Fish oil - what are you paying for in yours?

Fish oil - what are you paying for in yours?

Fish oils – the most common source of supplemental omega-3s have gained popularity amongst those with a desire to support their brain, skin, joint or maybe cardiovascular system health. However, one thing I find frustrating is how many clients bring in their supplements and what they show me is more often than not poor quality.  Whilst the information on the label may not be breaking any laws, the items I see are far too often not delivering a therapeutic dose at that which is recommended on the label – making that bargain fish oil not such good value after all. 

So how is it people end up with a less than optimal product?

There are a number of reasons for this: poor advice given in store, or not understanding what is being offered perhaps; but I suspect most often it’s the attraction of a cheaper price tag - as fish oils can definitely vary in price and everyone looks for a bargain. Nevertheless, it’s my experience that with fish oils you tend to get what you pay for – meaning cheaper offerings are typically cheap for a reason, with manufacturers providing a less therapeutic product in order to offer it at a lower price point. But is that what you really want?

My aim with this article is to direct you to what you should be looking for on the label, so you can be more informed and able to select a better quality product for the price you choose to pay. One that will provide what you are after (whether you realize it or not) in the form of the active constituents - the omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid and decosahexaenoic acid - better known by their abbreviations EPA and DHA.

Doing the math

It’s the EPA and DHA that provide the benefits you are frequently reading about – namely anti-inflammatory properties, and the ability to support healthy cell membranes and brain health. So if it’s the EPA and DHA you actually need from your fish oil, then it stands to reason that you should be buying a product that provides these at a reasonable dose – here’s the catch though…you need to actually check the label to find out how much is in there per dose, and then do a little math.

The front of the bottle you pick up in the store will typically claim something like 1000 mg, so it’s not uncommon for me to speak to clients who understandably assume this means they are getting 1000 mg of the good stuff they have read about (and occasionally they are getting close); however all that number is referring to is the amount of ‘oil’ in the capsule (or it may be a 5 ml dose of a liquid product) and that oil will contain other non-active elements. In fact I often see products that, when you look at the ingredients list on the back of the bottle, it may only have 256 mg EPA and 180mg DHA out of the 1000 mg – the rest is basically of little to no use therapeutically.

What you need to do to gauge the therapeutic potential of what you are buying is add the EPA and DHA numbers together:

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) 256 mg


Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) 180 mg


436 mg of omega-3s (per 1000 mg dose)

The rest is, in my opinion, pretty much a waste of your money; and this raises the question of whether or not it is really good value after all? My point being is that a reasonable daily level of EPA+DHA would begin at 2ooo mg/day – so knowing this you can see you’d need to take not 1 or 2 capsules but 5 of this particular example to get to the minimum required level. Not only is that much more costly than you may have originally bargained for, but that’s also a lot of superfluous ‘filler’ oil you are now taking that offers no benefit to you.

Is your product really good value?

So, using this as an example you can see that yes it is fish oil, and yes it does have omega-3s in it – and as such there can be all sorts of statements made about the product in the accompanying marketing material. But I’m going to guess it’s not really what you’d likely be buying if you were better informed; and it’s no longer as cheap per dose if you really want to gain the benefits of an evidence-based level of EPA/DHA.

This difference in actual content may help explain why the prices can be so different between the fish oils you see for sale in stores, or what a natural health practitioner may have in their dispensary. This info can also now help you better evaluate what you actually need for your health goal, and how to get it at the best price for your situation.

As a rough guide, provided you are not on any blood thinning medications (in which case please get professional advice on specific dosing for you) then the evidence-based levels of EPA+DHA are around 2-3 g/day. That said, it makes sense to look at products where you can achieve that dose with the least number of capsules – or go for a 5 ml liquid dose (or thereabouts); these tend to be better value for money from what I have seen.

Last little details

Another issue to be aware of is the purity and sustainability of your product. So I suggest you also look for a brand where you can check that they screen their fish oils for mercury, other metals and any potential contaminant – any company doing this typically will post this info on their website as they know it’s worth talking about. Another thing I personally am interesting in is that the company is making some effort to engage with suppliers that practice sustainable fishing practices, such as only using small fish – examples include sardines and anchovies.

So, having shared a bit of what I know about this topic I hope you feel better able to make a suitable choice next time you purchase a fish oil supplement. When you get down into the details – cheaper does not always equal best value.


by Jo Herbert-Doyle, Naturopath

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