Home > Blog > Fish Oil Ethyl Ester vs Triglyceride – Revisited

Fish Oil Ethyl Ester vs Triglyceride – Revisited

by Vin Kutty, MS on June 24, 2013

There is a lot of back-and-forth about fish oil types – triglyceride (TG) versus ethyl esters (EE).

OmegaVia is highly concentrated ethyl ester form of fish oil.

I get emails about this almost daily.

  • Is EE fish oil is really fish oil?
  • Is there alcohol in it?
  • Will it be absorbed?
  • I heard it is banned in several countries!

We’re nutritionists. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we believe that foods are better sources of nutrients than supplements. We’d much rather you get your Omega-3 from wild fish.

However, eating salmon three times a week is not possible or convenient for many. Enter supplements. So supplements, at best, are stopgaps.

I think debaters can find common ground thus far.

Saying that ethyl ester form of Omega-3 is not ‘real fish oil’ because it’s concentrated is like saying calcium supplement is not milk. Taking fish oil is not the goal but rather getting enough Omega-3 and balancing excess Omega-6 levels.

The Purpose of Ethyl Ester Fish Oil

The purpose of OmegaVia (and other ultra-concentrated ethyl ester supplements) and prescription Omega-3 drugs is very simple: safely deliver a very high amount of Omega-3 into the body.

And they do the job very well.

By extension, their purpose is NOT to condense all benefits of fish into a pill, which cannot be done. Ethyl ester oils cannot do that and neither can triglycerides, phospholipid or free fatty acid forms.

Each of these four forms of Omega-3 are prepared differently and have different costs and applications.

Examples:

  1. We would never make a liquid fish oil product that’s to be taken by spoon using a free fatty acid product – that would be a disaster due to the rancidity risk. Triglycerides are better for that application.
  2. Phospholipid Omega-3 (from krill oil) can’t be concentrated because the phospholipid bond breaks down and that reduces absorption.
  3. Triglycerides cannot be concentrated without first converting into ethyl esters.

So for the most part, low concentration products are triglycerides. Highly concentrated products are ethyl esters.

Concentrated TG Fish Oil

You can convert concentrated ethyl ester oil back into triglyceride form using lipase enzymatic conversion but that’s taking the oil even farther away from its fish origins. ‘Pharma grade’ TG oils are made this way.

You could argue that concentrated TG fish oils (sometimes called rTG) are even more artificial than ethyl ester oils.

To be blunt, all this technical hair-splitting side steps the key reason for taking Omega-3 supplements, which is to increase Omega-3 levels in the body.

Both EE and TG forms of fish oil do it perfectly well.

Pharmacokinetics vs Pharmacodynamics

The pharmacokinetics (what the body does to fish oil) of ethyl ester vs TG is very slightly different. Your body breaks down EE oils and ‘rebuilds’ it the TG form, so there is a short delay – but your body still knows exactly what to do with it.

However, the pharmacodynamics (what the fish oil does to your body) of both forms of fish oil is exactly the same.

There is NOT A SINGLE published health benefit of Omega-3 you get from TG form that you cannot get from EE form.

Not a single one.

There are over 25,000 published papers on Omega-3 and their health benefits. It’s the most studied substance after aspirin. The vast majority of this research was conducted using ethyl ester form.

All the PhD scientists conducting the research don’t seem to be alarmed about ethyl ester oils. In every single case, the ones raising the alarm are those selling TG oils. Coincidence?

All prescription Omega-3 drugs available worldwide are made with EE oils.

EE Fish Oil and Alcohol

You’ll also hear fear-mongering about alcohol generated by metabolizing ethyl ester forms – technically, this is not incorrect, but no one seems to mention how infinitesimally small the amounts are. (see Science Alert below)

If the alcohol amounts we’re talking about were substantial, you’d find fish oil supplement users laughing or passed out near their medicine cabinets! You’ll find more alcohol in orange juice – many foods and all fruits and juices have naturally present alcohol.

I’ve done the math: you’d have to eat several hundred OmegaVia pills in one sitting to equal the alcohol in one lite beer. This concern is not based in reality and that’s why I call it fear-mongering.

Yet, calling ethyl ester oil a ‘poison’ is the #1 ammo of all TG fish oil marketers. ‘The UGLY TRUTH,’ some call it.

