Fish Oil Types. Which Is Better…Triglyceride or Ester Forms?
We regularly receive queries from customers asking this question. Usually they are prompted to do so as a result of something that they have read on the internet, generally from a Company that is promoting the triglyceride form of fish oil. Much of this material is misinformation.
The following is a typical question from a customer on this issue:
“I just read an article on Nordic Naturals. They say. We use only the natural triglyceride form of fish oil. Triglycerides contain a glycerol backbone, stabilizing the oil molecules in their natural form. Fish oil in ethyl ester form is HIGHLY UNSTABLE and rapidly breaks down during storage. THEY ARE PROHIBITED IN SWEDEN, DENMARK, AND SOON IN NORWAY AND THE UK.
Additionally, when fish oil is ingested, they are converted into free fatty acids. After absorption through the epithelial cells, free fatty acids are immediately converted into triglycerides. If the glycerol backbone is missing (AS THEY ARE WITH ETHYL ESTERS) and no other glycerol are available, the oil CANNOT BE CONVERTED BACK TO TRIGLYCERIDE FORM. The Fatty acids not converted to triglycerides pose an oxidation burden in the form of free radical formation.
Your comments on this will be greatly appreciated”
I discussed these issues with a scientist who specialises in lipid research and his answers have enabled me to address the points raised in these statements and make some further comments as well.
1. Stability. There is no appreciable difference in the stability of either form of fish oil. The component of fish oil that makes them potentially unstable is the ‘double bonds’ which are present in both forms.
2. Esters Prohibited in Sweden, Denmark etc. This is an untrue statement and I see that Nordic Naturals have now dropped this statement from their website, as they should.
3. Conversion of esters by the body back to triglycerides. They suggested that there is a problem in converting unused esters back into the triglyceride form for storage and as such any esters not converted could pose an oxidative burden.
This is also not the true story. But, to address this I need to explain the general mechanism of action so you will understand what really happens. I will attempt to do that now.
What Really Happens?
The first thing is to identify the different types of fish oils on the market today. There are basically three:
1. Concentrated ethyl esters
2. Non concentrated triglycerides.
3. Concentrated triglycerides.
Concentrated Ethyl Esters. This is the process that we use for our Xtend-Life Omega 3 DHA. The reason for this is that the oil is in a ‘ready to use’ format. Oil in triglyceride form has to be converted into esters by the body BEFORE it can be utilized.
This is because the triglyceride form has larger molecules and has to be broken down into smaller molecules before the body can absorb them. By supplying the oil in ester form the body can absorb them IMMEDIATELY by the action of one enzyme (esterase – which is freely available in the body from normal diet) forming free fatty acids eg DHA. . If the body cannot use any of the free fatty acid at that time they are then converted back into triglyceride form by the body for later use.
Non Concentrated Triglycerides. This is the ‘normal’ type 180/120 fish oil sometimes referred to as the ‘natural’ triglyceride form. With this type of oil your body has to convert it to esters then form free fatty acids. This can be problematic for some people as it requires two (lipase) enzymes to form the esters. Many people are deficient in these enzymes which can result in poor bio-availability.
Concentrated Triglycerides. These are oils which have been concentrated so that their levels of EPA/DHA are not the ‘normal’ 180/120 but more in line with the fatty acid ratios found in our concentrated oil. The manufacturers claim that they are more ‘natural’ than the ester forms, but that is not the truth. Instead these oils are actually a synthetic version of triglycerides.
What happens with the concentrated triglycerides is this. Firstly the triglycerides are converted to esters, much as we do with our oils. Then the oil is concentrated. After this the esters are converted back into triglyceride form which is a relatively simple process. BUT…and this is a big but, and is the reason why we do not use the triglyceride form…
The triglycerides that the esters are converted back to are NOT the same as the ‘natural’ triglycerides they started out as. This is because the three positions on the backbone that the fatty acids attach to is disrupted during the converting back to triglycerides from esters as part of the manufacturing process.
As there is no guarantee that they will reattach in the original position the ‘new’ triglycerides become a synthetic form with only two of the fatty acids readily available to the body. The third one is difficult for the body to use and therefore only a small proportion of the benefits of that fatty acid may be realised by the body if at all.
Now, I appreciate that this is difficult to follow and I am trying to avoid getting too technical. It took me a while to get my head around all this, as I had to try and get an understanding of ‘backbones’ and other sorts of technicalities. BUT…in simple terms the ‘concentrated triglyceride’ forms of fish oil are a bit of a gamble. You don’t know which of the essential fatty acids are going to be on that part of the backbone that the body cannot use.
So, let’s say the essential fatty acid DHA happens to land on that position on the backbone that the body cannot access then you may get little or no DHA into your body where it counts, or, it may be the EPA that is affected. This is not an exact science and is not definitive at this stage because the ‘positioning’ of these fatty acids during the ‘remanufacture’ of the triglycerides is still thought to be random.
You may well ask, if this is the case why do manufacturers continue to convert the esters back into triglycerides? This is a question that I cannot answer but I suspect it is due to public perception. They portray their products as being more ‘natural’ than the ester form but that is far from the truth as you have now seen.
What about the body converting esters back to triglycerides?
Nordic Naturals suggest that there is a danger of increased oxidative burden through free radicals IF unused free fatty acids (from the utilisation of the esters) are not converted back by the body to triglycerides which they won’t be if there is no glycerol present!
That is true, IF IT REALLY HAPPENED THAT WAY IN REAL LIFE. In reality this is a most misleading statement and is a half truth used out of context.
Glycerol is formed in the body with the breakdown of triglyceride forming glycerol + fatty acid. If the body needs glycerol it can get it from either the breakdown of fats or, it can be derived from glucose which is abundant in diet and breakdown products. In other words unless a person was chronically ill your body has abundant supplies of the co-factors needed to easily convert free fatty acids to triglycerides when and if needed.
In the ester format, the fatty acid is presented to the cell in the form ready to be absorbed, and in the ratios in which it was ingested. This means there is greater control over dosage with esters than with triglycerides. Esters or free fatty acids also should have faster uptake resulting in better utilisation
It is a pity that there was not a bit more honesty in marketing. Often the truth is ‘stretched’ to meet a particular objective, or, some very relevant facts are omitted which gives a totally different result.
Anyway, I hope that this article will enable you to better sort out fact from fiction when it comes to assessing different fish oil options. And, of course I couldn’t finish this article without reminding you that our Xtend-Life Omega 3 DHA is one of the best in the world, if not the best…and excellent value for money.
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