in eggs and meat, though to lesser extents. Where fish oil has around 7 times more omega-3 than omega-6, meats tend to have higher amounts of omega-6 to omega-3. For example, grain-fed beef tends to have a 4:1 ratio of omega-6:omega-3. However, grass-fed animal products are a much better source of omega-3. Grass-fed beef tends to have an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of around 2:1.

Foods containing omega-6

Omega-6s are mainly derived from vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower and corn oils, which are commonly found in processed foods including spreads. These tend to be present in processed foods, so it’s a good idea to avoid things like fast-food meals, cakes and sweets to reduce excess intake of omega-6s (not to mention all the other bad stuff that this type of food is packed with).

GLA-rich sources of omega-6 include evening primrose oil, borage oil and blackcurrant seed.

Arachidonic acid can be found in meat, dairy produce and eggs.

Nuts are also high in omega-6s. They are beneficial within a varied diet, but they need to be balanced out with omega-3s.

Omega Supplements: What Should You Look For?

Given the increasing recognition of the importance of achieving a good omega-3 to omega-6 balance, omega supplements (omega-3 in particular) are becoming more popular.

I personally eat plenty of healthy fats in my regular meals, but I still find a lot of benefit in supplementing and recommend that you add some omega supplements into your diet too.

The first thing you should know though, is not all omega supplements are created equal. In fact, far from it.

Here are some key factors to consider when choosing your omega-3 supplement:

Dosage

Basic guidance suggests that for anti-inflammatory effects, at least 3-6g of omega-3 EPA and DHA a day is needed.

Although, when you think about it, your omega-3 requirements are to a large extent dependent on your omega-6 intake.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey reported that “consumption of oily fish in all age groups was well below the recommended one portion per week”, likely providing a miniscule one gram of these incredibly important omega-3s per week... if that!

Potency

Omega supplements must contain adequate amounts of EPA and DHA to have an anti-inflammatory effect. Some fish oils are concentrated (and will generally say ‘concentrate’ on the packaging, if so), indicating that they have higher amounts of these compounds per mg of oil.

However, beware of label inaccuracy. Labdoor, an independent company that tests supplements, performed 371 analytical chemistry assays on the 54 best-selling fish oil supplements in the United States and found that label inaccuracy was a huge issue. Total omega-3 content ranged from -60.0% to +62.5% versus their stated label claims.

Some companies pay for third party testing and certifications for their products from the IFOS (International Fish Oil Standards™). They help to set standards for potency, purity and freshness. (see next two sections to learn more about purity and freshness). You can search for product reports on companies and products here: http://www.nutrasource.ca/ifos/product-reports/

It’s worth knowing that this service is not provided for free by the IFOS. Companies have to pay for it. So while it may help give you peace of mind, more information about the product, and proof of transparency of the company, it will also boost up the price of your product.

Purity

As you are likely aware, there is a huge issue of many fish species containing high levels of toxic chemicals, including:

  • Heavy metals like mercury
  • Dioxins, which are highly toxic chemicals. Studies show they affect a number of organs and systems in your body, contributing to reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, hormone interference and cancers. Again, like PCBs, they are absorbed by fat tissue in animals, and eventually in us, where they are incredibly difficult to get rid of. [ 8 ]
  • PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which are toxic, dioxin-like, man-made chemicals that used to be used in products such as electrical equipment, inks, adhesives, flame-retardants, and paints. Many countries have now banned their use because of their danger to our health. PCBs are not water-soluble, but they are very soluble in fats, which explains why they can build up in animal fat, with increasing concentration up the food chain [ 9 ]

This is where another benefit of krill oil potentially arises; as krill are nearer the bottom of the food chain, there may be less concern around the oil containing contaminants such as heavy metals. Of course, better yet; get your omegas from the stuff that krill eat: algae!

You could also ask the company to provide you with a copy of their certificate of analysis, a document that states the product has been tested by an independent lab to measure and record the quality and quantity of ingredients within it.

Some brands offer transparent access to their certificates of analysis, such as Bare Biology, but if brands refuse to provide this standard industry document, be suspicious and don’t risk ingesting dangerous toxins.

