Omega-3 fatty acids are known to provide health benefits. But, where do these omegas come from? How much is recommended? This guide was written to answer these questions and more!
What are the types of omega-3s?
There are two types of omega-3s: plant-based omega-3s and marine-based long-chain omega-3s.
First of all, omega-3s of plant origin are molecules composed of shorter and less unsaturated carbon chains than those of marine origin. The main one is alpha linolenic acid, also called ALA, which is found in several nuts (e.g.: walnuts), flaxseed, chia seeds, canola oil, soy, etc. This acid is usually accompanied by omega-6. Note that omega-3s and 6s are essential fatty acids because they are not made by the human body.
Plant-based omega-3s would be considered precursors to long-chain omega-3s due to the fact that our bodies can make long-chain omega-3s from plants. But, this vision is a bit reductive, because vegetable omegas are not only used as raw material for long-chain omega-3s. Among other things, they play a role in the structure of our cell membrane as well as other important roles in our body. By the way, did you know that the human body burns about 80% of these fatty acids to create energy? Ultimately, this means that the body does not store these fatty acids and is very inefficient at turning them into long chain omega-3s.
Then there are the omega-3s of marine origin which are found in fish oils. They are the most sold on the market in addition to being part of a very large majority of studies! In their natural state, fats come in a 3-pack because they are stored as triglycerides. In the form of what? The triglyceride form is defined as 3 fatty acids that are bound to a glycerin backbone. For fish oils, it’s a little different. Each triglyceride is made up of a single long-chain fatty acid (EPA or DHA) bonded to two other less valuable fatty acids such as monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids. This causes basic fish oil products to contain a maximum omega-3 concentration of around 30%. On the market, it is what is on the shelves; basic products composed of 18% EPA and 12% DHA.
How to get a higher concentration?
Raw material producers like Ocean Nutrition (one of the world’s largest suppliers, based in Nova Scotia) use industrial technology to detach fatty acids from their triglycerides (TG). You should know that you cannot make a product with free fatty acids, because they are unstable. Once released from their glycerin, they are therefore recombined by inserting a second long-chain fatty acid into the structure to obtain two omega-3s per triglyceride (2/3). It is impossible to put three long-chain fatty acids on the same triglyceride because the molecule thus obtained is unstable due to lack of space. Indeed, long-chain omega-3s, because of their many double bonds, have a much more complex three-dimensional structure than that of a saturated fatty acid or even a vegetable omega-3.
A maximum of 60% omega-3s are found in the products created from this process. The main ones contain 40% EPA and 20% DHA.
If you want to achieve higher concentrations (60% and more) or different omega-3 ratios, the technology and the chemical compound must be changed. Ethyl esters therefore come into play at this point. Since free fatty acids are not stable, a way to stabilize them has been developed by combining them with an ethanol through a chemical bond called an ester, hence the name ethyl ester or EE. These new compounds make it possible to distinguish the effect of ADH from that of EPA.
But then, between triglycerides and ethyl esters, is there one that is more natural than the other? Ethyl esters already exist in nature and our liver manufactures them as an intermediate for the transport of fatty acids. Despite this, you should know that there is little difference between these two molecules.
Being almost identical in terms of bioavailability, it is still important to point out that triglycerides are slightly better absorbed. They also have a greater number of clinical documentations except for psychological indications (mood disorders, bipolar disorders or depression). In cases of psychological indications, concentrated EPAs (an EE) should be considered.
N.B.: The fact that they are less natural does not mean that they are less good.
Myths vs. reality
Does the combination of omega-3 and Styrofoam ring a bell? It all happened in Vancouver when a representative compared their omega-3-rich product to the competition. Their demonstration consisted of pouring their product into a glass of Styrofoam to show that nothing happened while with the product of the competition, the Styrofoam glass melted in front of the eyes of the spectators. Following the demonstration, this representative affirmed that their product was good and natural, while that of the competition was dangerous.
Of course, there is a logical explanation behind this reaction, but this does not demonstrate that a product is dangerous or not. It is the difference in polarity between triglycerides and ethyl esters that creates or does not create this reaction. The latter melted the Styrofoam, but not the triglycerides. Even if this demonstration may seem very shocking, it does not mean that one product is more natural and safer than the other. Do you doubt it? If we look in the field of essential oils, some dissolve varnishes and plastics, but they are not toxic. Here too, it is simply a matter of affinity between two substances.
Another point of which we must pay attention concerns the claims of certain companies. The latter ensured that only their product was fresh, because the oil used came from environmental fishing under their strict control and that only small fish were used, etc. The catch here is that the majority of companies source from the same suppliers. In addition, the freshness of the oil is not influenced in any way by fishing, but by quality control. This freshness is measured by the peroxide value which establishes the actual oxidation rate of the oil (this step is part of the quality control tests of omega-3 suppliers).
Is it true to say that small fish are less contaminated than large ones? In foods, this is true, but when talking about an extract such as fish oil, this statement does not apply. Within good manufacturers, the oils are purified through filtration and distillation in addition to rigorous quality control that measures the presence of various contaminants. This therefore guarantees a content below the detection thresholds. You should also know that all Canadian companies must carry out these quality controls which are imposed by the Natural Health Products Directorate of Health Canada (NHPD).
What are the recommendations related to efficacy?
In order to obtain the desired results, it is important to know the recommended amounts of omega-3s according to the health issue targeted. For this guide, we will focus on 4 aspects in particular.
- When it comes to depression, it has been concluded that a product should contain around 1000mg of EPA and as little DHA as possible.
- With regard to inflammation issues, logic dictates that we mainly use EPA since it is the precursor of anti-inflammatory eicosanoids which are chemical mediators produced by the cells. But, the majority of studies have been done with TG fish oils which contain a significant proportion of DHA. Moreover, we have now discovered anti-inflammatory chemical mediators derived from ADH called docosanoids.
- For cardiovascular issues, there is no consensus on the predominance of one omega-3 compared to another. There are as many studies that have used products rich in DHA as in EPA. In the end, the experts do not speak of a precise ratio, but agree on the overall omega-3 dosages.
- The last aspect concerns the development of the brain. We know that the brain of the fetus, infants, children and young adolescents are able to use DHA as a building tool. However, once in adulthood, this ability is greatly diminished. This is why it is crucial that DHA be consumed throughout our lives to be able to claim that it can prevent cognitive decline. In other words, to reduce the risk of cognitive decline, DHA or fish consumption must be adopted as a healthy lifestyle habit and not as a single compound. In this case, it is also the total quantity of omega-3s that counts, without a specific ratio.
In short, fish omega-3s are among the most important substances for human health as well as for all kinds of indications. Remember that it is the total dose that is the most important factor compared to the ratio between the two omega-3s and the chemical structure under which they are presented to us.
We hope this article has helped you see things more clearly.
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- Calder PC. Session 3: Joint Nutrition Society and Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute Symposium on ‘Nutrition and autoimmune disease’ PUFA, inflammatory processes and rheumatoid arthritis. Proc Nutr Soc. 2008 Nov;67(4):409-18.