Find The Best Fish Oil Supplement For Your Buck!

best fish oil sardine oil

Essential fatty acids, particularly the two long chain and most important Omega 3 long chain fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (“EPA”) and docosahexaenoic acid (“DHA”), are indeed “essential” because they are necessary for our health, and can only be obtained from dietary sources, primarily oily fish such as sardines, salmon, mackerel, etc. and some types of marine algae. Unlike many other fatty acids, they cannot be synthesized by our bodies from endogenous precursors. Fish oil supplementation is no fad.  EPA and DHA are important for cell/membrane function, cellular communication, and are instrumental for mediating hormonal processes; in other words, they are vital for our health. It’s therefore not surprising that highly reputable agencies, including the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, indicate that Omega 3 supplementation is effective or possibly effective for treating a whole host of conditions, ranging from high triglycerides and heart disease (for which its efficacy is relatively well-established) to rheumatoid arthritis, A.D.H.D., menstrual pain, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis, bipolar disorder, kidney disease, psoriasis, asthma, psychosis, traumatic brain injury, and even obesity. And this is just a small sampling of fish oil’s larger potential benefits. So EPA and DHA are necessary and vital. That’s all well and good, but where do we get them? Ideally, it would be wonderful if we could all obtain them from cold water fatty marine fish (e.g., mackerel, sardines, salmon, anchovies, herring, etc.) and shellfish (e.g., oysters).  However, assuming you, like myself and many other people, simply don’t have the time or energy to ensure the consumption of sufficient amounts of oily fish each week, a high-quality fish oil or krill oil supplement containing EPA and DHA, when dosed correctly, can be a very safe and practical way to maintain sufficient, consistent levels of these essential fatty acids for you, your kids, and even your cats and dogs.

Liquid or Capsule?

When shopping around for fish oil, besides maximizing purity, freshness and the potency/bioavailability of the supplement, you’ll want to choose liquid or caps. It’s really a matter of preference, although there are some things to consider.

Liquid Fish Oil vs Fish Oil Pills: Pros & Cons

Liquid fish oil’s biggest drawback is that the risk of oxidation increases once you open the bottle. Unlike capsules, the remaining liquid fish oil in a bottle is not sealed in its own airtight package, and thus not as well protected from the deleterious effects of oxygen and rancidification. To get around this potential problem, some manufacturers have created squeeze packets. At any rate, those taking fish oil in liquid form should pay even more attention to storage of any opened and unused oil and try to finish the bottle/portion as promptly as practical.

best fish oil pills

Another thing to consider is that you will not have the benefit of a consistent dose – that is, unless you use your own measuring spoon. This is of course a minor point, but one to keep in mind if you are always on the go and don’t want to mess around measuring your supplements. Lastly, since your palate is not protected by a pill casing, you will taste the liquid, including any fishy flavor or odors that may exist. Of course, with most modern, highly-palatable formulas, this is often not a major concern. In terms of the benefits of liquid, there is obviously greater versatility in that it can be added to a myriad of foods, without having to break open and squeeze a soft gel. Also, the very fact that you mete out your own dose allows you to vary the amount of fish oil you consume or add to certain dishes, if that’s something you desire. Moreover, the lack of the pill capsule may be a benefit for those with allergic reactions to the makeup of the gel coat, which is often made from some type of fish byproduct itself. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the absence of the gel coat is believed to make the oil much more easily absorbed, with some manufacturers reporting significantly higher absorption rates compared to softgels. So, at the end of the day, which is better? We think neither; each has its place and can be used effectively, so long as basic storage considerations are respected.

Which is The Best Brand For Your Buck?

As with many things, it’s not wise to compare fish oils solely in terms of price per serving of Omega 3, but rather, based on all the relevant factors in addition to cost effectiveness: that is, freshness, potency and purity. With that said, there are many supplements that can deliver the proper dose of EPA and DHA, but the following are some brands that score consistently high in terms of reputation and user satisfaction.

Note: this table is sortable – just click on the column headings!

mg. EPA
mg. DHA
(per bottle)
User Rating*

*User ratings obtained from

Why Not Flax Seed Oil or Chia Seeds For Omega 3 Instead?

plant vs. animal fish oil

Some of you may be wondering: why obtain Omega 3 from animal/algal sources, rather than from higher plants, like Omega 3-rich flax or the highly popularized chia seed? The answer lies, as usual, in the somewhat complex chemistry behind the bioavailability of EPA and DHA between the two groups. The Omega 3 from say, fish, comes with EPA and DHA already present and available for absorption. The Omega 3 from flax or chia, on the other hand, does not contain EPA or DHA at all, but contains another type of Omega 3 — alpha-linolenic acid (“ALA”). And while it is true that the body can break down ALA to synthesize EPA and DHA, this transformation process (when not inhibited by a myriad of factors) is at best slow and inefficient, generally yielding very small or trivial amounts of actual EPA/DHA.

More Tips on How to Select Fish Oil

When buying fish oil, the devil is in the details. The best way to ensure you are getting good quality is to know what to look for. Besides reading the articles on this site, here are some other bits of advice we’d like to stress when shopping around for fish oil supplements.

