Fish oil contamination even among “molecularly distilled” brands and those aimed at children is a widespread problem. One study in California tested 10 common brands and found PCBs — toxic industrial pollutants that have contaminated our oceans — in all of them. Some had 70 times the PCBs of other ones and 240x the toxicity. In another study, researchers tested 13 over-the-counter children’s dietary supplements containing fish oil for PCBs. PCBs were detected in all products. Our family takes algae-derived omega-3 (DHA/EPA) capsules, which are bioequivalent to fish oil capsules. Algae are actually the source where fish get their omega-3 content, so we skip the contaminated middle man (or, fish, in this case) and the neurotoxins that come with them given how polluted our oceans are now. I highly recommend parents do their research on what studies show about fish oil contamination and not just trust the labels, as well as consider algae-derived omega-3 capsules as more healthful bioequivalent to fish oil.
Despite this one study, you should still consider eating fish and other seafood as a healthy strategy. If we could absolutely, positively say that the benefits of eating seafood comes entirely from omega-3 fats, then downing fish oil pills would be an alternative to eating fish. But it’s more than likely that you need the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals, and supporting molecules, rather than the lone notes of EPA and DHA.
EPA is the precursor to DHA in the body and can be converted to DHA with the enzyme delta-6 desaturase, but this process is inefficient in many people (much like the inefficiency of short-chain omega-3s to long-chain). For those individuals taking pure EPA products as well as those taking our EPA-rich products, we still recommend eating oily fish at least once each week to provide a natural source of DHA. Fish provides a unique nutritional package, supplying the diet with important amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and antioxidants, including vitamins and minerals needed to process fats, so eating fish will also support the natural enzyme-dependent EPA to DHA conversion.
It can be challenging to get the appropriate intake of EPA and DHA through diet alone, even though EPA and DHA are produced by water plants such as algae and are prevalent in marine animals. A shorter chain omega-3 fatty acid, α-linolenic acid (ALA),6 is a prominent component of our diet as it is found in many land plants that are commonly eaten, but it does not provide the health benefits seen with EPA and DHA. Although it is possible for the body to convert ALA to EPA and DHA by enlongase and desaturase enzymes, research suggests that only a small amount can be synthesized in the body from this process (8). For example, 1 study suggested that only ∼2 to 10% of ALA is converted to EPA or DHA (9), and other studies found even less: Goyens et al. (10) found an ALA conversion of ∼7% for EPA, but only 0.013% for DHA; Hussein et al. (11) found an ALA conversion of only 0.3% for EPA and <0.01% for DHA.
The number, location, and orientation of the double bonds determine the health effects of fatty acids on the body. One aspect of this is their effect on triglycerides and LDL and HDL types of cholesterol, which in turn affect how much cholesterol gets deposited on the inside of blood vessels. There are also subtypes of LDL and HDL which are also likely important to their health effects.
Fish oil is FDA approved to lower triglycerides levels, but it is also used for many other conditions. It is most often used for conditions related to the heart and blood system. Some people use fish oil to lower blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol levels. Fish oil has also been used for preventing heart disease or stroke, as well as for clogged arteries, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, bypass surgery, heart failure, rapid heartbeat, preventing blood clots, and high blood pressure after a heart transplant.