Are Pharmaceutical Grade Fish Oils a Marketing Gimmick?

June 2015, Kane Matthews

Summary

When choosing your fish oil, you may have come across the term “Pharmaceutical Grade Fish Oil”, and wondered what it actually means. Perhaps you also asked if it applies to our fish oils, and if not, how do Pharmaceutical Grade fish oils compare with ours? Let’s address those questions now.

When choosing your fish oil, you may have come across the term “Pharmaceutical Grade Fish Oil”, and wondered what it actually means. Perhaps you also asked if it applies to our fish oils, and if not, how do Pharmaceutical Grade fish oils compare with ours? Let’s address those questions now.

1. What is “Pharmaceutical Grade Fish Oil”?

Pharmaceutical-grade fish oils are claimed to be the purest and most potent of the fish oils available. Specifically, they are usually fish oils which are marketed as having:

  • 80 to 90% total Omega-3 fatty acid (as opposed to around 30% Omega 3 in many cheaper fish oils)
  • High purity levels: the repeated molecular distillation required to achieve the highly concentrated finished product is supposed to achieve a high level of purity with almost all toxins and heavy metals, such as mercury removed.
  • Exceptionally low levels of environmental toxins

From the above, it may appear as if the term ‘pharmaceutical grade’ is an “Unofficial” measure of fish oil quality.

This is really not true, and I would like to explain why.

2. Why “Unofficial”?

It is “unofficial” because “Pharmaceutical Grade Fish Oil” is neither an official FDA term, nor a medical term. Critically, use of the term is also NO guarantee or specification of any generally agreed quality or purity standard.

Sadly, this lack of any officially agreed quality and purity standards in the fish oil market for “Pharmaceutical Grade” Fish Oil encourages dubious marketing claims.

Well, while we know that there is no agreed standard, fish oil is certainly being sold claiming to be ‘Pharmaceutical grade’. This includes Lovaza, which is a prescription grade fish oil with 85% Omega 3. It provides about one gram of fish oil per capsule, of which approximately 465 mg is EPA and 375 mg is DHA.

But it’s expensive. So you have to pay for your doctor’s time and prescription, then you may pay from $159 + (with insurance) per month. Without Insurance cover, Lovaza may cost you anywhere from $280 to $520 per month.

So the real question is NOT whether or not the term “Pharmaceutical Grade fish oil” exists, but rather, does it mean anything?

3. How can You Tell the Accuracy of the Marketing Claims about Pharmaceutical Grade Fish Oils?

Read the labels very carefully. For example, this brand claims to be “Pharmaceutical grade” (see left label). But when you look at the back (right label) you see…..

pharmaceutical-fish-oil      

…..this 1200 mg pill has only 360 mg of Omega-3, not the expected 85%+. It also doesn’t specify the DHA/EPA amount.

This label also highlights several other critical factors related to the quality of the fish oil.

For any fish oil, you need to ask whether the fish oil satisfactorily addresses these key quality metrics, and has independent verification of:

  1. Form of the oil and the DHA/EPA Ratio
  2. Purity
  3. Freshness
  4. Value for Money

3.1. Form and DHA/EPA Ratio

The main forms available are the Ethyl Ester form, natural triglyceride fish oil and synthetic triglyceride oil

Synthetic triglyceride oil is another form of fish oil that is very common and marketed as ‘natural’ when in fact it is not.

Yes, it is a triglyceride, but not a natural one. It is produced after concentration. The natural triglycerides are converted to ethyl esters for concentration. This is OK, but some manufacturers then re-convert the esters back into a synthetic form of triglycerides. The original position of the triglyceride’s carbon bonds can change and the molecule’s overall structure is altered.

Why do so many manufacturers’ use this conversion process? They do it because they think this allows them to state that they are using a ‘natural’ triglyceride form. This infers to the customer that the fish oil is natural –when in actual fact, it’s not.

What is the best and most effectively absorbed form?

Fish oil is most effectively absorbed and beneficial to the body when the oil is as close to its natural molecular structure as possible, and when it is pure and fresh.

Xtend Life’s Omega3 / DHA Fish Oil is a blend of hoki oil in its natural triglyceride form and a concentrated molecularly distilled tuna oil in ethyl ester form. Both are exceptionally pure and easily absorbed by the body due to their omega 3's maintaining a natural molecular shape. There are no synthetic triglycerides as we believe that our products should be as natural as possible.

Our tuna oil is 85% total Omega 3, including 50% DHA and 20% EPA.

DHA/EPA Ratio

You may be surprised at this DHA/EPA ratio. After all, most fish oil products, including most of those claiming to be “Pharmaceutical Grade”, are EPA dominant, containing at least 50% more EPA than DHA.

We suggest that this is an inappropriate ratio. That’s because there is now good quality research showing that higher levels of DHA relative to EPA may lead to the greatest health benefits, particularly with regard to brain, heart, blood sugar and joint heath (ref.1)

Just look at a healthy mother’s breast milk. You’ll likely find much more DHA than EPA. Nature designed it that way because DHA is the real healer and caregiver.

In addition, it is difficult for the body to convert EPA to DHA because it has to add two carbon bonds. On the other hand the body only has to 'drop off' two carbon bonds from DHA to create EPA.

Given these facts about the superiority of DHA, why do you think fish oil manufacturers aren’t increasing the DHA levels relative to EPA?

Simple! It’s more expensive and EPA is easier to concentrate. As you know, many companies are notorious for cutting corners to fatten their wallets, rather than providing you with the very best products.

Courtesy of our unique blend, we are also able to retain an excellent ratio of Omega 6, Omega 9 and DPA in our fish oils. We believe that these provide additional health benefits, which include supporting your body’s ability to maintain healthy inflammation management.

