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What is Omega-3?

What is Omega-3?

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid (EFA). EFAs are essential ‘building blocks’ your body needs but cannot make. EFAs must be consumed in their natural form. (One very good reason why fresh and natural should be obvious criteria when choosing an Omega-3 source).

Omega-3 EFAs are one of the most (if not THE most) intensively studied nutritional supplements in existence. Countless scientific studies over three decades have repeatedly and conclusively proven what had long been unofficially acknowledged: eating oily fish is very good for your health!

What are the main forms of Omega-3?

Scientists have identified four main types of Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids:

EPA, or Eicosapentaenoic Acid

DHA, or Docosahexaenoic Acid

DPA, or Docosapentaenoic Acid

ALA, or Alpha linolenic Acid

EPA and DHA are the most commonly occuring types of Omega-3, found in a great variety of marine life around the world. Unsurprisingly, EPA and DHA are the most studied and the most commercially-available Omega-3 types, positively linked to a number of health benefits.

salmon - CopyDPA is found in a smaller spectrum of marine life and has received comparably less attention. This lack of attention belies the true importance of DPA, which scientific studies have long shown is of comparable importance to EPA and DHA (see references). DPA accounts for around a 1/3 of the long chain fatty acids circulating in the blood, is especially concentrated in the heart and skeletal muscles and the kidneys and has been found to enhance the health benefits of EPA and DHA when all three are present together. DPA can be converted by the body into EPA, and has been shown to aid wound-healing at one tenth of the concentration of EPA. (see references)

ALA is different in that it is found mainly in plant oils and is less bio-available, requiring conversion to one of the more bio-available forms for it to be useful. Nonetheless, ALA is a useful vegetarian/vegan alternative to the three main types only found in oily fish.

Scientific study and the Industry – What the industry doesn’t want you to know

Generally speaking, scientific studies of Omega-3 EFA’s have supported the original health benefit claims and continue to identify further additional health benefits.

However, as Omega-3 supplements have grown into a lucrative worldwide industry increasingly dominated by just several large players, scientific study has become largely an industry-funded phenomenon. While the studies themselves may be conducted with suitable scientific rigour, selective choice of study criteria and reporting of results has skewed information and even government legislation in favour of big-industry practice, with consumer awareness and choice a distant-second priority.

Perhaps the best example of this worrying trend is the absence of Omega-3 DPA from the majority of studies and the related absence of DPA from the new 2013/2014 European Union legislation on health claims for Omega-3.

The great DPA denial

Several scientific studies over the last three decades have identified Omega-3 DPA as equally important to EPA and DHA in terms of health benefit. Not only does the body require DPA specifically, but DPA as an intermediary has been found to increase the effects of EPA and DHA when all three are taken together – effectively resulting in higher potency at a smaller (unconcentrated) dose.

And yet, most consumers are missing out on the health benefits of DPA simply because the greater weight of research has focused exclusively on EPA and DHA. Why should this be, when the benefits of DPA have been known – or at least indicated – from the beginning?

The simple answer is profit. Big business likes cheap oil, and the cheapest oil contains little or no DPA. A 2010 study – commissioned by the Norwegian government – found that not only were 109 of the 113 most popular Omega-3 products rotten, but that these rotten oils actually came from South America (Rubin Report 2010) Scientists were able to identify the source of the oil because of location-specific bio-chemical markers. The test results, along with an industry investigation, were broadcast on Norwegian television. Many Norwegian consumers who believed they had been buying premium Norwegian fish oil were shocked to learn that in fact they were consuming rotten oil imported long-distance from the fisheries of South America (read more about rotten oil and refining here).

The Rubin Report and subsequent investigation uncovered a murky world behind the shiny PR and marketing of Omega-3, and also highlighted the fact that the vast majority of Omega-3 fish oil sold in Europe is sourced cheaply from South America – where the fish contain little or no DPA.

This helps to explain why most scientific studies focus exclusively on EPA and DHA – because, crudely speaking, the big companies funding the studies are making big profits from cheap oil which contains only EPA and DHA and no DPA!

