Krill Oil vs. Fish Oil for Arthritis and Health: A Review of the Science
Krill Oil vs. Fish Oil? I’m sure you’ve seen the advertisements from big supplement companies hyping Krill Oil. First, what is Krill Oil? Krill are little crustaceans that are at the bottom of the ocean food chain. They are a huge biomass that is approximately twice the size of all humans. Over half of that biomass is eaten by whales, seals, penguins, squid and fish each year, but rapidly replaced. Hence Krill are considered a sustainable animal to harvest. These little creatures came to the attention of big supplement companies because they are also dirt cheap to buy and process. While most fish oil caps are an amber color, Krill capsules are red. Hence one of the biggest brands is known as “Omega Red”.
When I took on this project this weekend, I really had no dog in this fight. I barely knew what krill was other than to know it was food for whales. I had seen the hype a few times that Krill oil was better, but mostly dismissed it as marketing claims. I also knew that krill oil was dirt cheap and good fish oil was expensive, so I figured that this was the reason behind many mass produced brands moving to krill-better profit margins. However, I didn’t have any idea about what I would find in the medical literature on Krill Oil. Like any good blog post, I started to look to satisfy my own curiosity and then figured everyone should benefit from the deep dive I did into the U.S. National Library of Medicine on the subject.
The first thing I did was to check just a general Internet search. I easily found two infographics showing how much better Krill Oil is than Fish Oil. One regrettably has mostly web-site references (i.e. Joe’s Krill oil website) and the other did have a few scientific references from medical journals. The problem was that when I checked the references, what the infographic claimed was hyped based on what the research paper said. For example, while sweeping benefits for patients was attributed to Krill Oil, almost all the references were animal or lab studies. I then realized I would have to do my own PubMed search.
Stability in the Pill: A problem for fish oil is that it easily oxidizes (smells fishy). Many companies that sell more expensive supplements have solved this by adding stabilizers like Vitamin E, C or citric acid (natural lemon). One good thing I found about Krill Oil is that based on one study, it is more stable in storage than fish oil. This would also make it cheaper to manufacture and distribute.
General Health: First, an Omega 3 refresher. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in marine life and certain plants. Omega 6’s are found in red meat. It’s been shown that there’s likely a benefit to the Omega 3 fatty acids and a detriment to the Omega 6s. EPA and DHA are components of Omega 3s; each with their own benefits.
Krill oil (2 grams a day) when compared to a commercial version of cheap fish oil (with about 1/3 the dose of EPA that we recommend) helped reduce the biomarkers for metabolic syndrome in obese patients. Metabolic syndrome is what happens when you get to be middle aged and overweight-high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and poor insulin control. In another human study, krill oil and fish oil were similar in their ability to reduce bad and increase good cholesterol, but the krill oil did it at about 1/3 less of a dose. Another human study again showed that krill oil and fish oil were similar in their ability to raise blood markers of EPA and DHA and were similar in other effects. In a 2004 study, Krill oil was better than fish oil (at about 1/3 of the dose we recommend) at lower or equal doses for cleaning up bad cholesterol, lowering blood sugar, and decreasing triglycerides.
Arthritis: In a search of the U.S. National Library of Medicine on Krill Oil and Osteoarthritis, no human studies came up. I did find a small head to head study on New England Green Lipped Mussel (50 mg of Mussel Lipids-not Krill Oil) that showed that this outperformed low dose fish oil in arthritis patients.
The upshot? There’s an immense amount of research on the benefits of fish oil. For example, as of today’s date, there are 4,668 studies listed with the search term ‘Fish Oil” and for “Krill Oil” there’s only 60. I did find some small human studies that showed that Krill Oil seemed to be better at cleaning up cholesterol and tricglycerides and some that showed no difference. It seemed to me that the studies that showed a difference appropriately dosed the Krill Oil and under dosed the fish oil (i.e. they didn’t dose each so that the same amounts of Omega 3 components (EPA and DHA) were in both formulations). My best educated guess is that if you’re looking for a cheaper way to get EPA/DHA, Krill Oil may be a reasonable alternative and you can likely get there at a lower dose. However, I can’t give a hard recommendation at this point as there’s just not much published on the benefits to humans of Krill vs. Fish Oil.