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Not all fish oils are equal. There are six important factors to consider when choosing a fish oil: purity, freshness, potency, nutrients, bioavailability and sustainability.

It’s essential to do your homework and make an informed choice. The supplement industry is rife with false claims and unsavory companies that are far more interested in profiting on the fish oil craze than they are in your health and well-being. Many fish oils are oxidized or made with poor quality ingredients, and may actually cause health problems instead of solving them.

The potency of various products depends not only upon the levels of EPA and DHA, but also upon the molecular structure of the fats in the oil, which in turn affects absorption.

Here are six primary variables to be aware of when shopping for fish oil:

1. Purity. The fish oil must meet international standards for heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and other contaminants. Many do not – even when they claim they do. Many species of fish are known to concentrate toxic chemicals like heavy metals, PCBs, and dioxins which can cause serious disease, especially in children and developing fetuses.

To address this, ethical fish oil manufacturers use a process called molecular distillation to remove the toxins from the oil. When done correctly, molecular distillation is capable of reducing the toxins in fish oil to levels considered to be safe by the EPA and other agencies.

Although almost any fish oil manufacturer will tell you their product is free of these toxins, independent lab analyses tell a different story. In a March, 2010, a lawsuit was filed in California court against the manufacturers of ten popular fish oils because they contained undisclosed and (possibly) unsafe levels of contaminants.

2. Freshness. Omega-3 oils are susceptible to oxidation, which makes them rancid. Rancid oils are pro-inflammatory and contribute to the diseases you’re trying to relieve or prevent by taking fish oil in the first place! This is why it’s absolutely crucial to ensure that the fish oil you select is fresh and not rancid. Make sure your fish oil is FRESH!

Break open a capsule once you receive it. There should be no “fishy” odors. They should smell like the ocean, but not like a rotten fish. They should also not have a strong lemon or lime scent, which could be an indicator that the manufacturer is trying to mask the rancidity.

A common misconception is that you can determine the quality of a fish oil by freezing it. The theory goes that if you freeze the oil and it is cloudy, it’s rancid. That is not the case. All fish contain saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, albeit in small amounts. These fatty acids make the capsules appear cloudy when frozen in products that contain whole fish oil.

ShoppingFishOil3. Potency. In order to have the desired anti-inflammatory effect, fish oil must contain an adequate amount of the long-chain omega-3 derivatives EPA and DHA. DHA is especially important.

According to the American Heart Association if you want the full heart and cardiovascular benefits, you need 500 mg of DHA/EPA Omega-3 fatty acids every day. Some popular fish oils don’t even give you half that much, so check your current brand. Read the label carefully. Some brands may claim 500 mg of “fish oil,” but only a fraction of that fish oil is the healthy Omega-3 EPA and DHA.

4. Other Nutrients. All fish oils contain some amount of EPA and DHA. However, fish liver oils (from cod, skate or shark) contain significant amounts of vitamins A and D in addition to EPA and DHA. Vitamins A and D are fat-soluble nutrients that are crucial to human health. Vitamin D, in particular, is difficult to obtain from commonly eaten foods. Make sure your fish oil contains these beneficial nutrients.

5. Bio-availability. The ability to absorb the beneficial components of fish oil is based on the molecular shape of the fatty acids. In short, the more natural the structure and the less it is chemically altered, the better.

This is true for any nutrient, of course, and it explains why I am always in favor of obtaining nutrients from food or food-based sources when possible. Each additional step in processing from the natural state of a food to extract or isolate nutrients introduces the potential of damaging the nutrient, or changing it’s chemical form so that it’s more difficult to absorb or affects the body in a different way.

6. Sustainability. The fish should be harvested in a sustainable manner and species that are under threat should be avoided. The sustainability of fish oil production is difficult to gauge. Some oils are produced as a byproduct of fish harvesting, and manufacturers claim that they are simply making use of something that would normally be discarded. While this is certainly better than harvesting fish solely for their oil, it still supports harmful fishing practices. The safest bet is to only use fish oil that is made from fish that are certified by MSF or a similar organization, such as the Environmental Defense Fund.

In general, fish that are lower on the food chain like sardines and anchovies naturally have a lower concentration of contaminants. For this reason, it may be wise to look for a product made from these fish. This may seem like unnecessary paranoia, but when it comes to the possibility of ingesting powerful neurotoxins, it pays to do your homework.

Recommendations Which product you might choose from this list depends in large part upon what your goals are. Considering all of the above 6 criteria to consider for choosing the best fish oil: purity, freshness, potency, nutrients, bioavailability and sustainability I recommend Dr. Harmony’s Fish Oil. Note: Dr. Harmony’s Fish Oil is fish oil I recommend based on my research. It’s very likely that there are other good products that I missed in my search.