Freshness

Another huge issue in the industry is the freshness of omega supplements, particularly those of fish oil.

There are measures that can be taken to prevent rancidity in fish oil supplements, which are fairly commonplace in manufacturing, including using antioxidants to slow the rate of oxidation, limiting exposure to air during manufacturing, and using gases like nitrogen to displace oxygen within the packaging.

These are all important steps as it is often suggested that oxidised, rancid fish oils could have the opposite affect on your body that you would hope; causing oxidative damage and inflammation that leads to modern inflammatory diseases. However, some studies claim that to be an overrated theory, owing to your body’s multiple detoxification and antioxidant systems. [ 12 ]

Generally fish oils should smell of fresh fish; not overly pungent. If they smell overly strong, like rotting fish, ditch them. If you’re unsure, when you first buy a product, you might like to break open a capsule of oil to better gauge the scent. Also, be wary of strong citrus scents, as manufacturers may have added these to mask rancidity.

If you have access to a Certificate of Analysis (mentioned above), the ‘peroxide value’ may prove useful here. When polyunsaturated fatty acids oxidize, the first compounds created are peroxides, so this measure is a good starting point, and should be less than 5 meq/kg.

While the above is all useful to understand, given that it’s the fishy smell/taste/burps that put people off taking fish oil, the smell/taste of a supplement is likely the best and simplest measure for judging freshness.

Once you’ve settled on a decent supplement, minimise exposure to air, heat and light to keep it fresh.

Bioavailability

How well your body absorbs the omegas is also critically important. The more natural the molecular structure of nutrients, the better your body can absorb them. Which is why the omegas from the fillet of salmon you have for dinner may be better absorbed by your body than a concentrated supplement form.

However, in terms of supplements there is some variation too. There are main three forms of fish oil available, which are, in order of increasing cost:

  • Natural triglyceride oil (TR), which is the product of ‘squeezing’ the oil from fish. While it’s the closest to consuming fish in its natural form, it’ll also have the associated drawbacks including lower EPA and DHA concentrations and the potential to contain contaminants.
  • Ethyl ester oil (EE), which is broken down (by removing the molecular backbone that connects the crucial fatty acids) to remove impurities and increase the concentration of EPA and DHA. However, interference with the molecular structure means your body must rebuild the resulting free fatty acids back into a triglyceride. Some studies suggest this leads to less efficient absorption, and potentially contributes to oxidative stress [ 3 ] though findings aren’t consistent [ 4 ]. Ethyl esters are not found in nature.
  • Synthetic triglyceride oil or re-esterified triglyceride (rTR), reassembles ethyl esters with concentrated EPA and DHA back into triglyceride form. Re-converting from ethyl ester oil means that your body benefits from the absorption advantage of the triglyceride form, though this re-conversion process makes the product more costly.

Regardless of form, studies show that consuming omega supplements along with a high-fat meal, can improve the bioavailability. [ 5 ] It seems that the presence of other fats activates the body’s fat absorption mechanisms. So, always try to take your omega supplements with a meal or snack containing fat.

Now is probably a good time to touch on the topic of krill oil too, as it has a slightly different molecular structure to fish oil: where fish oil EPA and DHA are triglycerides, krill oil EPA and DHA are phospholipids. Phospholipids are are water dispersible, which are, in theory, easier for your body to assimilate. However, studies have not proved that krill oil is better absorbed. [ 6 ]

One final source of omega-3 supplements that is very worthy of mention, is algae. Algae is a plant source of EPA and DHA, in triglyceride form. It is available (as far as I can tell) in non-concentrated form only. This is likely because there is no need to remove contaminants, though it does mean that algae supplements typically have smaller doses of EPA and DHA than many fish oil ones.

Additional Nutrients

Leading on nicely from the topic of bioavailability and absorption, is the consideration that some omega supplements contain additional nutrients that may increase their effectiveness.

Krill oil is well known to contain vitamins A and E, and a flavanoid called astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is the the red pigment present in salmon, krill and some times of algae (as well as in the feathers of flamingos!). It’s a potent antioxidant, which has benefits of itself, but in omega supplements specifically, it can help to protect the omega fatty acids against oxidising and becoming rancid.

