Fish oil: how can you tell if it’s good?

My general philosophy around food and health is to eat whole foods and naturally fermented foods, as nutrient dense as possible, and hopefully not containing too much toxic stuff. (Not always easy in the world of industrially produced food.)

However, I have taken loads of vitamins, minerals, etc in the past, and sometimes they have been helpful. (Well, I got better.) Other times, I really don’t know whether they made any difference.

seagulls at harbouir

Years ago most people lived alongside harbours and waterways, where we could get plenty of fish.

But, I understand that supplements are “fractured” nutritionally. They’re not whole foods. So, since I’m aiming to live a life that is more integrated and connected, and less fractured and disconnected, I’m now choosing not to take vitamins, minerals and various other processed nutrients.

The exception to this is fish oil and good quality plant oils. I’m currently taking these daily, because they are relatively unprocessed and contain important nutrients (Essential Fatty Acids or EFAs), which aren’t easily available in sufficient quantities for optimal health, even with a relatively good diet. In particular, in the modern Western diet we consume insufficient Omega 3s, which are mainly found in oily fish. The imbalance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids is understood to be a contributing factor in many chronic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, mood disorders and inflammatory conditions. (And quite a few of these conditions are rife in my extended family.)

But – the problem with fish oils (and good quality plant oils) is that they don’t keep well. They oxidise and go rancid really easily, if not stored at low temperatures. Earlier this year I was alarmed to read that Auckland Medical School researchers had tested a range of fish oil supplements on the market and found that a large proportion were rancid. The researchers didn’t specify brand names, but said that samples from both cheaper and more expensive brands were found to be rancid.

Bad oil is worse than useless

And there are two other important factors I’ve learned, that are relevant to this issue: One, you can’t tell by taste if fish oil is rancid. Two: consuming oxidised fish oil isn’t just a waste of money, it is actually worse than not taking any. Because your body will have to use up valuable antioxidants, trying to deal with the rancid oil.

I can tell you, I was pretty annoyed when I realised this!

I wondered how to find out which brands (if any) of fish oil are reliably good. I looked on the internet, but couldn’t make head or tail of the conflicting information. So I asked medical herbalist Wendy Illing of The Herbal Shop and Clinic www.herbalshop.co.nz for her professional opinion.

Fish oil supplementation is a good idea, Wendy said, because it’s hard to get our EFAs back into balance through our everyday diet. “Our bodies can’t make these oils, that are essential to our wellbeing,” she said. “We need to have Omega 3s and we’re not getting enough.”

Before we became urbanised, people lived alongside rivers, lakes and on the seashore, and fish was a much larger part of our diet than it is today, Wendy said.

“But you have to get good quality oil.”

There is good quality fish oil on the market, Wendy said, but buyers need to be prepared to ask questions and read labels. “We talk to the producer and ask how they manufacture the oil,” she said. Different manufacturers use various technologies to ensure the fish oil stays fresh, Wendy said – for example, one reputable company uses air-free processing to prevent oxidation.

It’s also important to ask if the end product is tested for quality – both to ensure a standardised product, and also for rancidity. The oil should also be tested for pollutants such as mercury and organic pesticides, Wendy said. And the tests should be third party certified.

Some people are suggesting krill oil is a more sustainable alternative to fish oil, but Wendy said there are serious environmental questions with the harvesting of krill. “We don’t recommend krill oil for this reason,” she said.

My conclusions: I’ve bought a bottle of one of the fish oil brands that Wendy recommended (they have good labelling, good testing and third-party verification). It wasn’t cheap, but as Wendy said, “If it’s really cheap, it’s probably too good to be true.” I’m keeping it in the fridge. I’m also planning to increase our household fish consumption (so hopefully I won’t be taking fish oil longterm). And I’m going to the climate change meeting this week.