Since fish oil capsules are so commonplace now, manufacturers keep trying to come up with products that stand out from the crowd in order to justify a premium price. Thus you see widely promoted Norwegian or Icelandic brands, for instance, though there’s no clear evidence that these are superior.
When it comes to one-upmanship, marketers of krill oil supplements have been making the loudest claims.
A better fish oil?
Krill are thumb-sized, shrimp-like crustaceans that thrive especially in Arctic and Antarctic waters and feed off plankton. In turn, whales, penguins, seals and fish eat krill. Like other marine oils, krill oil is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats. According to the marketers’ websites, krill oil is more potent, better tolerated and better absorbed than fish oil, and also richer in antioxidants. It’s claimed that krill oil is better at lowering cholesterol, reducing arthritis pain and stiffness and boosting the immune system and brain function—not that any marine oil can do all this.
Contributing to the hype about krill was the recent approval by Health Canada (which functions like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) for a wide variety of these health claims—at least for one particular product, Neptune Krill Oil (NKO), whose Canadian producer sought the agency’s okay.
What’s the real deal? Chemically, krill oil differs somewhat from fish oil. It contains tiny amounts of astaxanthin (a carotenoid and reddish pigment), as well as some choline (related to the B vitamins) and an unusual type of flavonoid. But none of this necessarily means that krill oil supplements have significantly different biological effects from fish oil.
Six years ago, when krill oil supplements were fairly new, we said the human research on them was very limited and unconvincing. Since then, there has been little new research in humans. So until there are more well-designed, independent studies, we won’t jump on the krill bandwagon.
Three other krill concerns
About the same time that Health Canada gave NKO a thumbs up, the supplement-testing company ConsumerLab.com gave it a thumbs down. It found that NKO capsules contained lower levels of omega-3s than stated on the label and often had signs of spoilage—even in newly opened bottles. Another krill product was found to contain little krill oil (12 percent krill, the rest fish oil), despite a premium price.
Then there’s the ecological issue. Though the industry says that krill populations are plentiful, there’s been concern that krill, essential in the marine food chain, have been declining due to climate change. Excessive harvesting of krill for supplements may worsen the situation.
Finally, krill supplements can trigger reactions in people who are allergic to shrimp and other crustaceans.