You may also notice that some fish oil supplements contain added vitamin A, E or D. These, along with vitamin K, are fat-soluble vitamins (your body absorbs them better in the presence of fats) that are naturally present in natural cod liver oil. These vitamins may also have a synergistic effect when taken with omega-3 fatty acids [ 7 ]. Especially as people are often deficient in vitamin D, many brands include them in their omega blends.

Vitamin E is also often included for it's antioxidant properties, since it will help to preserve the oil, preventing it from oxidation.

While it is not often noted within the nutrient information on the supplement packets, algae can absorb and contain crucial marine minerals such as iodine.

Sustainability

Fish oil sustainability is incredibly hard to gauge, and yet, something we should all be incredibly mindful of.

Especially since reading the book Farmageddon, I find the thought of where some fish oils originate totally sickening.

More than 70% of global omega-3 supply currently comes from Peruvian anchovy fisheries. /[10] According to one fish oil brand, under these circumstances, “the entire catch is ground up and rendered into oil and fishmeal (what is called a reduction fishery). The fishmeal is fed to farmed salmon, and the oils are used for paints, lubricants, leather tanning, or dietary supplements.” [ 11 ]

While some might argue that oil from these sources is simply making use of parts that may otherwise be discarded, it supports vulgar fishing practises.

In Farmageddon, the author describes the issues of fish farms at length, and, following a visit to South America, goes into detail of the Peruvian fishmeal industry, which “exports ground-up fish to China and Europe to be fed to farm animals.” He defines fishmeal as “one of the filthiest secrets of the factory farming industry, an environmental catastrophe”, a process that “pumps vile, fatty waste into ocean bays, creating dead zones” and “pollutes the atmosphere around the processing plants, causing widespread human health problems”.

It is said that one of the best indicators of sustainability is a certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a third-party verification of good fisheries management. But, even the MSC has been scrutinised. Even choosing wild fish sources of omegas may not be a good idea, as wild fish species are increasingly threatened.

Perhaps sustainably produced algae is now our best option...

Cost

With omega supplements, it’s not the cost per ml or gram of oil that matters. It’s about the amount of EPA + DHA that you get for your money.

Omega supplements vary hugely in price, usually depending on their source and their concentration of EPA and DHA.

Natural fish oil is generally the cheapest, more concentrated fish oils are more expensive, and krill oil and algae are usually the priciest options.

As cost is a big factor in deciding which product to purchase, it’s well worth doing some research to help you best guess (because there really is no definitive answer, yet!) which product will give you most value for money on the factors that you deem important.

Avoiding heartburn when taking omega fish oil supplements

When I first started taking omega supplements several years ago, I often found they caused me to suffer with heartburn (which, to be honest, I’m prone to anyway), which really put me off taking them. But given that I have a chronic condition, Cystic Fibrosis, which is characterised by inflammation, I knew the importance of increasing my omega-3 intake through supplementation and worked hard to find a way to make it work.

With a little research and experimentation I found the best ways to overcome the issue was to:

  • Take concentrated (also referred to as ‘Max Strength’, ‘High Strength’ or similar) fish oil supplements, so that there more of the valuable EPA + DHA
  • Keep fish oil supplements in the fridge
  • Take fish oil supplements immediately before or with food, and especially focus on taking them at the same time as high-fat foods
  • Do your research and buy from reputable brands, increasing the likelihood that the fish oil isn’t oxidised

Supplements

I’ve spent months (and years!) trialling different supplements and have the biggest (geekiest) spreadsheet comparing different brands and products, their omega quantities, ingredients, and their overall value for price. (Worth noting that over months/years, some brands have changed their formulations too, so keep an eye out for that if you find a product that you like to repurchase regularly).

Want to know how I work out the best value supplement? I work out the price per gram of EPA + DHA in each (the good stuff). That's what I've done for every supplement in this guide for you. Get in touch if you'd like the formula to work this out for yourself on other supplements.

So without further ado, here are my most highly recommended omega supplements of the moment:

WHC-UnoCardio1000-VitaminD1000-Omega-Fish-Oil-Supplement
WHC-UnoCardio1000-Vitamind1000-Fish-Oil-Supplement-IFOS-Labdoor

WHC UnoCardio Fish Oil Supplements

WHC deserves a mention because it’s UnoCardio 1000 + Vitamin D 1000 product has been classified in since 2015 as the best-quality fish oil by the US independent laboratory Labdoor.