TG Fish Oil – Slightly Better Absorbed

To be fair, there are minor differences in absorption. TG form is slightly better absorbed, but only slightly.

For this very minor improvement in absorption, you will pay a 2X premium.

The concept of relative difference vs absolute difference is slightly technical.

Quick explanation: 2% – 1% = 1% (this is absolute difference.) 1% divided by 2% = 50% (this is relative difference.)

50% is bigger and more impressive sounding. Which one do you think marketers and salesmen prefer?

This is gratuitously exploited by marketers of TG fish oil to suit their needs. In other words, the real difference in absorption between the forms is exaggerated – 50% or 70% or even 200%, depending on who is selling the product.

It’s just marketing.

The truth lies in absolute difference, which no one will mention. (Cholesterol medications are marketed this way too: ‘33% less heart attacks,’ but the absolute difference between statin drugs and placebo is only a couple of percent.)

If I were to put on my weasel-hat and hawk EE fish oil
on late night TV infomercials, this is what I’d say:

‘Ethyl ester oils are natural – they are found in fruits and juices! We’ve been consuming them for millenia!

But that’s not all!

Concentrated TG Fish Oils that passes for ‘natural’ well, sheesh, they have 2 to 3 fatty acids per glycerol molecule! That’s unheard of in nature!

But wait…there’s more!

EE fish oils have a natural number of fatty acids per glycerol backbone. Speaking of backbone…ask the TG guys what percent of their oil is TG. You’ll never get an answer! You know why? Because if you buy one bottle of their stuff, they’ll keep sending bottles every month until your grandchildren are eighty!

So call now! Order one. Or a hundred. Heck, I don’t care! You’ll eventually pay for a hundred. Hurry! Call now! If phones are busy, it’s because we’re in trouble with the FTC.’

 
But I jest.

Empty Stomach vs Taken With a Meal

The real difference in absorption virtually vanishes if both forms are taken with a meal. The fats present in meals increases the absorption of EE oils.

The difference in absorption also lessens if you take both forms of fish oil over a long period of time. If you only plan on taking fish oil for a week or two, then TG is definitely better. But otherwise, as Lochlainn O’Haimhirgin, President of Tersus Pharmaceuticals recently put it to me, ‘Saying TG fish oil is better is like judging the winner of a marathon twenty minutes into the race.’

If you plan on taking fish oil for the long-term, don’t sweat the minor difference.

In my opinion, this is not worth the 2X premuim. Why? Because both forms are perfectly safe and the pharmacodynamics are exactly the same.

In other words, both will make you healthier if you’re suffering from Omega-3 deficiency. And ultimately, isn’t that what we all really want from supplements, to make us healthier?

If Omega-3 must be consumed in the form nature intended, then only eating fish will do. Supplements – all kinds – fall far short.

‘BANNED!!!’

You will also read that EE fish oil is ‘BANNED!’ in many countries.

They are not banned anywhere.

Nowhere!

In Japan and Australia, EE fish oil is sold exclusively as drugs and supplements are in TG form. If anything, that should give you more comfort in the efficacy of EE fish oils, not less.

Bottom-line:

Since marketing verbiage is not standardized or regulated by any US government body, there is a lot of language and philosophical flexibility in how companies approach fish oil marketing. Instead of embracing quality, transparency and consumer education, many companies opt for false comparisons, gimmicks and styrofoam-cup parlor tricks.

It’s sad that you, the consumer, have to wade through all this conflicting, self-serving information.

The fact still remains: if someone can show me peer-reviewed published data that shows differing pharmacodynamics of EE vs TG fish oil where TG fish oil effects different health outcomes, we will change OmegaVia’s formula to TG oil. Why? For selfish reasons! Because we all take EE fish oil and give it to our families. If something else is proven to be better, we want what’s truly better. We don’t anticipate having to make this formula change anytime soon.

For a much more detailed explanation and scientific references to the claims above, please see these previous blogs here and here.

