Fishing for Omega-3 Supplements from Marine Algae

Q. Can marine algae omega-3s provide the same benefits as fish oil?

A. Omega-3 supplements of the long chain fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA) are routinely recommended for their overall health benefits. They are important for heart-health, optimal brain development and function, and lowering inflammation linked with chronic disease.

Because Americans typically consume only a third of the recommended 250 milligrams per day of EPA and DHA, taking an omega-3 supplement is probably a good idea. Although our bodies can convert the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in foods such as flax or walnuts, into EPA and DHA, the conversion rate is low. So we must rely on fish or fish oil as our primary source to get adequate amounts.

But for many people—those allergic to fish, or vegetarians and vegans, for example—relying on fish sources is not an option. And many experts express concern that fish oil supplements may not be sustainable, considering depleting fish stocks in the world’s oceans. Fortunately, an ever-increasing number of supplements, widely available in health food stores and on the Internet, derive EPA and DHA from marine algae, a diverse set of photosynthetic organisms that make these fatty acids. Marine algae is grown in controlled environments and the oil is extracted and concentrated into supplements. In fact, fish get their EPA and DHA by eating marine algae, as well as krill and other fish.  

Diving into omega-3 science. Whether marine algae supplements provide the same health benefits as fish oil is still unclear. Generalized comparisons are difficult because the two products vary so greatly in both the amount and ratio of EPA and DHA. Most marine algae supplements provide more DHA than EPA.

A meta-analysis published in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Nutrition concluded that DHA from algae reduces blood triglycerides and increases “good” HDL cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol in persons without coronary heart disease. However, the researchers noted that DHA supplementation—even from fish sources—increases LDL particle size, which may offset risks for increased LDL as small LDL particles are particularly linked with heart disease risk. 

A review published March 2012 in the same journal focused on the individual and combined cardiovascular effects of EPA and DHA, rather than their food source. This review concluded that both EPA and DHA lower blood triglycerides and decrease blood clotting and platelet aggregation (clumping of platelets); DHA or combined DHA and EPA levels are associated with lower risk of fatal cardiovascular events; and DHA is linked with lower risk of atrial fibrillation, irregular heart beat.

The bottom line is that most Americans, particularly those who don’t eat fish, don’t consume enough DHA and EPA. Increasing your intake, whether from fish or algae, should be beneficial to your cardiovascular and overall health.

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