The bioavailability of ethyl ester concentrate is thought to be 70% less than that of natural triglyceride form fish oil supplements.
How natural is your omega-3 fish oil supplement?
What could be more natural than fish oil? After all, don’t you just take an oily fish, give it a good squeeze and then bottle the golden elixir that comes out? It sounds so simple!
But what if we told you that some of the natural fish oil capsules you find in the supermarket aren’t as natural as they seem? In fact, if you don’t shop around carefully, you could end up with a product that’s more synthetic than you might expect.
Most natural fish oil supplements on the market are ethyl esters. When fish oil is purified and concentrated to increase the amount of EPA and DHA, a process that involves binding the fatty acids to ethanol (alcohol) is used and this type of oil is called an ethyl ester. But while ethyl ester sounds alarmingly chemically, is it really a bad thing? Is it essential to use something that removes pollutants and gives your supplement higher levels of EPA and DHA?
Well, we’re here to tell you that there is a way to get a daily dose of concentrated, pure fish oil in a far more natural way. None of our Bare Biology products are ethyl esters, and yet they’re still fresh, clean and high strength. So how do we do it? Read on to find out the truth about natural fish oil.
What is natural fish oil?
If you took an oily fish and cold-pressed it (like you do with expensive olive oil, for example) what comes out is raw fish oil in its purest form. The oil in this state is known as natural triglyceride fish oil. If you looked at it under a microscope, you’d see that each triglyceride is made up of three fatty acids attached to a molecule of glycerol that forms a backbone to hold them all together.
This same structure is identical to virtually all the fats and oils found in nature, including those from plants, animals and human beings. This makes natural triglycerides highly ‘bioavailable’ to the human body, which is another way of saying we don’t have to work too hard to make use of all the nutrients they contain.
The more natural the structure of fish oil and the less ‘processed’ it is, the more easily we can absorb it. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But before you rush out to track down some raw natural triglyceride fish oil supplements, getting your Omega 3 in this way isn’t such a good idea.
Because it isn’t concentrated, raw fish oil contains very low amounts of the active ingredients EPA and DHA, meaning you’d have to swallow vast quantities to receive any therapeutic benefits. And because it hasn’t been treated or purified, it could be contaminated with heavy metals, PCBs or dioxins.
What is ethyl ester fish oil?
The vast majority of fish oils on the market are what’s known as ethyl ester fish oils. To make them, manufacturers take the raw fish oil and convert its triglycerides into a synthetic substance known as ethyl ester. They do this using ethanol, in a process called trans-esterification.
During trans-esterification, the fish oil’s glycerol molecule is detached from its three fatty acids, so you end up with three free fatty acids and one free glycerol molecule. An ethanol molecule is then attached to each of the fatty acids, creating a synthetic substance called ethyl ester.
This is useful because it allows manufacturers to selectively concentrate just the EPA and DHA part of the oil, which they can then sell as fish oil concentrate.
Concentrated vs non concentrated fish oil
Ethanol molecules, trans-esterification… OK, so the process of distilling raw fish oil into something more pure and concentrated is all starting to sound a bit scientific and unnatural.
But is there anything actually wrong with processing fish oil in this way?
Well, first the good news. Concentrated ethyl ester oil is actually a semi-natural product, because the process of removing the glycerol ‘back-bone’ of the triglyceride molecules is similar to one that occurs naturally in the body. Treating the oil in this way means the finished product will have up to three times more EPA and DHA per dose. Plus, processing raw fish oil is the only way to remove any harmful contaminants.
But our bodies can’t absorb ethyl esters as well as natural triglycerides. The bioavailability of ethyl ester concentrate is thought to be 70% less than that of natural triglyceride form fish oil supplements. That’s because, while the body finds it easy to absorb DHA and EPA as natural triglycerides, it actually has to work quite hard to access omega-3 when it’s delivered as ethyl esters.
Partly this is due to the presence of ethanol. Your liver must first filter out the ethyl alcohol before it can get to work on the fatty acids, which is why some people experience quite unpleasant side effects (such as stomach upsets) when they take prescription strength ethyl ester fish oils. It’s the presence of ethanol, and not the fish oil, that causes the problem.