Here are the important details:

WHC UnoCardio 1000 + Vitamin D 1000
Source Fish (sustainably sourced sardine, herring, mackerel and anchovy)
Concentrate type 95% of the concentrate is omega-3 rTG
Total oil (mg) 1280
EPA (mg) 675
DHA (mg) 460
Total EPA + DHA (mg) 1135
Other omega-3 fatty acids 65
Total omega-3 1200
Price (RRP in £) £35.75 per box
Capsules/servings 60 softgels. 1 softgel per serving.
Price per capsule/serving (£) 0.60
Price per g EPA + DHA (£) 0.52

WHC UnoCardio 1000 dosage + cost

This supplement gives a really decent dose of omega-3. With 1280mg of oil per single softgel, each capsule is pretty big (although easy to swallow, in my opinion). It contains 1135mg (over 1g) of EPA + DHA per capsule thanks to it's concentrated form. Very impressive.

This supplement comes in at around 52p per gram of EPA + DHA.

In the report by Labdoor, WHC UnoCardio Fish Oil was ranked #1 in overall label accuracy, recording just a 0.3% variance in total omega-3 content and measuring within 0.7% of its EPA & DHA claims.

Their quality ranking is definitely reflected in the price, however, with each pack coming in at over £35 (cheaper though, if you take out a subscription, which I might). Perhaps why they didn’t rank top of the value charts too!

WHC UndoCardio 1000 ingredients

Deep sea fish oil rTG concentrate (from sustainably sourced sardine, herring, mackerel and anchovy from Peru and Chile), fish gelatine, humectant: glycerol, natural orange flavour, antioxidant: a balanced mix of rosemary and tocopherol rich extracts, cholecalciferol

Note: cholecalciferol is vitamin D3 and tocopherol refers to vitamin E, an antioxidant added to prevent formation of oxygen free radicals

WHC UnoCardio 1000 quality

As indicated by the Labdoor report, WHC UnoCardio 1000 + Vitamin D 1000 has a lot going for it in terms of quality:

  • The omega-3s are in a rTG form for better absorption
  • It’s manufactured from fish species and fisheries claimed to be sustainable and certified by ‘Friend of the Sea
  • The oil is purified using a cold and eco-friendly production process
  • Mercury content measured at less than 4 PPB (parts per billion), significantly below the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 (GOED) 100 PPB limit
  • Recorded peroxide level of 0.7 meq/kg, indicating freshness
  • I haven't been able to find a certificate of analysis readily available from them directly, but their products have been purity certified by IFOS, so reports can be found through the IFOS website.
Wileys-Finest-Omega-Supplements-Fish-Oil
Wileys-Finest-Fish-Oil-Omega-Supplement-Capsules-MSC

Wiley’s Finest Wild Alaskan Fish Oil Supplements

Wiley's Finest Wild Alaskan Fish Oil is a brand that I discovered in Whole Foods, boasting high quality and a nice brand story.

They’re made in the USA, from the fish caught by American fisherman, to being concentrated and bottled by American workers on their family owned & operated plant in eastern Ohio. I love that it's a family business - I even met one of the Wiley's at a nutrition trade show once (fan girl moment).

Specialising in fish oils, they have an extensive range of liquid and softgel products, of which their heroes are:

It's worth checking out the Wiley's website to browse the full range. But for now, here's how these two products compare at a glance:

Wiley's Finest Easy Swallow Minis Wiley's Finest Peak EPA Liquid
Source Fish (sustainable Alaskan fish) Fish (sustainable Alaskan fish)
Concentrate type Concentrated omega-3 ethyl esters 90% Triglycerides
Total oil (mg) 900 (2 capsules) 4500
EPA (mg) 360 1300
DHA (mg) 270 850
Total EPA + DHA (mg) 630 2150
Other omega-3 fatty acids 40 250
Total omega-3 670 2400
Price (RRP in £) 32.99 37.99
Capsules/servings 180 capsules. 2 capsules per serving. 50 x 5ml servings per 250ml bottle
Price per capsule/serving (£) 0.36 (2 capsules) 0.76
Price per g EPA + DHA (£) 0.58 0.35

Wiley's Finest dosage + cost

The amount of EPA + DHA in these fish oil products is really good, as would be expected from fish oil that has undergone a concentration process.