Regarding purity…..

3.2. Purity

Fish oil purity is assessed by measuring the levels of heavy metals, PCBs and dioxins.

At the moment there are several standards for fish oil purity that are used internationally. The most important of these are included in the below table. You will note that we at Xtend-Life have set our own specification standards which are more stringent than the most widely accepted international standards.

Component

Xtend-Life
Specifications

Global Organisation for EPA and DHA (GOED)

Council for
Responsible
Nutrition
(CRN)

European
Pharmacopoeia

Norwegian
Medicinal
Standard

Arsenic (ppb)

<90

<100

100

100

100

Cadmium (ppb)

<10

<100

100

100

100

Mercury (ppb)

<50

<100

100

100

100

Lead (ppb)

<10

<100

100

100

100

Total PCBs (209 congeners) (ppb)

<90

<90

<90

N/A

N/A

DL-PCB’s (ppb)

<3

<3

<3

N/A

N/A

Dioxins (PCDD & PCDF’s) (ppt)

<2

<2

<2

N/A

N/A

Total Dioxins,
Furans & DL-PCB’s
(ppt)

<3

<3

<3

 

 

Notes:
* N/A means 'Not Available'
* < means less than the indicated maximum
* ppb – parts per billion
* ppt – parts per trillion
* GOED is the leading international organization representing the industry and educating consumers on the value and importance of Omega 3.  Xtend-Life is a proud member of GOED, however we have set our specifications even tighter than GOED

3.3. Freshness

Component

Xtend-Life
Specifications

Global Organization for EPA and DHA (GOED)

Council for
Responsible
Nutrition
(CRN)

European
Pharmacopoeia

Norwegian
Medicinal
Standard

Peroxide Value
(mEq/kg)

<3.75

<5

<5

<10

<10

Anisidine Value

<12

<20

<20

N/A

N/A

Total Oxidation
(TOTOX)

<19.5

<26

26

N/A

N/A

Notes:
* N/A means 'Not Available'

* GOED is the leading international organization representing the industry and educating consumers on the value and importance of Omega 3.  Xtend-Life is a proud member of GOED, however we have set our specifications even tighter than GOED

To ensure that fish oil freshness is maintained across all our products at all times, each and every batch of our Omega 3/DHA Fish Oil products are tested by independent-certified laboratories. The laboratory used depends on the test being carried out. We use two labs, namely: Cawthron Laboratories and AsureQuality.

How can Xtend-Life achieve such Outstanding Purity Results?

We are very demanding about the way our fish oil is handled and processed, and we follow very strict protocols at every stage of manufacturing.  Until we are ready to encapsulate, the fish oil is stored in drums, frozen.

Summary

The above information shows how quality fish oil, including ‘Pharmaceutical grade’, needs to satisfy the following criteria: it must be in the right form – having the most natural molecular structure possible, with a high DHA/EPA ratio, and it must be fresh and pure.

If the fish oil meets all of these criteria, then you may expect it to be expensive, but you also want value for money…

Value for money

According to fish oil marketers, including those using the term ‘Pharmaceutical Grade’, since highly concentrated fish oil has more omega-3 in it, you need less of it, and therefore, any extra cost is negligible over time.

Is that true?

Do a search for Pharmaceutical grade fish oils and have a look at the cost. This ranges hugely from US$15 for a month’s supply to US $159 -$520 per month (dependent on Insurance cover) for Lovaza.

With Xtend-Life, our fish oils range in price from US$17.95-27.95 a month. For US$27.95 in our Omega 3 / QH Ultra you are also getting the genuine Kaneka Ubiquinol, and antioxidant rich lycopene and astaxanthin. The closest comparison we are aware of is Dr Al Sears Primal Force which sells for $49.95.

The extra cost of our Omega 3/QH Ultra, over the cost the cost of our Omega 3 Premium is just US$7.00.  This is before any loyalty or shipping discount. So before our discounts and shipping benefits you can get the same amount of Ubiquinol for US$7, which represents unbeatable value relative to any other product on the market.

Xtend-Life is committed to ensuring that all of our Omega 3 fish oil supplements represent excellent value for money and your health! Our Omega 3/QH Ultra is probably the best and most economical way in which to purchase CoQ10, particularly in the form of genuine Kaneka QH Ubiquinol.

Remember too all the possible health benefits our fish oils may assist you with (ref. 2).

4. So, Are Pharmaceutical Grade Fish Oils a Marketing Gimmick?

While the prescription grade fish oils are undoubtedly of a high standard, in many cases…yes, the term ‘pharmaceutical grade fish oil is a marketing gimmick…because many of the products being sold with this description appear to be of poor quality (purity, freshness, form, and a far less than ideal DHA:EPA ratio).  Very few of the oils sold as ‘pharmaceutical grade’ have any evidence to support the value proposition!

In contrast, Xtend-Life fish oils meet – and exceed independent quality standards.

Which would you choose?

 

References

1. For research showing how higher levels of DHA may lead to the greatest health benefits, see:

  • Stonehouse W, et al. DHA supplementation improved both memory and reaction time in healthy young adults: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 May;97(5):1134-43.
  • Deutsch L. Evaluation of the effect of DHA on chronic inflammation and arthritic symptoms. J Am Coll Nutr. 2007 Feb;26(1):39-48.
  • Bazan N, Musto A, Knott E. "Endogenous signaling by omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid-derived mediators sustains homeostatic synaptic and circuitry integrity." Mol Neurobiol. 2011;44(2):216-22.

2. To see the possible health benefits associated with our unique blend of fish oils, go to: /products/omega-3-dha-childrens

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