Can you buy a concentrated natural triglyceride fish oil?
Wouldn’t it be great if there was another way of handling fish oil? One that concentrates the active ingredients and removes the contaminants, but still keeps the fish oil in its easy to absorb, natural triglyceride form?
There is and it’s the one we use here at Bare Biology.
While the conversion of the fish oil in its raw form is necessary to create a clean, concentrated supplement, you don’t have to leave the fatty acids as ethyl esters. You can actually convert the fish oil back to its original, natural triglyceride form again.
To do so is more costly and fish oils that use this process are more expensive because of it. But it’s so worth it, because natural triglyceride fish oils are the most effective supplement money can buy. They contain far more active ingredients than cold pressed oils per dose and are 70% more bioavailable than ethyl ester fish oils.
Fish oils made in this way are quite rare, making up a tiny percentage of the market. But Bare Biology is one of the few manufacturers who go this extra mile. We use this conversion process to make all of our supplements, meaning the omega-3 in our products are in the same natural triglyceride form found in nature.
How are concentrated natural triglyceride fish oils made?
So we’ve seen how ethyl ester can be useful if we want a clean, concentrated fish oil that actually supplies anywhere near a strong enough dose in a small volume of oil.
Just to recap, ethyl esters are made when fatty acids are removed from their natural glycerol ‘backbone’ and reattached to a molecule of ethanol to purify and concentrate the oil.
But once you’ve done this, it’s then possible to reverse the process and restructure the fat back to its natural triglyceride form, by re-attaching the fatty acids to the glycerol again.
So you get a fish oil that’s full of omega-3 and free from toxins, but in a natural form that’s easy to absorb.
Why are natural triglyceride form oils like Bare Biology’s more bioavailable?
It’s all down to the glycerol molecule. In most fish oils this is removed and replaced by ethanol. But the ethanol molecule is far more resistant to lipase, the pancreatic enzyme needed to break it down.
It also has to be processed by the liver. There the ethanol is separated from the free fatty acids, which need to scavenge for a glycerol molecule to form a triglyceride again. Only when it’s become a triglyceride can it be taken away by your blood to be absorbed and used by your body. These extra steps slow down the whole process.
By contrast, supplements such as Bare Biology’s natural triglyceride form fish oils and capsules still have their glycerol molecule. They aren’t resistant to lipase and don’t contain any ethanol molecules that have to be filtered by the liver.
Studies suggest just 20% of the EPA and DHA in ethyl ester form can be absorbed by your body. To boost bioavailability you can take the supplement with a meal containing fat, which takes it up to 60%. But just contrast this with EPA and DHA in their natural triglyceride form. These were found to have a 69% absorption rate right from the start which increased to a massive 90% when taken with additional dietary fat.
Why aren’t all fish oils in natural triglyceride form?
It’s purely because of cost. Ethyl ester fish oils are everywhere, simply because they’re far less expensive to produce than the natural triglyceride form.
So what are the best natural fish oil supplements?
When it comes to all natural omega-3 fish oil, you can’t get better than the omega-3 we make at Bare Biology. Our oils are in their natural triglyceride form for optimal absorption and when it comes to boosting your own omega-3 index, this really is the gold standard.
Ethyl ester omega-3 does not exist anywhere in nature, it’s totally man-made. So yes, our natural wild cold water fish oil is more expensive to produce, but it has the same concentrated amounts of active ingredients in a form that’s as close to nature as possible.
Related blog posts...
Ok, you’ve made the decision to take an Omega 3 supplement, but which one should you buy? Here are six important factors to consider before partin...
Back in October 2016, when we first heard Dr Michael Mosley would be testing whether fish oil supplements are as good as eating oily fish for his p...
It's always better to eat food rather than take supplements and this is what we recommend. However, it's not always the case. There are two big qu...
Any information provided by Bare Biology, or representatives of, is for educational purposes and should not replace medical advice. We cannot diagnose or treat any
medical condition. Always consult a doctor or other medical practitioner before implementing any changes. If you are on prescriptive medication you should check with your GP before commencing any supplement programme as these may be contraindicated with some medications.