Fish just as effective as pills for omega-3 boost: study

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Researchers from the US have waded into the debate over fish versus
supplements stating that the omega-3 fatty acids from both sources
are equally bioavailable.

The 16-week study with healthy premenopausal women showed that the increases in red blood cell levels of the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) were similar after taking supplements or eating oily fish. The study expands our understanding of the fish versus supplements debate, since it was not previously known if omega-3 from oily fish or from fish-oil capsules have similar bioavailabilities, state the researchers in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​. Previously, the debate has focused on the risk of pollutants from oily fish, such a methyl mercury, dioxins, and polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs). Such concerns have led to some claims to reduce fresh fish intake, especially for pregnant women who may damage the development of their babies. This has has seen the number of omega-3 enriched or fortified products on the market increase. Most extracted fish oil are molecularly distilled and steam deodorised to remove contaminants However, a number of studies and experts on both sides of the Atlantic have report that the benefits of omega-3, protein, and essential vitamins and minerals from oily fish outweigh the risks of pollutants. Moreover, British researchers reported in 2006 that pollutant levels were falling among many fish. The new study, led by William Harris from Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute, looked at randomly assigned the female volunteers to consume a daily average of 485 mg EPA and DHA, either as one to two fish oil capsules per day, or two servings per week of oily fish (salmon or albacore tuna). At the end of the study period, Harris and co-workers report that the 11 women in the fish group showed a 4.0 per increase in the levels of EPA and DHA in the red blood cells, while their counterparts receiving the fish oil supplements showed a 4.3 per cent increase. They also note that levels of the omega-3 fatty acids stabilised in plasma phospholipids after four weeks, but levels in the red blood cells continued to increase throughout the 16-week period. "These findings suggest that the consumption of equal amounts of EPA and DHA from oily fish on a weekly basis or from fish-oil capsules on a daily basis is equally effective at enriching blood lipids with omega-3 fatty acids,"​ concluded the researchers. Another factor beginning to influence the debate is the fear over dwindling fish stocks pushing some industries to start extracting omega-3s from alternative sources like algae and krill. Indeed, companies such as Martek Biosciences and Lonza are already offering algae-derived omega-3 DHA as a dietary supplement. EPA is proposed to function by increasing blood flow in the body. It is also suggested to affect hormones and the immune system, both of which have a direct effect on brain function. DHA, on the other hand, is involved in the membrane of ion channels in the brain, making it easier for them to change shape and transit electrical signals. Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition​ December 2007, Volume 86, Number 6, Pages 1621-1625 "Comparison of the effects of fish and fish-oil capsules on the n-3 fatty acid content of blood cells and plasma phospholipids" ​Authors: W.S. Harris, J.V. Pottala, S.A. Sands, P.G. Jones

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