Fishy business: the problem with fish oil supplements

Omega 3 fats are good for your brain and for your body. But fish oil supplements can be very bad for our oceans.

When it comes to vitamins, minerals, and other popular nutritional supplements, people are swimming towards fish oil supplements like never before. In fact, it's the third most commonly taken supplement, with the sale of omega 3 supplements projected to grow by more than $4 billion by the year 2027. This begs the question: How is the soaring popularity of fish oil supplements impacting our oceans and fisheries, and is there a healthier, more sustainable, and more eco-friendly alternative?

Why more people are taking fish oil supplements

According to the global market analysts at Grand View Research who study the supplement industry, 37 % of people take fish oil supplements for their cardiovascular health. They say this is in direct relation to an increase in the many health risks associated with our sedentary lifestyles and Western diets.

And the health research backs up these cardiovascular health benefits. Fish oil supplements may help to:

Braincare is another popularly cited reason for taking fish oil supplements, reports Grand View Research’s market analysts. Specifically, people say they want to improve their brain health, protect their nervous system, and bolster their mental health.

Once again, the research is detailed. Fish oil supplements may:

  • assist in overall brain function, because your brain is primarily made up of fat , specifically the types of fat found in fish oil

  • prevent the onset of mental illnesses for those who are at risk of them

  • improve the symptoms of mood illnesses

  • protect against age-related illnesses as you get older

  • improve your memory , especially for those who are in their 50s and older

There’s just one catch (pun intended) to all of these benefits that are attributed to fish oil supplements. You see, it has less to do with the fish oil itself, and more to do with what’s in the fish oil pill. Specifically, the types of fats in fish oil that give these supplements their widely lauded health perks.

What’s in your fish oil? The lowdown on omega 3 fats

When discussing the health benefits of fish oil, you’ll likely hear it referred to as “omega 3s” or “omega 3 fats.” However, there are actually t hree types of fats that we collectively refer to as omega 3s :

  • eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

  • docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

  • alpha-linolenic acid (AHA)

You need approximately 125mg of DHA and 250mg of omega 3 EPA—to experience optimal benefits for your brain and body.

EPA and DHA are what you’ll find in fish oil supplements, and it’s these specific types of omega 3s —not the fish oil itself—that carry the brain-boosting, illness-reducing, mood-enhancing effects. People simply gravitate towards fish oil pills because seafood tends to be the richest natural source of EPA and DHA.

You can find ALA in vegetarian food sources, such as chia seeds, black walnuts, and flaxseed. Your body converts ALA into EPA and DHA. Alas, that conversion process is not very efficient . In some people, as little as 0.3% of the ALA you eat or take gets converted into EPA, and as little as 4% of your ALA intake gets converted to DHA.

Because fish are so high in EPA and DHA, they’re the natural go-to when supplement manufacturers try to meet the skyrocketing demand for omega 3 supplements. And this is potentially leading to unintended consequences for our oceans.

The potential environmental problems of fish oil supplements

When it comes to taking omega 3 supplements, we’ve unquestioningly embraced the practice, hook, line, and sinker. Yet perhaps we should be questioning omega 3s, or at least how they’re sourced.

Sourcing fish for supplements is disrupting the ocean’s natural food chain

Most fish oil supplements get their fish oil from the Peruvian anchoveta (i.e., Peruvian anchovy). "In some years, Peruvian anchoveta harvests have equalled as much as 10 million metric tons," says Paul Greenberg, author of The Omega Principle , in an interview with NPR . "Just to give you some perspective, that's like one-eighth of all the fish caught in the world."

Greenberg says that such massive annual fishing catches pose a problem because "these fish are really essential for ecosystem dynamics in the ocean." He explains that anchovies, along with other small fish like herring, feed on plankton. The small fish are in turn eaten by bigger fish.

By overharvesting the middle of this complex food chain, we starve bigger fish species and create a cascading collapse of fish populations.

We’ve already seen this play out before. For example, overfishing of herring contributed to the collapse of the cod population in the North Sea .

Your fish oil supplement may be harming more than just fish

Regardless of the species of fish used to make your fish oil supplements, there’s another issue: It likely wasn’t just the fish species listed on your supplement bottle’s label that got caught during the fishing process.

The term “bycatch” refers to the fish and animals inadvertently caught and killed when fishing for a specific species. According to a report by Oceana , an estimated 63 billion pounds of bycatch (including sharks, turtles, whales and other fish) are caught every year. That equals approximately 40% of the world's total catch.

Thus, catching even so-called “sustainable” fish species may cause significant damage to other fish and animal populations.

Fish oil may be high in dangerous toxins

Wild fish are naturally exposed to the numerous environmental pollutants in our oceans. When these pollutants are ingested by the fish, they tend to accumulate in the liver, and it's the liver where we get much of the fish oil itself.

Researchers warn that some fish oil supplements may be high in dangerous substances , including:

  • mercury

  • polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

  • organochlorine pesticides

“Seas” the day: Try omega 3s that skip fish altogether

It’s clear that taking a fish oil supplement indiscriminately has major ethical and environmental drawbacks. Sure, you can strive to choose a fish oil supplement that has been certified sustainable by a third party, but even these certifications can be problematic and may not really outline the true environmental cost of your fish oil supplement.

A better alternative? Marine algae.

A growing body of researchers is pushing for widespread adoption of algae oil as a more sustainable way to source omega 3 fats, even noting that the amount of EPA and DHA in marine algae is comparable to that found in fish.

And that’s not surprising. In fact, the high levels of omega 3s observed in fish is because those fish eat algae . When you take an algae-based omega 3 supplement, you are going straight to the source.

Is marine algae oil just as beneficial to your brain and body health as fish oil?

Numerous studies have been conducted on the effects of algae-sourced EPA and DHA:

  • One study monitored the effects of eating cooked salmon and taking algae oil, and found that algae oil supplements were nutritionally equivalent.

  • Another study had some participants take 600 mg of DHA from fish oil, while other participants took 600 mg of DHA from algae oil. The final amount of DHA that appeared in both blood tests were comparable across the board.

It’s time to ditch the fish oil supplements and switch to supplements made with marine algae. Marine algae is better for the oceans and for the planet, offers the same health benefits, and helps you to avoid the risk of heavy metals and toxins found in some fish oil pills.


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