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The health and wellness industry sees many trends and hot products coming and going every year, but one particular supplement has been in the spotlight for a while now: fish oil pills. From the health food store to your local drug store chain, you’re likely to find a bottle of these fishy capsules sitting on the shelves waiting to be snatched up by health-conscious individuals on the quest for better health.
In some ways, this fish oil craze makes sense. Fatty fish are a good source of EPA and DHA, two essential omega-3 fatty acids that have benefits ranging from lowering high blood pressure, improving brain health, and fighting off inflammation, just to name a few. And since many people don’t get enough fish in their diet, fish oil supplements are an easy way to combat this all-too-common nutrient deficiency.
But there’s more to this booming industry than meets the eye. It turns out the production of fish oils isn’t exactly ethical or sustainable.
What’s really going on with fish oil supplements, how is fish oil made, and are there any better alternatives to getting your essential omega-3s?
First, A Quick History Lesson. How Did Fish Oil Become So Popular?
Fish have been a prized dietary staple throughout the ages, even if their health benefits weren’t always fully understood.
The history of fish oil goes all the way back to ancient Roman times. Back then, people made a crude fish oil supplement that was thought to have various medicinal properties, from fighting off headaches to acting as an aphrodisiac!
Fast-forwarding through time to the 1970s, researchers became interested in the specific roles that fish played in heart health after studying native Inuit people. Even though their diets were high in fatty seafood like cold-water fish, the Inuit were less likely to have heart attacks. Despite how contradictory it sounded at the time, it turned out that the high levels of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA from their diet were likely the reason.
Because of this discovery and several other studies on the subject matter, we can now conclude that omega-3 fatty acids are essential nutrients that help protect our hearts, brains, and overall health.
Until recently, cold-water, oily fish were thought to be the best source for EPA and DHA. However, many people don’t get enough fish in their diet to capitalize on those health benefits. So the fish oil supplement industry began boiling fish down and processing the resulting oil into convenient little capsules.
Here’s Why The Fish Oil Industry Is A Problem Now.
Poor diet quality and lifestyle choices have become all-too-common now, leading to an upswing of chronic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease. With all of the reported health benefits that have been associated with eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil supplements have risen to the top as one of the most commonly taken dietary supplements for both adults and children.
Unfortunately, these capsules aren’t “miracle pills” – and in fact, taking them is causing more harm than good. And as the demand for these fishy capsules increases, so does the negative impact its production has on the planet.
How Is Fish Oil Made?
If you follow the process of fish oil production from the oceans to your medicine cabinet, you’ll find that it’s a long and far-reaching process – and it’s fishy in more ways than one.
Let’s break it down:
- Oily, cold-water fish are caught from the ocean.
- The oils are extracted from the fish using various methods, from boiling them down to applying chemical solvents like chloroform and methanol.
- The extracted oils are then shipped off to other places around the world to be refined.
- The oils are refined via several chemical processes including bleaching, degumming, deodorizing, and deacidification.
- The refined oils are then put into capsules, packaged, and shipped off once again.
- The finished products make it to your local store to sit on shelves until they’re bought.
Why Is This Process Bad?
This wide-spanning process is bad for two reasons: it compromises the quality of the final product, and it contributes to the depletion of our natural resources.
First, let’s start with why it’s bad for you, the consumer. You likely add fish oil soft gels to your daily routine because you want to avoid a nutrient deficiency. However, the final product might not be as effective as you’d think.
- There are a ton of steps involved in the reduction and processing of fish oil. Unfortunately, each of these steps comes with the possibility of compromising fish oil quality since fats are particularly prone to chemical instability. The longer the process takes, the more your fish oil supplements are at risk of having their quality compromised.
- Did you know that your fish oil supplements can go bad? Unlike some other commercial supplements, fish oil is especially susceptible to oxidation, a process that eventually leads to rancidity.
The oxidation process already happens naturally just due to the nature of fatty acids. But all of those extraction and refining techniques used in the process can affect different oil properties and lead to an increased susceptibility to oxidation.
Oxidation doesn’t just change the taste, either; it can actually be bad for your health and negate the health benefits. Depending on the processes used to extract and refine the oil and how long it takes for that supplement to reach your home, you might be dealing with a stinky and rotten supplement that could cause inflammation rather than fighting it.
- The main reason that you would even add these capsules into your diet is to supplement your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. All those processes that happen between the fish being caught and the pills making it into your system can also lead to changes in the final product’s omega-3 fatty acid content. In other words, the health benefits from fish oil omega-3s may not be the same as the benefits you would get from eating fresh fish.
An even more pressing problem can be found when you start looking at just how badly this process negatively impacts our environment.
Overfishing is a huge contributing factor to the destruction of the oceans. It depletes the oceans of their natural resources and disrupts aquatic food chains. This environmental impact occurs no matter what fish are being used in the process. The reduction industry, which boils fish down to separate them into fish oil and fishmeal, targets smaller fish, and taking these out of their food chains can have consequences that trickle all the way up.
It’s also an unsustainable practice, especially when you consider how much the demand for fish oil is rising. Scientists have already found that fisheries are facing a severe crisis in trying to keep up with the global fish demand. As more people look to add fish oil supplements into their daily routine, the more fishing will have to be done and the more disruptions these aquatic food chains will experience.
You might think that getting fish from a different source might be better, but farmed fishing doesn’t help either – in fact, some scientists believe that farmed fishing actually adds to the problem since feeding farmed fish requires a lot of smaller fish.
Fish farms are also thought to contribute to environmental damage. If they are near oceans, they run the risk of having the drugged and/or diseased farmed fish escape and contaminate wild populations of fish, and they can also spread pollution.
The fish oil production process also has a considerable carbon footprint.
All that transportation between stages requires fuel and carbon emissions. When crude products are being shipped to places around the world multiple times for the various processes involved in turning whole fish into an oil capsule, it comes at huge transportation and energy costs.
Some scientists believe it is not worth taking fish oil supplements because it poses so many risks to consumers and the environment.
Is There A Better Answer For Meeting Our Dietary Needs?
For all the problems that fish oil supplements present, it’s easy to forget that omega-3 fatty acids are still an essential part of your diet. But they are, and the answer is simple: get your omega-3 fatty acids from a better source instead!
Fish oil is not the only source for DHA and EPA. The rise of sustainable vegan alternatives made from algae oil has changed the omega-3 fatty acid game. No longer do you have to eat fish or their easily-compromised fish oil products to have a fully balanced diet.
Algae oil is the primary producer of EPA and DHA in the fish food chain, so you can get these essential fatty acids directly from the source without having to extract them from ocean fish.
You’ll also lessen your impact on the planet by using algae oil supplements instead. These plant-based sources can be isolated and grown indoors without interfering with any aquatic food chains. Plus, the fatty acids in algae oil supplements are just as bioavailable as the ones you would get from whole fish!
Improving your health doesn’t have to come at the cost of funding a dirty industry.