Seek a Highly Bio-Available Fish Oil Formulation

Bioavailability technically invokes long digressions into biochemistry, but in a nutshell, really just speaks to how easily and efficiently the body can absorb a given substance into the bloodstream and deliver it to the targeted tissues in an active state. This concept of absorption is so important because a formulation with poor availability can deliver much less EPA/DHA, despite a relatively high reported concentration of these fatty acids. As a result, a more available but lower EPA/DHA-containing formulation can often deliver much more benefit than a supplement boasting very high EPA/DHA concentrations. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)Currently, fish oil is available in four types of formulations: natural fish oil triglyceride, free fatty acids, ethyl esters, and re-esterified triglycerides. The rawest type is, unsurprisingly, the natural triglyceride; conversely, the most “processed” (in order of complexity) are the ethyl ester and re-esterified triglyceride forms. Ethyl esters are created by chemically combining raw fish oil free fatty acids with an alcohol (usually enthanol), which is then subjected to molecular distillation (usually through heat) to produce a more purified and concentrated fish oil condensate.  The re-esterifaction process involves transferring roughly 30 percent of the total triglyceride content to ethyl esters, which are then subject to molecular distillation to dump unwanted organics, such as saturated fats and short-chain fatty acids. The end goal of this process is to boost the content and concentration of EPA and DHA, to generally upwards of around 60 percent. While there are conflicting opinions on the topic, a recent 2010 double-blinded study published in the journal Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acid involving 72 men and women concluded that absorption of EPA & DHA from the re-esterified triglyceride formulation was highest (124%), followed by free fatty acids (91%) and ethyl esters (73%). Interestingly, the researchers noted that the assimilation rate of EPA & DHA for natural triglyceride was not statistically different from that of the free fatty acid formulation.

Look for Manufacturers that Utilize Processing Safeguards to Maintain Purity

Being surrounded by a milieu of chemicals is a fact of modern life. Whether it’s tainted air, water or food, minimizing exposure to the really nasty stuff is a responsibility we all share. Fish and fish oil certainly carry the risk of chemical contamination. Among the myriad of things that get into our oceans and into a fish’s fatty tissues are heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic. In addition, substances called polychlorinated biphenyls (or “PCBs”) still pose a threat, despite being outlawed for more than three decades. Finally, compounds called furans and dioxins, which unfortunately are byproducts of large scale commercial and municipal combustive processes (e.g., from mass waste incineration) can also pose a threat. fish oil testingAs we’ve said before, if processed correctly using modern molecular distillation methods, fish oil is a very safe way to consume adequate amounts of Omega 3. Although the exact process of molecular distillation varies by manufacturer and the type of oil involved (concentrated vs non-concentrated), most typically use steam and/or a vacuum chamber to gently separate the desirable long chain fatty acids from chemical contaminants (e.g., mercury PCBs, dioxins, etc.) and unwanted organic compounds, like saturated fats. When done properly, this process can render fish oil virtually free from deleterious or undesirable contaminants. Despite the sophistication of distillation processes, 100% contaminant-free fish oil is not necessarily required. In fact, the current standards adopted by many reputable agencies, like the Council for Responsible Nutrition and European Pharmacopoeia, still generally deem fish oil safe that contains traces of metals, including arsenic and mercury, at concentrations of up to 100 parts per billion in refined oil. Nevertheless, not all manufacturers may adhere to best practices equally, so it pays to protect yourself. Perhaps the best way to help guard against impurities is to review the manufacturer’s “Certificate of Analysis,” which is a report describing the results of third-party testing for a variety of contaminants. In theory, each fish oil manufacturer should have these on hand and be able to provide them to you upon request. We strongly suggest you avail yourself of this information, and pass on any oil from a manufacturer that is unwilling or otherwise resistant to give you one.

Minimize the Risk for Oxidation & Understand the Consequences of Rancid Fish Oil

It’s pretty clear that consuming rancid (i.e., highly oxidized) fish oil not only provides no benefit, but is also harmful. For example, in a recent study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 52 women participated in a controlled trial whereby three test groups were created. The first group was given less oxidized oil supplements, the second was given highly oxidized pills, and the third received no oil. Each group also consumed fish as part of their diet. Interestingly, after 30 days, the group that received the less oxidized pills experienced reduced levels of triglycerides and cholesterol, whereas the highly oxidized group actually experienced elevated cholesterol levels. fish oil is prone to rapid oxidationThe concern of rancid fish oil is even more troubling given just how easy fish oil oxidizes. The term rancidity when applied to fish oil technically refers to oxidative rancidity (as compared to hydrolytic or microbial rancidity) in which exposure to oxygen promotes the cleavage of the vulnerable double bonds between the carbon atoms in the fatty acid chains. Because polyunsaturated fats, including EPA and DHA, have two of these double bonds between each carbon atom, they are especially at risk for becoming oxidized. To reduce the risk of rancidification, fish oil supplements are sometimes coupled with natural antioxidants, such as tocopherols (like vitamin E) and ascorbic acid (such as vitamin C). However, it is believed that these natural antioxidants’ capacity for preventing oxidation is short-lived. As such, when storing fish oil, or any polyunsaturated fat, care should be taken to store the supplement in a dark, dry, cool place (or the refrigerator) with as little exposure to oxygen as possible. It is also a good idea to periodically check your fish oil to determine if it’s gone rancid. Although mild oxidation may not be perceptible, fish oil that has been heavily oxidized will become distasteful and release volatile chemicals in the process  that will produce a foul odor. For liquid supplements, this is more easily detectible; for a gelcap, however, you will need to pierce it and, ideally, taste and smell it. Fresh fish oil may have a faint odor and slight fish taste, but no strong fishy flavor or pungent odor. In other words, if the smell offends you, chances are the product is no good.  As we said earlier, the harm from bad fish oil should not be trivialized; it’s better to dispose of the oil than risk undermining your health. Photo credits (from top): “IMG_0616” by Makoto Nakashima under CC BY-SA 2.0 “Ω3” by Peter Rosbjerg under CC BY-ND 2.0 “chia seeds” by Stacy Spensley under CC BY 2.0 “A space filling diagram of eicosapentaenoic acid” by SubDural12 “RDECOM’s Advanced Chemistry Laboratory” by U.S. Army RDECOM under CC BY 2.0 “Popping E (57/365)” by John Liu under CC BY 2.0

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