South Africa’s supermarket and pharmacy shelves are filled with omega-3 supplements, causing much confusion for consumers. Experts offer tips to help consumers decide who needs a fish oil supplement and how to choose the best one.

So why the hype about fish oils?

Omega-3 fatty acids help decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke and have anti-inflammatory properties, which help protect against type 2 diabetes, cancer, ulcerative colitis, asthma, psoriasis and many more. Fish oil holds several health benefits and most of these benefits seem to come from the omega-3 fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)). The human body doesn’t produce omega-3 fatty acids, therefore we need to get them either from diet – like fatty fish pilchards, sardines, mackerel, herring and salmon – or from supplements.

How much should I take?

Around 250-280g of oily fish should be taken weekly to reach recommended intakes, amounting to about 500mg EPA in combination with DHA per day. A supplement ensures that you are getting just the right amount – and there is no shortage of choice. In 2014, there were more than 65 fish oil supplements available on pharmacy and supermarket shelves in South Africa. But take care – the most expensive supplements are not necessarily the best! Check supplement labels and if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

High concentration is not necessarily better

Many supplements claim that they comprise of high potency, concentrated or even super concentrated fish oil. But concentrated fish oil is not considered to be fish oil anymore. In South Africa most manufacturers don’t say if their products contain fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEE) and don’t warn pregnant women against its use.

Check the expiry date

The state of rancidity of some fish oil supplements is another concern. A 2013 survey conducted by the Functional Foods Research Unit at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) found that in 57 fish oil supplements tested for rancidity, more than 80% exceeded the recommended rancidity levels. When fatty acids become rancid they are unhealthy and are less effective.

Don’t buy supplements from outlets where bottles were exposed to light for too long as this increases the possibility of oil rancidity. Don’t use supplements beyond the expiry date.

Don’t overdo it!

Excess fish oil consumption (less than 3 000 mg/day) should be avoided. Supplement labels should ideally indicate the exact contents and source of fish oil and the EPA and DHA contents in a capsule. Oversupplementation can lead to prolonged bleeding and increases the risk of suffering a stroke. Diabetics need to know that omega-3 fatty acids could affect blood glucose levels.


Dr Maretha Opperman is a registered dietician and researcher in the Functional Foods Research Unit (FFRU), Department of Biotechnology and Consumer Science, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town, South Africa and Prof. Benadé is Head of the FFRU. Find out more about Omega Caro-E, a fish oil supplement developed by Prof. Benadé and Dr Opperman here.

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