Available sources of Omega-3
There are three main sources of Omega-3 essential fatty acid available to consumers: fish oil, krill oil and plant sources, such as flax or other seed oils. While the health benefits of Omega-3 are virtually undisputed, the best source of Omega-3 for humans is the subject of ongoing debate.
Omega-3 in the form of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, or EPA/DHA, is found naturally only in animals, with the greatest concentrations being found in seafood, including fish and krill. EPA/DHA is required by the body to support cardiovascular and neurological health and has been shown to have positive health benefits in the areas of inflammatory and auto-immune disease, mental health, brain development in fetuses and babies, vision and more. Plant-based products, while often favored by vegetarians, vegans and those who have concerns about seafood alergies, only provide Omega-3 in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). To be available for use, the body must first convert ALA into EPA/DHA. This conversion is inefficient, requiring both energy and nutrient expenditures, thereby reducing the health benefits of plant-based Omega-3 products. While there are many Omega-3 products containing ALA available, this article focuses on the comparison between products containing krill oil and pharmaceutical grade Omega-3 derived from highly refined, ultra-pure fish oil.
What are Krill?
Krill are small, shrimp-like crustaceans that live in the ocean and feed mainly on phytoplankton. Low on the food chain, they're eaten by whales, fish, penguins, seals and squid. Krill have been harvested as a food source for humans and domesticated animals since the 19th century, and possibly even earlier in Japan. Large-scale fishing of krill developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and now occurs in Antarctic waters and in the seas around Japan. Over 95% of all harvested krill are used to make something called "fish meal," which is most oftenused as a feed for farm raised salmon. Approximately 2% of harvested krill is used to produce the krill oil found in Omega-3 products.
Products derived from krill oil are considerably more expensive than products derived from pharmaceutical grade fish oil due to several factors, including:
- the low concentration of EPA/DHA in krill oil;
- the high cost of krill oil processing methods;
- relatively limited availability of krill, which are located and harvested near the South Pole;
- the fact that krill must be processed into oil onboard the harvesting ships to avoid spoilage;
- a limited harvest season of only a few months per year;
- the high advertising costs required to promote a relatively new and unproven product to physicians and consumer
Like fish oil, krill oil contains EPA/DHA. However, Omega-3 products derived from krill oil typically have EPA/DHA concentrations of only 15-24%, compared to the 85%+ in pharmaceutical grade Omega-3 products. Because of this low concentration, the number of servings of krill oil required to meet the recommended daily intake of EPA/DHA is significantly higher than for products containing pharmaceutical grade Omega-3 derived from fish. For example, one of the best selling krill oil products currently on the market contains 72 milligrams of EPA/DHA in each 300 milligram capsule.