Science Behind Omega-3 Absorption

Omega-3 EPA and DHA in ethyl ester (EE) and triglyceride form (TG), after you eat them, go through a process called hydrolysis via gastric lipase enzyme in the stomach.chyclomicrons, triglycerides and fish oilThis process breaks down the Omega-3 into monoglycerides and free fatty acids. With the EE form, the ethanol is cleaved off during hydrolysis. Once the glycerides get into the small intestines, in cells that line the small intestines called enterocytes, another step called re-acylation takes place. This recreates triacylglycerols (TAGs). The TAGs are then assembled with phospholipids, cholesterol and apoproteins to form chylomicrons.These chylomicrons are fat-protein combo molecules. Their job is to mop up fat from the intestines to other part of the body. Chylomicrons are then released into the lymphatic system to transport to the whole body. Once in circulation, the chylomicrons are broken down by lipoprotein lipase, and EPA and DHA Omega-3 are transported by the circulation to various tissues of the body where they are used mainly for the synthesis of phospholipids.

This is also how Omega-3s help reduce your triglyceride levels. Omega-3 speeds up the triglyceride-mopping effect of chylomicrons.


DISCLAIMER: This website is for your education and general health information only. The ideas and suggestions contained on this website are not to be used as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment from your doctor for any health condition or problem. Users of this website should not rely on information provided on this website for their own health problems. Any questions regarding your own health should be addressed to your own physician.

Author Vin Kutty is an expert on fish oil About the Author: Vin Kutty, M.S., is OmegaVia’s Scientific Advisor and Chief Blogger. He is a nutritionist, author, and Omega-3 expert with over 20 years of experience.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

emmett jones June 24, 2013 at 10:05 pm

I, for one will be buying your product in the very future. As you may know, some of us got our prescription benefit cut with obama care. I have about three months supply before I will run out, and then I will turn to you. I have high triglycerides, so I will be your customer. I have been on lovaza for about two years or so, but I did buy from you one time when my insurance refused to pay any longer, but they did pay until obama care, and they then put us on medicare, which has a donut hole that you hit pretty quick if you have to take expensive meds. So I am coming. SOON!!!!

Reply

Vin Kutty June 25, 2013 at 4:11 am

Hi Emmett – thank you, I remember emailing you a couple of years ago. Let us know if we can be of help.

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ilovegaga June 27, 2013 at 11:21 pm

Hi i love fish oil and i like ur brand but why be you reducing the omega 3 amount in your fish oil?

extra omega 3: http://www.ifosprogram.com/files/IFOS%20Innovix%20OmegaVia%20Batch%20S2A042.pdf

new consumer report: http://www.ifosprogram.com/files/IFOS%20Innovix%20OmegaVia%20Batch%20S3B021.pdf

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Vin Kutty June 28, 2013 at 1:26 am

Hi ilovegaga – we have not reduced Omega-3 amounts in our product. What you’re noticing is an IFOS reporting issue. We have results tested at two other labs besides IFOS. Rest assured that the current batch of product has all the Omega-3 the label claims and then some!

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Sam July 1, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Hi Vin,

Any chance you know when you’re coming out with the mini pills?

I’d like to buy those.

–Sam

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Vin Kutty July 2, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Hi Sam – the ‘mini’ pills will be ready for shipment in about 2 months. My best guess is September 2013. It is an EPA-only product with 500 mg of EPA. Two-thirds the EPA of regular OmegaVia with less than half the size. Personally, I will be switching to the smaller pill the minute it is available!

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Brian January 4, 2014 at 5:30 am

Hi Vin: I’m curious about the EPA pills. I don’t think the site discusses the relative benefits of these pills and the “regular” Omegavia pills. Apparently the smaller pills don’t have DHA…but isn’t it important? Sorry if I missed this discussion, but can you direct me to it if it is here, or if not, can you expand on this a bit? Thanks!

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Vin Kutty January 4, 2014 at 11:39 pm

Hi Brian – EPA 500 is still a new product and we are getting the word out. We published several blogs about the advantages of having a high-EPA formula.

Here:
http://www.omegavia.com/why-omegavia-is-high-in-epa-omega-3-part-1/
http://www.omegavia.com/why-omegavia-is-high-in-epa-omega-3-dha-and-your-brain/
http://www.omegavia.com/why-omegavia-is-high-in-epa-mood-benefits/
http://www.omegavia.com/why-omegavia-is-high-in-epa-omega-3-ldl/

All of these features apply even more to EPA 500.