These were the studies (EPA and DHA only) presented to the European Food Commission tasked with regulating the Omega-3 industry and its many health claims. With so much evidence focused exclusively on EPA and DHA, combined with years of intensive, well-funded industry lobbying and PR, it is hardly surprising (if disappointing) that the EU commission ultimately produced a piece of legislation also focused exclusively on EPA and DHA.

European union concept, digital illustration.What the EU legislation (Commission Regulation (EU) 536/2013 of 11/06/2013) says about Omega-3

1. The European Union Food Safety Commission officially recognises Omega-3 EPA and DHA as effective in contributing towards healthy blood pressure levels and blood triglyceride levels

(Notice: no mention of DPA)

2. Suppliers may only claim these benefits IF their product provides a minimum daily dose of 2g EPA/DHA combined (maintaining healthy blood triglyceride levels);  and a minimum daily dose of 3g EPA/DHA combined (maintaining healthy blood pressure levels).

How the legislation is flawed

Taken in its most general sense, this most recent legislation might be seen as a positive official endorsement of Omega-3 as a health-benefiting supplement.

However, the legislation is anything but general. By writing DPA out of the legislation and setting high minimum daily doses beyond those which actually exist in a 100g/3½ oz. serving of fresh salmon fillet, we in fact have a highly selective piece of legislation.

How is it selective? Well, put simply, the legislation effectively entitles big industry to claim health benefits for its imported-rotten, DPA-free, intensively refined oil, while homegrown producers of fresh, unrefined DPA/EPA/DHA are not allowed to claim the same health benefits, because:

  • Producers of DPA/EPA/DHA are now legally prevented from including DPA in the ‘minimum daily dose’ required to claim these basic health benefits

  • Absorption rates are not taken into account. Study after study has found that refined, concentrated, ethyl ester, (or EE) Omega-3 products, while high in EPA/DHA, are not absorbed as effectively as unrefined oil (see references). This – frankly basic – fact has been overlooked in the legislation.

  • 2g, and certainly 3g EPA/DHA is more than you would typically expect to find in a 100g/3½ oz. serving of fresh salmon fillet. The EU legislation suggests then that eating fresh salmon fillet every day does not provides these Omega-3 health benefits. This is clearly absurd, flying in the face of all research, nutritional advice, and common sense. However, it does mean that producers of refined, concentrated, EE oil are permitted to claim exclusive health benefits, while fishmongers and producers of fresh, unrefined omega-3 oil are only entitled to claim health benefits if they provide giant-sized (and uneconomic) portions.

  • The published findings on DPA as an equivalent to EPA and DHA, and of the significant extra health benefits particular to DPA are not taken into account by the legislation.

As well as writing out DPA (against the science) and absorption values (against the science), the legislation thus far also fails completely to address the urgent issue of rotten oil highlighted by the Rubin Report (2010), which found that most Omega-3 products were: refined, imported from South America, and rotten (establishing a direct link between refining and illegal use of rotten oil). Instead, the EU Commission on Food Safety chose to ignore this food safety issue and focus instead on a labelling issue (levels of EPA, DHA). Labelling regulation is supposed to provide better information for consumers but unfortunately this regulation conceals more than it reveals.

In fact, Ethyl Ester form Omega-3 is neither an oil, nor a fat. This means that refined Omega-3 products are labelled incorrectly, as they cannot legitimately use the terms ‘fish oil’ or ‘Essential Fatty Acid’ to describe their processed Ethyl Ester product.

How did the EU Commission arrive at this conclusion?

Eu pusszleIn defence of the Commission, they simply went with the greater weight of scientific evidence: studies funded by producers of refined and concentrated Ethyl Ester EPA/DHA Omega-3 products which tested (ahem) refined and concentrated Ethyl Ester EPA/DHA products…

If you buy a refined, EE, non-DPA product, then you necessarily need more EPA/DHA to compensate for the poor absorption values. In this narrow sense

(applied specifically to refined, esterised, non-DPA products) the EU legislation is correct.

But why is there no consideration at all for DPA, freshness, or absorption rates? When several well known and respected studies (See References) have been made very public?