What's especially interesting, is that it's really clear when you see them side by side that fish oil liquids offer far better value for money, with a far lower price per g of EPA + DHA.

Wiley's Finest ingredients

Typical ingredients in their softgels are: Concentrated Fish Oil Omega-3 Ethyl Esters, Gelatin, Glycerin, Purified Water, Natural Mixed Tocopherols

Note: Tocopherols are a family of vitamin E compounds. As they are antioxidants, they are added to preserve taste and odor and prevent formation of oxygen free radicals.

Ingredients in the Peak EPA liquid is: Concentrated Wild Alaska Pollock (Fish) Oil Triglycerides, Natural Lemon Flavor, certified non-GMO Mixed Tocopherols (Natural Vitamin E)

Wiley's Finest quality

As far as fish oil supplements go, Wiley’s seems to be pretty good quality:

  • Wiley’s Finest boast regular third-party purity testing (you can find product reports through the IFOS although I couldn’t find certificates of analysis on their website), as well as membership of the GOED (Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s)
  • The IFOS reports that I looked at showed that Wiley’s often had more EPA + DHA than on their labels, which is really reassuring.
  • However, their softgels contain omega-3s in ethyl ester form, which may not be as well absorbed
  • Their Alaska Pollock and Pacific Whiting come from “well-managed fisheries”, certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and they claim that their “fish oil supply chain is rigorously monitored for quality and freshness through every step of the process”
  • The products contain tocopherol (vitamin E) as a natural preservative for the fish oil

While the list of cons is short from what I can glean, it’s worth noting that these fish oils are in ethyl ester form, which is not as readily absorbed by your body as triglyceride forms. It’s worth checking out the breakdown of their production process on their website for a simple explanation and diagram.

While the list of cons is short from what I can glean, it’s worth noting that these fish oils are in ethyl ester form, which is not as readily absorbed by your body as triglyceride forms. It’s worth checking out the breakdown of their production process on their website for a simple explanation and diagram.

Together-Health-OceanPure-Algae-Omega-Supplement
Together-Health-Algae-Vegan-Omega-Supplement-OceanPure

Together OceanPure™ Omega 3

Together is a brand that I discovered on my quest for algae oil omega-3 supplements.

Their focus is whole food and natural supplements, that don’t isolate nutrients or use artificial product additives and processing aids.

I tried their OceanPure Omega 3 capsules:

Together OceanPure Omega-3
Source Algae
Concentrate type Dried and pressed (not concentrated)
Total oil (mg)
EPA (mg) 123
DHA (mg) 207
Total EPA + DHA (mg) 330
Other omega-3 fatty acids 22 (DPA)
Total omega-3 352
Price (RRP in £) 13.99
Capsules/servings 30 capsules. 2 capsules per day.
Price per capsule/serving (£) 0.94 (2 capsules)
Price per g EPA + DHA (£) 1.41

Together Health OceanPure dosage + cost

It’s easy to see that algae oil has a higher naturally-occurring ratio of DHA to EPA than fish oil does. And, as algae oils do not tend to be concentrated (partly because they do not have any impurities that must be removed through processing), the overall dose of EPA and DHA is considerably lower.

The price per mg of EPA + DHA tends to be a lot higher than fish oil sources. For one gram of EPA + DHA from this algae oil supplement, it'll cost you a whopping £1.41.

Together Health OceanPure ingredients

Algae oil, vegetarian softgel capsule (vegetable glycerol from coconut oil, corn starch: non GMO, undegraded carrageenan from red seaweed, sodium carbonate from kelp)

One of the reasons that I chose Together was because of their ingredient transparency. I found that a lot of other algae oil supplements contained sunflower oil, an omega-6, and I’m still waiting to hear back from those brands on the purpose for this.

