Omega-3 is called an essential fatty acid due to the fact that the human body is not capable of manufacturing the fats. This means that we must supplement omega-3 through our diet. Omega-3 fatty acids consist of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Both eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid are typically found in fatty fish, such as salmon. On the other hand, alpha-linolenic acid is typically found in plant sources, like flaxseed and soybeans. Because ALA is derived from plant sources, such as flax, vegetarians often depend upon flax seed oil as a source of omega-3 fats even though it does not contain any DHA or EPA whatsoever. The human body is able to convert ALA into EPA then, subsequently, into DHA, but this conversion process is extremely inefficient. This is because the enzyme that turns alpha-linolenic acid into eicosapentaenoic acid is rate limiting, because of the fact that the same protein also chemically binds to omega-6 fatty acids (thus, the problem is worse if your diet is relatively high in omega-6).
In fact, several research studies have shown that this chemical process is so inefficient at converting these fats that only 5% of ALA is transformed into EPA and only 0.5% of ALA finally makes docosahexaenoic acid. What does all of this mean? That most vegetarians who think that they are getting their daily necessary amount of DHA and EPA from flax oil, are actually deficient in both EPA and DHA omega-3 fats.
Here’s where the good news comes in (for vegetarians). There’s another vegan source of omega-3, called microalgae, which has an extraordinarily high content of both EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. What is microalgae oil and why is it a good vegetarian source of omega-3 fatty acids? Microalgae are microscopic algae that grow in both marine and freshwater. While fish oil is already widely known for containing an unusually high content of EPA and DHA omega-3 fats, fish do not actually manufacture the omega-3 fatty acids themselves. Fish ingest algae, which have a large amount of of omega-3 fatty acids, then store the EPA and DHA in their fat tissues, and this is the real reason why fish oil is high in omega-3. Algae are also a much more environmentally friendly and sustainable source of EPA and DHA fats compared to fish oil. This is because they’ve got 5 times more biomass than land plants and as much as 40 percent of that is oil. Algal sources of omega-3 fats are the future supply of omega-3 fats.
Microalgae oil that is rich in DHA is now commercially available on the market, whereas, microalgal oil that is high in eicosapentaenoic acid is still limited. The best vegetarian (or vegan) supplements that have EPA come from the microalgae, Spirulina. DHA-microalgal oil is obviously a far superior source of DHA, when compared to flax seed oil. This is because flaxseed derived alpha-linolenic acid must go through two inefficient conversion steps to become docosahexaenoic acid, whereas, microalgal derived DHA does not have to go through any at all. It has also already been scientifically proven through documented research that microalgal supplements are able to raise bloodstream levels of DHA and EPA. This was demonstrated by one study where vegetarians with deficient levels of omega-3, began ingesting a single gram of algal supplements daily for 8 weeks, and significantly increased their levels of both EPA and DHA(Lipids 40 (8): 807-814). This is good evidence that microalgae oil is an far superior vegan source of omega-3.
It’s very well documented that DHA omega-3 derived from fish oil is very good for the heart. Likewise, DHA ingested from algae oil has the same cardiovascular benefits. For example, vegetarians that took only one gram of microalgal DHA daily for 8 weeks, were able to reduce their triglyceride levels by twenty-three percent (The British Journal of Nutrition 95 (4): 779-786). So there you have it, microalgae oil is a far better source of DHA and EPA and has similar (and documented) health benefits as fish oil! These statements and/or products have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not medical advice.