Essential fatty acids
Fish oil is a commonly used fatty acid supplement because it is a source of omega-3 fatty acids. Fatty acids are strings of carbon atoms, having a range of lengths. If links are all single (C-C), then the fatty acid is called saturated; with one double bond (C=C), it is called monounsaturated; if there are two or more double bonds (C=C=C), it is called polyunsaturated. Only two fatty acids, both polyunsaturated, are considered essential to be obtained from the diet, as the others are synthesized in the body. The “essential” fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, and linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid. ALA can be elongated in the body to create other omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Plant oils, particularly seed and nut oils, contain ALA. Food sources of EPA and DHA are oceanic fish, whereas dietary supplement sources include fish oil, krill oil and marine algae extracts. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) identifies 250 mg/day for a combined total of EPA and DHA as Adequate Intake, with a recommendation that women pregnant or lactating consume an additional 100 to 200 mg/day of DHA. In the United States and Canada are Adequate Intakes for ALA and LA over various stages of life, but there are no intake levels specified for EPA and/or DHA.
Supplementation with EPA and/or DHA does not appear to affect the risk of death, cancer or heart disease. Furthermore, studies of fish oil supplements have failed to support claims of preventing heart attacks or strokes. In 2017, the American Heart Association issued a science advisory stating that it could not recommend use of omega-3 fish oil supplements for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease or stroke, although it reaffirmed supplementation for people who have a history of coronary heart disease.