Together Health OceanPure quality

Being an algae-based product, OceanPure capsules have a number of benefits, including:

  • Algae is a sustainable and environmentally-friendly way to source omega-3
  • It’s grown in a 100% contamination-free environment and the omega is extracted without the use of chemicals
  • It’s vegan-friendly
Bare-Biology-Lion-Heart-Fish-Oil-Omega-Supplement
Bare-Biology-Lion-Heart-Fish-Oil-Omega-Supplement-IFOS

Bare Biology Lion Heart Omega-3 Liquid

Bare Biology fish oils are probably the best to come out of the UK. A British brand, they make their oils in Norway and the UK.

Their beautiful branding got them into stores like Liberty and Space NK. I have to admit, that at first, their appearance in beauty departments made me overlook them as a serious supplement brand. How wrong I was.

Bare Biology Lion Heart Oil Bare Biology Lion Heart Capsules
Source Fish Fish
Concentrate type rTG rTG
Total oil (mg) 3500 1460
EPA (mg) 2000 860
DHA (mg) 1000 440
Total EPA + DHA (mg) 3000 1300
Other omega-3 fatty acids 500 160
Total omega-3 3500 1460
Price (RRP in £) 47.50 28.50
Capsules/servings 30 120 capsules. 4 capsules per serving.
Price per capsule/serving (£) 1.58 0.95
Price per g EPA + DHA (£) 0.53 0.73

Bare Biology Lion Heart dosage + cost

I like that Bare Biology are transparent about how much a serving of omega 3 costs you (e.g. ‘Taking four teeny tiny Lion Heart capsules daily gives you 1300mg of Omega 3 and costs just 95p.’) but they compare this figure to what you’d get from other premium (high-price) lifestyle brands like Perricone MD and Bodyism, rather than to other supplement brands, so could be a bit misleading.

So, here’s what I think you need to know: Like other brands, the oil works out cheaper per g of EPA + DHA (the good stuff!) than capsules at 53p per gram compared to 73p per gram. While the actual cost of the serving works out more expensive, with liquid, it’s pretty easy to just have a smaller serving size if that concerns you.

In terms of price, Bare Biology offer discounted rates for a subscription, or if you buy a six-pack of product in one sale.

Bare Biology Lion Heart ingredients

Bare Biology Fish Oil Capsules contain: natural triglyceride-form fish oil from wild sardine, anchovy and mackerel, fish gelatin with glycerol BP, tocopherol

Bare Biology Fish Oil Liquid contains: natural triglyceride form fish oil from wild sardine, anchovy and mackerel, natural Sicilian lemon oil, tocopherol

Simple, natural, minimal ingredients.

Bare Biology Lion Heart quality

  • Bare Biology have their certificate of analysis available to download on each product page of their website. I love this transparency
  • However, it bothers me that they haven’t published their exact results for contaminants, they’ve only stated that they’re less than the maximum limit. That said, Bare Biology are IFOS certified for freshness, purity and potency so their product reports are accessible on the IFOS website
  • Their certificate of analysis indicates that these are 90% triglyceride format (5% ethyl ester) so should be well absorbed
  • All supplements contain tocopherol (vitamin E) as a natural preservative for the fish oil
  • They update each product page with the current product batch number and expiry date, so you know exactly what you’re getting and how long it’ll last you

My personal omega-3 supplement preferences

I don’t have a favourite omega-3 supplement, although looking at the results above, I’d be most inclined to repurchase WHC capsules or Wiley’s liquid, since they seem to be the best value for money. When restocking, I’ll also take into account anything that is one offer, and I’ll definitely be looking into subscription and multi-pack options since I know I will be taking omega-3 supplements long-term.

If you’re still not sure on which product to get, here are a few of my other thoughts and preferences that might guide you...

Thoughts on algae vs fish oil

In the months spent researching and writing this guide, and with a growing consciousness of the world we live in (through reading books such as Farmageddon), my perspective on omega supplements changed a little.

During the last year I began exploring algae supplements as a source of omega-3, in a quest for higher quality and a healthier planet. While I love the Together Health brand and the OceanPure product listed in this article, I sadly didn’t see the benefits from taking it.