A clue to the answer can be found in the premise of the EU regulation: Healthy claims. Prior to regulation, there was no official (i. e. state) sanction for the health benefits of Omega-3 – just a dense pile of scientific papers offering different parameters and varying results. This lack of an officially sanctioned standard meant that suppliers were only permitted to claim health benefits.

The growth of the Omega-3 industry, and the health supplements industry in general, prompted the EU Food Safety Commission to regulate: many suppliers were claiming all kinds of health benefits for all kinds of different supplements, many of them exaggerated, untrue, or even dangerous. (It should be noted here that Omega-3 is one of the few health supplements to receive universal scientific approval for validity and efficacy).

The EU then extended a consultation period during which suppliers of these supplements were asked to submit their health claims together with supporting evidence.

In other words there was no independent study. The EU Commission simply invited lobbying. This was always going to be a one-horse race. Armed with huge funds and a back-catalogue of expensive studies focused exclusively on EPA and DHA, the big players profiting from processing cheap oil were easily able to lobby hard for legislation that exclusively focused on studies involving refined EPA and DHA only, no doubt dismissing the importance of DPA as ‘marginal’ and absorption rates as ‘confusing’.

What this means for small producers of fresh, natural, North Atlantic DPA-rich Omega-3 fish oil

The 2013 EU regulation was a lobbying coup for big-business and refined oil, and a blow for consumers and natural producers. It demonstrated how big business and financial muscle has the power to move the goalposts to suit their priorities. It certainly illuminates the challenges facing small producers in a market moving towards monopoly, poor choice, big profit, and mediocre quality.

nordlaks factory Omega-3 production

It is important to remember that the EU regulation (2013) applies only to the health claims related to blood pressure and triglyceride levels – consultation on further health claims is ongoing. It is our hope that with proper consideration of all scientific studies, the 2013 regulation will in due course be amended to include DPA, and that future regulations on further health claims will do likewise where they are reasonably applicable. A further aim is for non-Ethyl Ester products (i. e. natural, unrefined Omega-3) to be given the special status they deserve as the healthier, more readily-absorbed Omega-3 form, with a relatively smaller minimum dosage requirement – in line with the science!

The science supporting fresh, natural, DPA-rich Omega-3 has not disappeared and slowly, whether big industry likes it or not, further studies continue to raise awareness of DPA and the crucial measure of absorption.

Furthermore – common sense is on our side.

You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that:

  • Cooking a fish for several hours at 250ºC will damage nutritional value

  • Ethyl-Ester (alcohol-ised) omega-3 is harder to digest (think about hangovers)

  • A food product which does not state the country of origin should be treated with caution

  • Fresh food is more nutritious than intensively-processed (or rotten) food

  • Rotten food lowers your immune system

  • Fish Oil extracted within 75 minutes of catch and sealed locally is fresher than fish oil extracted in South America, stored in barrels, imported by boat, and refined in Europe.

  • It requires more hard-to-digest Omega-3 than easy-to-digest Omega-3, to achieve a health benefit

  • Eating fresh fish is the best way to obtain Omega-3. Eating fresh fish oil is the next best alternative.



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Rotten Oil from South America

  1. Rubin Report 2010

Unrefined Omega-3 is absorbed significantly more easily than refined, Ethyl-Esterised Omega-3

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  2. el Boustani S, Colette C, Monnier L, Descomps B, Crastes de Paulet A, Mendy F. Enteral absorption in man of eicosapentaenoic acid in different chemical forms. Laboratoire de Biochimie A, Institut de Biologie, Montpellier, France. 1987 Oct;22(10):711-4

  3. Neubronner J, Schuchardt JP, Kressel G, Merkel M, von Schacky C, Hahn A. Enhanced increase of omega-3 index in response to long-term n-3 fatty acid supplementation from triacylglycerides versus ethyl esters. Institute of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Leibniz Universität Hannover, Am Kleinen Felde 30, Hannover, Germany. 2011 Feb;65(2):247-54. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2010.239. Epub 2010 Nov 10.