Yes, DHA is important, especially to pregnant/nursing women, children, those recovering from stroke and brain injury etc. The purpose of EPA 500 is to provide EPA only to those who want just EPA. DHA is counter productive for people with depression and mood issues – see blogs above, especially the one on DHA and your brain.

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Brian January 5, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Thanks Vin… I read the blog posts and looked at other info on the web re: DHA. Since DHA is important and your “regular” pills have a substantial overage of EPA, I don’t really get the benefit of EPA only pills, other than as a product for people with specific needs. And the mood issue argument seems a little light on science. I would imagine that one guiding principle is to eat whole foods, since that is what we have evolved to eat, but after a brief search, I could not find the DHA/EPA ratio found naturally in fish. Any thoughts on this? Thanks.

Pav August 9, 2013 at 10:38 am

For fish oil in enteric pills, if I understand it correct, means the enteric pill will not breakdown in the stomach but rather in the intestines.

Won’t that somehow affect EE fish oil? Will they miss the hydrolysis process in the stomach mentioned in the last paragraph about the science?

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Vin Kutty August 11, 2013 at 12:33 am

Hi Pav – no, enteric coating will not affect EE fish oil. Most of the digestive enzymes needed for absorption is present in the intestines. Yes, some absorption takes place in the stomach if the pill is not enteric coated, but most happens in the intestines.

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Keynen Holt September 19, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Hi Vin,
Is it possible that EE fish oil can add stress on the liver or cause any damage to other body organs with long term usage?

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Vin Kutty September 20, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Hi Keynen – highly unlikely but there is no evidence to say conclusively either way. I presume you ask because of the molecule of ethanol liberated during metabolism. As I outlined about, the alcohol thing is a non-issue cooked up by marketers.

It’s OK to be concerned about what you put in your body. Actually, I highly recommend it. But the above presumption is misplaced concern in my opinion.

A much bigger issue is increased inflammation and oxidation of LDL from too much Omega-6. I’d rather people cut back on their seed oils and processed foods to tackle this problem than take more Omega-3, regardless of whether it is EE or TG.

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DPK September 28, 2013 at 11:07 pm

Hi Vin,

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this site, I learn so much. You repeatedly mention the need to cut back on seed oils (corn, soybean, sunflower, etc.) . I cook with extra virgin olive oil but happen to love corn and edemame and eat them weekly. Is eating them just as harmful as using their oils (which are commercially processed ? )

I love almonds too and eat them 4-5 times/week, 20 Trader Joe’s roasted, unsalted almonds to be exact, about 1 ounce by weight. Almonds have 12,053mg of omega-6 per 100gr so if my math is correct, 1 oz = 28.35 gr, I’m ingesting roughly 3,500 mg of omega-6 daily with just the almonds alone. Is there a limit to how much omega-6/day can be consumed ? I only take 180 mg EPA/120 mg DHA daily from Nature Made for general health … I know, I know, will increase to 1,000mg now that I’ve found your site.

Thanks so much.

DPK

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Vin Kutty September 29, 2013 at 12:49 am

Hi DPK – thank you!

Eating corn and edamame occasionally is OK. I avoid both but if a salad at a restaurant happens to have either, I don’t have a meltdown. But when I eat at restaurants, I know I am probably eating foods cooked with high Omega-6 seed oils. THAT bugs me. I have a silent meltdown inside my head.

Macadamias have the least Omega-6 of all the nuts that I eat. Cashews are OK. Most other nuts are full of them. So I try to go easy on them but do not avoid them. I don’t get into the milligrams and grams of it all…just keep it to a handful a day or less. Watch out for those Costco almonds and cashew tubs! They are addictive!

If you’re consuming 3,500 mg of Omega-6 per day (I bet it is higher!) you’re already getting up there. Granted it is better than most people! I’ve seen suggestions of 2-4% of calories for combined Omega 3 and 6. That’s 5 to 10 grams per day combined. So if you want a 1:1 ratio, you know where you need to be. It is not easy!

I’d really rather you drop your 6 than up your 3 to get to the right balance.

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Christian Kildare November 24, 2013 at 5:09 pm

Hey Vin,

Have you seen Jorn Dyerbergs 2010 study on this subject? What are your thoughts? I’m surprised you don’t mention Dr. Dyerberg’s study, since you reference him in other posts.

