Fish Oil Vs Krill: A lengthy explanation that is worth getting to the bottom of!
Now that the Marine Omega 3 market has reached 30 billion dollars a year and is forecast to double by 2030 it is understandable that attempts, primarily by marketers, are being made to distinguish different types of product, with the goal of convincing you one way or the other: fish oil vs krill oil.
In marketing parlance this is called USP or Unique Selling Proposition.
The truth is the really unique work on fish oil is actually being done by drug companies. This also primarily a market driven thing. What most people don’t realize is the huge connection between drugs and natural ingredients. While the Pharmaceutical Industry makes extensive use of computer modeling and design, oft times the molecules exist in nature.
For example, the statin class has now made about 500 billion for Big Pharma. It originated as Chinese Red Yeast Rice. Most anti-biotics have their roots in molds, fungi or bacteria. Eventually computer modeling and semi or wholly synthetic molecules were created as they often are from the original natural compounds. If you look at the history of the ACE inhibitor class you will find claims they were created solely by computer modeling. Soon after they were discovered in nature.
The problem for Big Pharma is they must create new molecules or settle for what is known as a “use patent”. A new molecule or an extracted molecule (like mevacor from red yeast rice) can be fully patented. A natural molecule like fish oil must settle for a use patent which is harder to enforce and results in much less profit.
So, the pharmaceutical industry has progressed slowly and not without trouble from the FDA when it comes to developing “new” molecules for fish oil.
All in all, the main reason for doing this is to make money, but the essential fatty acids in fish oil do a fantastic job of improving health.
Now in the supplement industry there is still a huge desire to create a USP.
Sadly, this has done nothing but confuse the public and create a not so classy attempt by marketers to sell hype not substance.
Here is the truth: Anything that contains the essential fatty acids DHA and EPA will work to improve human health especially in a population that is deficient. Fish Oil vs Krill Oil? It might not matter so much until you dive into the details.
The alphabet agencies decided a long time ago that fish oil was not a vitamin. But this is a huge mistake and frankly I think you should approach this as a nutritional deficiency. Fixing this deficiency will result in many benefits as you might expect. This is, by the way, why fish oil is so good for so many different things. Its not just marketing hype and if you understand it’s a deficiency then it all makes sense.
You should also know that no public health agency or governmental alphabet agency agrees with this statement. The current recommendation is NOT to exceed 3 grams of Omega 3 per day no matter how you get it.
This is because “experts” say going above this level will not help you and may hurt you. We’ll get to that later but be aware this is not a government or medically sanctioned approach.
So, if everything that contains EPA and DHA works, why bother looking and why bother thinking about it at all? Does it matter if it’s fish oil vs krill oil?
Again, it’s a bit more complex than it sounds.
Long ago fish oil was available only in its “natural triglyceride” form. Basically, you catch the fish, wack them over the head and process (press) the unused parts of the fish to extract the oil. If you want to get a bit fancier you can run a type of cleaning process using clay.
If you boil the mix, the temperature change separates out the oil from some of the other components of the fish. Be aware the oxidation point of fish oil is 254 degrees F so there is no chance of free radical toxins being created this way.
This may act as a cleaning process but it also changes the chemical classification of the fish oil, at least in part, to something known as ethyl esters.
Critics have repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to convince the consumer that the ethyl ester form is “chemically altered” implying that chemicals are used to change it into something unnatural. Strictly speaking it is no longer the same chemical as extracted from the fish directly (thus chemically altered but not with chemicals- merely by the purification process).
In point of fact over 80% of the fish oils on the market have been subjected to this process. Some have even been subjected to repeated and more aggressive cleaning and concentration processes. These are generally molecular distillation processes and can concentrate and clean the fish oil to the point where it contains 85% or more essential fatty acids and no measurable toxins.
The same cannot be said of natural triglyceride fish oils which usually approach only 25% purity and may contain whatever toxins exist in the oceans where the raw fish were caught.
The term Pharmaceutical Grade Fish Oil originated over a decade ago to distinguish the higher potency purer fish oils form their “natural counterparts”. That term has no meaning any longer except for search term optimization on the Internet. Manufacturers of fish oil are more or less forced to use it.
If you are buying a “Pharmaceutical Grade” fish oil look for purity and potency values that suggest it has indeed been concentrated to at least 50% and purified from toxins.
What about taking a natural triglyceride type of fish oil. Such a fish oil may work fine for you if you feel you need to stay “natural”. Just be aware you will need to take as much as 3X the amount of a purer fish oil to get the same levels in your body. Also, be aware that you may be ingesting the very same toxins including lead, mercury, and arsenic as well as plastic derivatives that your body cannot get rid of easily or quickly.
You will at least get some Vitamin D and A and perhaps some anti-oxidants like astaxanthin depending on which fish was used as the base. The more you distill fish oil the more concentrated the essential fats get, but the more of the other stuff including the vitamins you remove. Most people who take fish oil on a regular basis also take a multi-vitamin so this is not likely to be an issue.
With fish oils that contain toxins, the problem is not in the use of small doses short term but in the use of larger doses long term. Most of the toxicity of these metals and other toxins is not familiar to most Western doctors and can present as dementias after chronic exposure. It is unlikely that most modern doctors will even think of mercury toxicity when the patient is over 80. They will simply say you have Alzheimer’s and write you off!
More and more people are on larger doses of fish oil on a daily basis more or less for life, so chose wisely!
