With nutrition science constantly changing, various supplements come and go, but few have stood the test of time as much as Omega-3. The primary source of the world’s dietary omega-3 is derived from fish stocks. So what happens if you don’t eat fish? For ethical reasons or otherwise, many of us choose to not consume seafood, potentially excluding a potent contributor to long-term healthRuxton, C. H. S., Reed, S. C., Simpson, M. J. A. and Millington, K. J. (2004), The health benefits of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: a review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 17: 449–459 from our diet. We’ve already discussed the issues with sustainability and fish farming; and seen that for various reasons the ethics of consuming seafood are not so simple. As a nutrition student and a vegetarian, I am facing quite the ethical dilemma! I understand the benefits and importance of omega-3’s, but I am not getting them from fish sources. Which leads me to the question: are there vegetarian sources of omega-3? And are they really worth it? Let’s find out.
Omega-3 fatty-acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat, meaning that they have double bonds along their carbon chain structure. There are a number of types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), docosahexanoic acid (DHA), docosapentanoic acid (DPA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The majority of the research showing the benefits of omega-3’s have been performed on EPA & DHA; the longer chain omega-3’s. Of all these types, DHA has been shown to be the most beneficial, essential for brain growth and visual development. Primary sources of EPA & DHA omega-3 include oily fish such as salmon and mackerel and also eggs in smaller amounts. Interestingly though, the true-source of high EPA & DHA levels found in fish can be traced back through the food-chain to omega-3 generating algae. ALA, in contrast, is a few carbons shorter than these marine long-chain fatty acids. It is found in plant-based sources such as flaxseed, chia, walnuts and soy. ALA can be converted by the body into EPA & DHA, but large amounts are needed and it is considered a relatively inefficient process. Often we see products such as flaxseed oil marketed as a good source of omega-3’s, which technically is true, just not the kind I’m really looking for!
In general, vegetarian (especially vegan) diets provide little or no EPA & DHA directly. A recent study examined the varying dietary-fat intake across vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters; and its impact on essential omega-3 fatty-acid availability in the body.Sarter B, Kelsey KS, Schwartz TA, Harris WS. (2015).Blood docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in vegans: Associations with age and gender and effects of an algal-derived omega-3 fatty acid supplement.Clin Nutr. 2015 Apr;34(2):212-8 The study found that vegetarians were left with reduced levels of omega-3 and recommended that they consume additional direct sources of EPA & DHA regardless of age or gender; for physical, mental and neurological health benefits.
As luck would have it, there is a source of high-quality vegan friendly omega-3’s! Concentrated vegetarian omega-3 supplements can be produced directly from marine algae. These algae are currently being bred to produce DHA-rich algal oil, which can in-turn be used to fortify foods or make supplements. Some foods already being fortified include infant formula, olive and canola oils, and soy milk.
Sadly, there are currently no Australian manufacturers of vegan DHA supplements. Sources of algal oil DHA are slowly becoming more readily available but are not cheap or as easily accessible as other supplements. One well established source comes from a novel manufacturer in America. Life’sDHA™ states it is a natural, sustainable source of omega-3, made from micro algae that is free of the allergens and contaminants associated with fish. Supplementation with an algal enriched DHA oil has been found to be just as effective as a fish-oil DHA supplement. Bernstein AM et al. (2012). A Meta-Analysis Shows that Docosahexaenoic Acid from Algal Oil Reduces Serum Triglycerides and Increases HDL-Cholesterol and LDL-Cholesterol in Persons without Coronary Heart Disease. J Nutr 142(1):99-104
From the Life’sDHA website:
…life’sDHA can be found in nationally recognized food and beverage products available in local supermarkets around Australia: Vaalia Yoghurt for Toddlers (Parmalat); Swisse Ulti-Boost Plant Omega-3 (Swisse); BioCeuticals™ Ultra Clean Algal DHA and Omega 7 (BioCeuticals).
Interestingly, after a ‘brief-but-not-too-brief’ Google search, I found absolutely no trace of the Swisse or BioCeuticals supplement, with the products not listed on either company’s webpage. Also, the Vaalia yoghurt product makes no mention of the fact that it is supplemented with any omega-3’s! What’s a girl to do?! One Australian product that I’ve seen recently, Udo’s Oil blend, is advertised as containing omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids. Udo’s Oil is in fact supplemented with life’sDHA, but even so only contained 100mg DHA per 1 tablespoon serving. To put this into perspective: for disease prevention, the Heart Foundation recommends at least 500mg DHA + EPA per day for children and adults. The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council suggests a daily intake of 610mg per day for men and 430mg per day for women. It’s estimated that Australians are getting about 160mg of DHA + EPA per day.
To conclude, it is well established that omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA especially, are an important part of a healthy diet. If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, or for another reason choose to not consume seafood, it may be worthwhile looking into an additional source of EPA & DHA.
It seems to me that a high quality algae-based DHA & EPA supplement is a good investment, as it’s definitely a lot more difficult than I originally thought to get my recommended amount! An Australian Practicing Dietitian can help you decide which supplements are best for you personally, if any. As always, pay close attention to what your supplement actually contains, and remember that supplementation should generally not substitute a well-balanced diet.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇪||Ruxton, C. H. S., Reed, S. C., Simpson, M. J. A. and Millington, K. J. (2004), The health benefits of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: a review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 17: 449–459|
|2.||⇪||Sarter B, Kelsey KS, Schwartz TA, Harris WS. (2015).Blood docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in vegans: Associations with age and gender and effects of an algal-derived omega-3 fatty acid supplement.Clin Nutr. 2015 Apr;34(2):212-8|
|3.||⇪||Bernstein AM et al. (2012). A Meta-Analysis Shows that Docosahexaenoic Acid from Algal Oil Reduces Serum Triglycerides and Increases HDL-Cholesterol and LDL-Cholesterol in Persons without Coronary Heart Disease. J Nutr 142(1):99-104|