Thanks,

Christian

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Vin Kutty November 25, 2013 at 4:25 am

Hi Christian – yes, I’ve read Dyerberg’s study. Neither this blog nor the ones here: http://www.omegavia.com/ee-fish-oil-vs-tg-fish-oil/ and http://www.omegavia.com/ee-fish-oil-vs-tg-fish-oil-2/ overlook the publication. The study is referenced in the above blogs. It does not ‘change the calculus’ and the message of these blogs remain the same: TG and rTG are slightly better absorbed then EE oils over the long-term. Both TG and the hyper-synthetic rTG outperform EE in the short-term, as in Dyerberg’s study. However, the biological end-effect of all these Omega-3 forms have never, ever proven to be different. And from a consumer perspective, concentrated EE oils are inevitably the best bargains going – the premium required for TG oils cannot be justified. If someone is uncomfortable with science behind Omega-3 concentration (EE oils), it is far better to turn to eating fish 2-3 times a week.

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Christian Kildare November 25, 2013 at 4:46 am

Thanks,
I appreciate the response. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years. With the explosion in the popularity of fish oil, prices appear to going down significantly. I imagine more studies will emerge on this subject. I tend to be skeptical of studies if they aren’t done by scientists with a long term interest in the subject. That’s why I take Dyerberg’s work more seriously than others. He’s been researching this subject for decades.
All the best,
Christian

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Vin Kutty November 25, 2013 at 9:53 am

True, Dyerberg is, after all, the ‘father’ of Omega-3.

Pricewise, the cost of crude fish oil has been steadily going up. I don’t ever see it going back down. By the way, almost 90% of all fish oil is used in commercial fish farming, mostly in China. Almost all the oil used for supplements comes from about 10% of the catch. At this rate of consumption, we may have to switch to algae-based Omega-3 in a decade or two.

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Christian Kildare November 25, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Thats interesting, I was not aware of that. When you say the price is going up, do you mean the price of crude fish oil? Or 18/12? Or high concentrates like yours? I think 18/12 has been fully commoditized at this point. Ten years ago I took Cod Liver Oil, but these days would not even look at it because of its low concentration. As an environmentalist, I appreciate the possibilities of Algae. Thanks again, I enjoy reading your blog.

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Vin Kutty November 25, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Hi Christian – prices are going up for all of the above.

10 years ago, there was just one big algae oil maker – now there are several smaller ones but none are competitive with fish oil on price. But vegetarians and eco-conscious people have more choices now.

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Rick December 8, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Vin –

Why do you propose a max of eight OmegaVia EPA 500s? Why would one want to limit EPA to 4 g. per day?

Thanks, Rick

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Vin Kutty December 8, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Hi Rick – 4 grams of Omega-3 is FDA’s preferred daily upper limit. That’s eight EPA 500 pills. EU authorities prefer 5 grams. Having said that, if there is acute inflammation, I think you could go higher than 8 pills a day for a few days or weeks and combine with a sugar-free and very-low-Omega-6 diet. Long term, you will be best served with a low Omega-6 and low-sugar/low-glycemic diet. Such a diet will allow you to maintain a low-inflammation state best for your heart, joints and mood. Some authorities like Dr. Barry Sears prefer high doses of Omega-3. I’m a bit more conservative when it comes to dosage, preferring to combine diet improvements with a little supplementation.

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Oscar Cornejo February 3, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Dear Vin:
Congratulations for your website, I am in the fish oil and aquaculture business in Chile and enjoyed your EE versus TG discussions. I would appreciate you could send me a phone number where to contact you

Best regards,

Oscar Cornejo

Reply

Vin Kutty February 4, 2014 at 4:41 am

Hi Oscar – you may email me at vin@omegavia.com

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Vin Kutty January 5, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Hi Brian – if you are not struggling with any specific health issues (like depression) which benefits from a high-EPA or EPA-only products, then you are better off with a regular Omega-3 product when you find yourself eating less fish than you should. Yes, of course, whole foods are always preferred over supplements – that’s a given! People rarely supplement their way out of illness, but it helps get you there when combined with a good whole foods diet.

EPA/DHA ratio of fish depends on the species – most are higher in EPA than DHA. Some, like Tuna and Salmon are higher in DHA.

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