Critics of ethyl ester fish oil also state that it is not a “natural molecule”. An entire species of shrimp known in the North Atlantic as Calanus contains this type of molecule. No one calls that shrimp unnatural!
The human body contains all the needed absorption and enzyme components to efficiently absorb ethyl esters and uses that very form as an end point or intermediate in the many things that are made in the human body from EPA and DHA. You can find ethyl ester intermediates in just about every anti-inflammatory mediator that is made from membrane bound EPA and DHA.
There is another form of fish oil known as re-triglyceride fish oil. This is where using an expensive and involved process a molecule that truly does not exist in nature is formed. This process allows for a few more % points in concentration but achieves nothing over molecular distillation. The difference between 85% concentration and 92% concentration would be the difference between 6 capsules and 5.9 capsules per day. Since you cannot divide capsules it becomes meaningless!
Still if you like hi tech innovations you might want to spend the money.
Most of the different formats have tried to make a USP out of short term absorption. In order to show this difference, the use of special diets is needed and a measurement at no more than 12 hours time is needed.
If you give an ad lib diet (where people eat normally) and measure at 6 weeks the only things that matters is the total dose of essential fatty acids. This creates an advantage for the highly concentrated ethyl ester types of ultra purified fish oils.
The other advantage is that there is at least 30X more studies done with this type of fish oil because it is very common on the market place.
As a researcher, if one wants to deliberately show that fish oil is no good for something one would pick an unpurified cod or triglyceride form of fish oil as the test. One would avoid a concentrated purified ethyl ester or a re-triglycerided form because of the much higher essential fatty acid content per dose.
Now what about krill?
Krill has been around for almost 20 years and finally found market niche, or a USP because it is “different”. The marketing hook is that it is a “superior molecule” because it is already packaged in the format that the human cell “likes and uses” known as phospholipid. There are also some studies that suggest that it is better absorbed.
There are also some that suggest it is not superior in absorption and there is no study that has a clinically relevant end point that shows that krill is superior to any fish oil form. Unless the study has been sponsored by a krill manufacturer!
The largest study on fish oil ever done was entitled GISSI. It was done in Italy to show the benefits of fish oil on people who already had a heart attack. Not only did it reduce sudden death, cardiac death, and several other forms- it reduced total all cause mortality (deaths from any cause) by nearly 1/3!
The oil used was a highly purified ethyl ester that eventually became the first “fish oil drug” on the market.
Almost all of the non-sponsored studies that are designed honestly to show benefits are done with ethyl ester fish oil. That said, there is no reason any of the other forms will not work. They simply have not been tested as extensively.
Krill (vs fish oil) now has approximately 13% of the marine lipid market for human health. In the process of riding the wave of success of fish oil there is now serious concern (far more concern than with over fishing which is regulated by the Marine Stewardship Council) of the effect of harvesting krill on the environment. There is currently no regulatory body that oversees the entire krill industry.
Another statement made by krill manufactures is that because it’s a tiny little organism it does not accumulate nearly the toxins that larger fish might. This is absolutely true and worth considering if you ignore the fact that these tiny little brine shrimp (my kissing Gorami’s love them!) need to be used in huge numbers to make one capsule and one bottle of krill. Something small multiplied many times yields something much larger.
I would like to see the krill manufacturers publish their toxin data. I have not seen one do it so I did it myself. Using a major well-known internet doctor’s krill brand, I found 50X the level or inorganic arsenic as allowed in drinking water. I suspect this individual has never done 3rd party independent testing on his product. It also calls into suspicion the supplier as there are only a few major krill suppliers out there. More fish oil vs krill oil “marketers” supply testing data, especially with the higher quality products on the market.
Again, the issue of fish oil vs krill might not be serious if you take small amounts over short times.
There is also a well documented and tragic case of an explosion at Canada’s major krill supplier that killed 6 people. This occurred because a solvent that has been linked to cancer, called hexane exploded on the plant site. I am not sure about you, but I am not a fan of using carcinogenic solvents for the extraction of oils that people are going to consume!
Krill’s superiority (and their USP) stems from the “more bioavailable” nature of the phospholipid. Human cells store EPA and DHA like this. But as mentioned above they also use ethyl esters derived from these phospholipids for almost all forms of non-membrane uses of essential fatty acids.
Finally let’s assume that krill is 2X more absorbable than fish oil. The average krill dose per capsule is 350 mg. Some are far less. A highly concentrated ethyl ester fish oil (or chemically altered fish oil if you believe the marketers) contains a gram of essential fatty acids. This means that krill still falls behind in the all critical dosage war.
So, what have we learned when it comes to the “other” fish oil vs krill?
We have learned that ALL types of marine lipids that contain EPA and DHA work, no matter if it’s fish oil vs krill oil. If you get the doses adjusted and ignore potential toxins they should all work the same. They just have not all been tested to the same extent, especially in live people!
We have also learned that there are advantages and disadvantages to all forms of essential marine lipids. And they are ultimately more the same than different except for purity and potency.
They type you chose will be entirely up to you. You will most likely make that decision not based on science but on marketing. The ultimate decision will be made based on who and what you feel most comfortable with, probably not what makes the most scientific sense.
The good news is that marine lipids are really good for you, and you will most likely benefit from using them no matter which one you ultimately pick.
But, as they say, the devil is in the details!
David Woynarowski MD