A recent article in the paper by Dr. Oz has been raising some concern about pollutants in the food that we eat and supplements that we take. The primary focus of the article was PCBs in fish oils. This is really not a new concern, but it is certainly a concern that most people are unaware of and need to be informed of. PCBs in fish oils have been an issue since before fish oils were even popular to take. I remember hearing the first presentation on this problem nearly a decade ago. The pollution of PCBs in anything that you eat is a cause for alarm. The real question is not whether to take the omega 3 supplement. As Dr. Oz stated, “They are just too important.” The question is how do you get them without the PCBs. There is quite a bit of controversy on this subject, I will attempt to make this more clear.
Many suggest that you should avoid fish and stick with plant sources. However, no plant source will provide adequate amounts of DHA or EPA. Both of these fats are vital for health, particularly for the heart and brain. Roughly 50% of the brain is made of fat. The type of fat is preferably DHA, a type of Omega-3. This can be consumed from plant sources, but they are primarily ALA which your body will convert into DHA. Unfortunately, the ratio is very poor. It is about 9% for EPA and 3% for DHA. Both are good for you , but again, DHA is the primary target. You need about 900 mg of DHA/EPA combined. So you would have to consume a bout 100 grams of Flaxseed oil per day to get enough EPA/DHA. It has been suggested that you eat what fish eat to get theirs, algae. First of all, yum yum. Grass is an equivalent source of omega 3, which is why all grazers (that actually are fed grass) are equivalent sources of omega 3’s. But you are not going to eat grass, well you might, but probably not. In addition, most fish eat crustaceans or other fish, including salmon which is considered a primary source of omega 3’s. The reality is that if you where going to the original source (green grasses and algae), you would have to eat that as your primary food source to get enough (and then some). It is far more efficient to eat animal sources, which have already done the converting for you. So plant sources are a good source for omega 3’s, but an inefficient source of DHA and EPA, the specific omega 3’s that your brain and heart need.
So what about the animal sources? Well, in reality, anything that eats large amounts of grass or algae, or eats another animal that does so, will be a good source of omega 3’s. The closest animal to the original source is usually the best to eat. For instance, nearly every grass fed grazers are equivalent sources for you omega 3’s. Bison has almost identical fatty acid profile as tuna for instance. The best grazer in North America, that I am aware of, is elk, which has a profile almost identical to sardines. In addition, the closer the animal is to the plant source, the less toxins that it will contain. Swordfish, which eats large amounts of smaller fish, has enough mercury in one steak to make you test positive for mercury poisoning. Sardines, a primary food source of most larger fish, eats algae and has only trace amounts of toxins (including PCB’c and mercury). In addition, fresh water and farm raised fish, have the most toxins and the least omega 3’s. Farm raised fish, have very little omega 3 content due to the feed used. This is often neglected in the recommendation of fish (general) as an omega 3 source. In addition, certain low grade fish oils use farm raised fish, which again, have little to no omega 3’s and the highest levels of toxins (particularly PCB’s). The short version of this message if to eat large grass gazing animals and small (wild) fish for your best omega 3 sources.
What about supplements? I recommend that you use only pharmaceutical grade fish oils and that you know the source. My favorite is krill oil, which is what salmon eat. It is about 3 times more bioavailable than fish oil (you can take a 3rd of the dose), has more antioxidants and no toxins. Krill is also the largest biomass in the world. Sardine oil is also a great source. It is very high in DHA and EPA and again is toxin free. There are only two over the counter fish oils that I recommend: Carleson’s or Nordic Naturals. Both are great and hold up to the standards year after year in independent testing. That being said, they are about three times less efficient for getting your DHA and EPA (even in their EPA formulas) so you will need to take three times as much.