Fish Oil - Ethyl Ester versus
If you've purchased Fish Oil for very long, you've very likely had the experience
of opening a bottle and almost passing out from the stench. Other relatively
common problems with fish oil are fishy burps and a horrible taste upon biting
into one of the capsules to test for freshness. All of these problems were
the reason that I initially gave up on fish oil - I live in a very sunny climate
- and just went to eating fish once or twice a week. I figured that any
advantages I might get from the omega 3's were undoubtedly cancelled out by the
rancid, oxidized oil that I was clearly occasionally consuming.
However, upon reading one positive study after another regarding fish oil, I
decided to research the subject a little further examination: I figured
that there had to be a way of getting a decent fish oil even in the warm spot of
the globe I lived in. My first encounter was a very positive one as, in
the middle of summer, I bought a fish oil that was in its most natural state,
i.e. the triglyceride form. This triglyceride-based fish oil was so fresh
that I could actually bite the softgel with no smell or bad taste.
One recent study shows that taking fish oil capsules
dramatically increases the risk for advanced prostate cancer - this is the kind you don't want! - and significantly
increases it for all prostate cancers. See this
article for more details.
Based on this, the authors recommended eating just one or two meals of fish per week instead. Keep in mind that this is
just one study, but the results were so pronounced that it should be carefully considered. For a nice rebuttal to this study,
discussion for more information.
The theory is this: the triglyceride form of fish oil is the more natural
one and oxidizes less quickly than the ethyl ester form that is used in 98% of
the fish oils sold today. The ethyl ester form is the most common because
the molecular distilation process that manufacturers use to filter the lead,
mercury and PCB's out of fish oil, converts the fish oil from the less reactive
triglyceride form to the more active ethyl ester form. The triglyceride
form has three fatty acids bonded to a glycerol backbone, whereas the ethyl
ester form has the three fatty acids bonded to a ethyl ester.
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So why, you may ask, are almost all fish oils sold in ethyl ester form?
Well, as usual, rarely are answers ever simple and quick and this is no
exception. The main reason they are sold in that form is twofold: 1)
most studies have been conducted with the ethyl ester form and 2) the ethyl
ester form is what is necessarily produced from the commercial filtration
process. Furthermore, ethyl ester proponents argue that if you get the fish oil
rapidly into a sealed softgel where it has no contact with air, then the product
will have very minimal additional rancidification. They further argue that
any oxidation will be additionally slowed by the addition of tocopherol (Vitamin
E) into the softgel as well.
These arguments actually are all good ones. However, there are a couple of
things that might explain my negative experiences. First of all, there is
some rancidification that will occur before they get it into the capsule.
Secondly, some additional decay may occur even in the capsule especially if
there is any heat involved. This is more than likely more of an issue than
the ethyl ester manufacturers would care to admit, because most of the
Scandanavian countries and the UK have banned all non-triglyceride forms of
fish oil. 
Finally, and probably most importantly, any manufacturer that goes through with
the additional step of putting the fatty acids back onto the glycerol backbone
to get the triglyceride form, and it should be added charge a small premium for
it, is going to carefully watch and monitor their product. That's what
some of this boils down to: the quality and care of the manufacturer.
Actually, there is another consideration: the triglyceride form of fish oil
creates more EPA and DHA, i.e. it is better absorbed This is really the
bottom line for fish oil: how much of these two fatty acids does the
product generate in our systems. For those interested, the brand that I bought was
Ascenta's Nutra Sea Fish Oil as it has always been very fresh with little "fishy
Please read these pages about
How Fish Oil Helps the Heart, How Fish
Oil Helps Testosterone and
How Fish Oil Helps Depression as well.
NOTE: Some have argued that fish oils are oxidative upon digestion
and that fish oil thus probably does significant aging and cellular damage
internally that we may not yet understand. However, several studies
suggest this to be a relative non-issue.  In addition, one study also
found that additional Vitamin E can protective help overcome most of the small
amount of oxidative damage that is done anyway. The study authors found
that oxidative products in the urine "more than doubled when the fish oil
capsules were introduced but then dropped by a factor of four when vitamin E was
added. The vitamin E concentration in the red blood cells dropped very
significantly when fish oil was ingested but more than recovered with the
vitamin E supplement". 
Also, I recommend that you take a mixed tocopherol blend of Vitamin E, rather
than the standard alpha tocopherol Vitamin E used in this study, even though it
is more expensive. Pure alpha tocopherol can lower your body's other
1) Fish Oil, James Maroon, p. 110
2) Pharmacological Res, 57(6):451-455, Jun 2008, "Polyunsaturated fatty acids as antioxidants", Richard D Kefi, et. al.
3) Amer J of Clin Nutr, 58:98-102, July 1993, "Dietary fish oil-induced changes
in the distribution of alpha-tocopherol, retinol, and beta-carotene in plasma,
red blood cells, and platelets: modulation by vitamin E"