I personally need much higher doses of EPA and DHA for my own health than I can get from algae (without going through a pack in under a week and not being able to pay my rent, since it’s about three times the price of fish oil per gram of the good stuff).

and krill?

Yeeeeah, I didn’t include a krill supplement did it? That’s because I just haven’t found one that I’m happy with.

I’ve had ones where capsules have burst and where they reek so much that I’ve thrown a nearly-full box away. I've chucked away samples and I've turned down opportunities to be paid to write about krill products because I am just not happy with them.

I find that they are very expensive and, like with algae, I just haven’t seen huge benefits from them without breaking the bank.

If or when I find a krill supplement that I’m happy to recommend, I’ll edit this article and let you know on social media or via my mailing list (you can sign up in the sidebar).

Thoughts on taste and texture

This is actually a pretty important point. If you are put off by the taste or texture of the supplement that you are taking, you are much less likely to take it consistently and get the benefit from it.

I don’t like to notice the taste of texture of my supplements and so I prefer capsules over liquid. I have a very sensitive sense of taste and can detect fishiness, even in flavoured products. I also dislike the texture of drinking the oil. It has been known to make me gag. Sure, it only lasts a couple of seconds, but if I take a capsule, it’s something that I don’t have to think about at all. I’m going to try and get used to it, since it’s generally better value for money, but it may take me some time.

To conclude...

I am hugely conscious of health and nutrition and make a point of eating a healthy, balanced diet, yet it still required a lot of supplementation for me to get to only a near-optimal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

Ultimately, if you eat crappy, processed food, your omega-3 and omega-6 pathways will not be optimal. If you eat real, whole foods and cover yourself by taking some supplements, you’ll be okay. Though the evidence suggests you should probably still consider an omega-3 supplement either way.

We should all be careful of what we eat and what types of fats we ingest, but we should be careful about labelling any one fatty acid as exclusively ‘good’ or ‘bad’. You need a varied diet that you enjoy. One that is healthy but also sustainable.

As always, leave me a comment or get in touch via social media @_nataliejohanna with any questions.

TLDR? Here's a summary

  • Omegas-3 and -6 are essential fatty acids, meaning that we must get them from our diet.
  • Omega-3s are hard to get enough of in your diet, and unlike fish, are bodies aren’t very good at synthesizing the good stuff from them: EPA and DHA.
  • Omega-6s are kind of the bad guys. They compete for the enzymes needed to make the good stuff from omega-3s, and they will often win, especially since we eat such a huge amount of them.
  • We evolved eating a ratio of 1:1 omega-3 to omega-6 until about 150 years ago. Now, we eat 10x to 25x more omega-6 than omega-3. This is one of the reasons we’re experiencing epidemics of inflammatory diseases.
  • Omega-3s can really help in the management of inflammatory conditions like arthritis, but are also important for your brain, heart, joints, eyes, hair, skin, nails, nervous system… They play a lot of complex roles in your body.
  • It’s possible test your omega profile through a simple blood test.
  • If you’re considering taking omega-3 supplement, you should consider: purity, freshness, dosage and potency, added nutrients, bioavailability, sustainability, cost, taste and texture.
  • It’s not the cost per ml or gram of oil that matters when choosing a supplement, it’s about the EPA + DHA that you get for your money.

I referred to A LOT of different resources when creating this guide. Here are references from the text above, but I have a whole list of other resources noted down that I'm happy for you to request if you're on your own hunt, still trying to learn more. 

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12442909
[2] http://lipidworld.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1476-511X-8-33
[3] http://prnomegahealth.com/wp-content/uploads/TGvsEE_English_04-05-11_review2.pdf
[4] http://www.sciencebasedhealth.com/Fish-Oil-EE-vs-TG-omega-3s-which-is-better-W119.aspx
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1826985
[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3509649/ 
[7] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150225094109.htm
[8] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs225/en/ 
[9] http://www.greenfacts.org/en/pcbs/index.htm#1
[10] http://www.nutraingredients.com/Research/Look-to-GM-plants-and-algae-to-meet-omega-3-demand-researchers-urge
[11] http://wileysfinest.com/faq/ 
[12] http://www.goedomega3.com/index.php/files/download/337
[13] https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jnme/2012/539426/