92% of fish oil is ethyl ester???

The other day I came across a supplement company claiming that 92% of fish oil products on the market are in the ethyl ester form. The company did not cite the source of this statistic, but it is a good example of fear-based marketing that is both misleading and wrong…and the kind of marketing that ultimately confuses consumers.

Let’s start with the fact that the 92% figure is completely wrong. GOED recently completed our ingredient market estimates for 2013, and on a global basis there were 9,990 tons of EPA and DHA oils consumed in ethyl ester form, which is slightly over 11% of the total market. This is nearly the exact opposite of what the company was claiming. However, this global estimate includes pharmaceutical products, nearly all of which are indeed ethyl esters. So if you look only at dietary supplements, there were 7,340 tons of oils consumed in EE form, which is about 10% of the total market, an even smaller proportion. Triglyceride-form omega-3 oils are actually the dominant form, with 61,320 tons consumed out of the overall 69,490 ton market for EPA and DHA oils.

This was a US-based company, so I thought maybe they were referring only to that market or to a specific region. However, even this is incorrect. Ethyl esters represented 12% of the US dietary supplement market in 2013, and again triglycerides were the dominant source with 86% of the volume consumed. In fact, in no region of the world have ethyl ester forms of omega-3s ever reached a majority of the market. 

The company was making the assertion because it sells a triglyceride form omega-3 product. It does cite a paper showing that the absorption of ethyl ester forms is lower than other forms of omega-3s, and this does appear to be true. However, there are still open questions about absorption that need to be answered. It has not yet been shown that if you consume a particular form of omega-3s over a long period of time, you end up with higher omega-3 levels in your body than a less absorbable form.

Since dietary supplementation is meant to be a long-term plan, a short-term gain in absorption is only helpful if you are in a critical care type of situation where your body has a rapid need for omega-3s. I am not trying to attack the company over its position that TGs are a superior form of omega-3s; they make an assertion and have supported it with evidence. Instead, I believe this industry must foster trust with consumers by making sure that the information we are presenting them is indeed correct, and that it is not misleading in the context in which it is presented. Perhaps evidence will show there is an advantage in the long run, but that study has not yet been done.

Evidence shows that negative marketing tactics only confuse consumers and cause them to leave the category. We have a hard enough time without harming ourselves!