Omega-3 fatty acids come with plenty of benefits, but if you're on a plant-based diet or simply don't eat much fish, you may be falling short of the omega-3s that are best absorbed by your body. But there is one solution: algae oil, also known as algal oil.
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These supplements are derived from various types of micro-algae and have become popular among vegans and others who want the benefits of omega-3 fats without seafood or fish oil supplements.
Algae oil may benefit your health in ways similar to fish oil, sans the fish. Here are three things to know about including algae oil in your diet — but of course, talk to your doctor before starting any new supplements.
Algae Oil Contains Both DHA and EPA
To understand why this is important, you first need to know the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
While ALA is found mostly in plant oils like soybean, flaxseed and canola oils, DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). You need to get ALA from the foods you eat because your body can't produce it.
Your body can convert a little bit of ALA into EPA and DHA, but only in small amounts, so getting those omega-3 fatty acids through foods or supplements is the only practical way to increase your intake.
"Since vegans and vegetarians don't eat fish, most of the omega-3s they consume will be from ALA," says Anna Taylor, RD, a dietitian with Cleveland Clinic's Center for Human Nutrition. "Bio-conversion from ALA to EPA and DHA is very inefficient. For this reason, they may be missing out on the benefits of DHA and EPA, despite having ALA in their diets."
Omega-3 fatty acids are important parts of your cell membranes, and DHA levels are particularly high in the eyes, brain and sperm cells, per the NIH. Omega-3s also have many functions in your heart, blood vessels, immune system, lungs and endocrine system (a network of hormone-producing glands).
"EPA and DHA have both been found to benefit many aspects of health, such as fetal development and cognitive function, and are perhaps most well-known for their cardiovascular benefits," Taylor says. "Specifically, DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by lowering plasma triglycerides and lowering oxidative stress."
EPA and DHA omega-3 intake was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease events and heart attack, including fatal heart attacks, in a September 2020 review of 40 clinical trials in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
In particular, the study found that EPA with DHA supplementation is associated with a significantly lower risk of:
- Fatal heart attack (35 percent)
- Heart attack (13 percent)
- Heart disease events (10 percent)
- Heart disease mortality (9 percent)
"Some clinical trials have suggested that DHA-rich micro-algae oil may offer a level of protection from cardiovascular risk factors that is similar to fish oil," Taylor says. "Of all omega-3 plant sources, algal oil appears to be the most promising in terms of cardiovascular benefit. This makes sense since algae is the original source of the DHA and EPA found in fish."
In other words, fish get their omega-3 content from eating algae, so taking algal oil means you're getting omega-3s straight from the source.
Research shows that DHA may also slow some aspects of age-related cognitive decline in people without advanced dementia, especially during middle age, in people who don't get enough omega-3s or in people without diabetes, per ConsumerLab.
How to Buy Algae Oil Supplements
It's important to research a supplement before purchasing it to make sure you're getting the highest quality product (without any unwanted ingredients).
"The major issue with supplements is the lack of regulation, which can lead to purchasing supplements that don't contain what the label advertises," Taylor says. "Typically, looking for a supplement that has been tested by independent organizations like U.S. Pharmacopeia, ConsumerLab or NSF International can help assure that the product contains what it advertises."
ConsumerLab currently only lists one algae oil as approved in its review of algal omega-3 supplements: Deva Vegan Omega-3 DHA.
Buy Algae Oil Supplements
Deva Vegan Omega-3 DHA: $20.44, Amazon.com
It provides its claimed 200 milligrams of DHA per softgel and offered omega-3s at a slightly lower cost than other tested algal oil, in the ConsumerLab tests.
How to Make Algae Oil More Economical
Although algae oil is believed to have health benefits, it can add an extra expense to your diet.
"Research on algal oil supplementation is limited, but so far suggests health benefits similar to krill oil or fish oil," Taylor says. "Unfortunately, they are typically more expensive, which can be a barrier for people looking for a vegan source of DHA and EPA."
But you may not need to take as much as the label calls for — which could help you stretch your supply.
"Check the DHA and EPA content of algal oil supplements before purchasing," Taylor says. "You may not need to take the entire 'recommended dose' listed on the bottle's label. Instead, aim for about 300 milligrams total of DHA+EPA, about two or three times per week, to make a more economic choice."
Keep in mind that the algal oil you might buy for cooking doesn't contain any DHA or EPA, which are removed so the oil can be better used for high-temperature cooking.
Should You Take Algae Oil if You Eat Fish?
If you're already eating fish, it may not be worth trading it in for algal oil.
That's because it's unknown if all the benefits of eating seafood are strictly due to their omega-3 content, or because of other nutrients found in fish, the foods you might replace fish with or other healthy behaviors associated with eating fish. Plus, most of the research on the benefits of omega-3s comes from fish and seafood research.
"It makes sense to use these sources specifically instead of looking for alternative sources," Taylor says. "However, there is one main benefit of choosing algae oil rather than fish oil: sustainability. Overfishing contributes to global food insecurity by affecting ocean food chains and coral reefs, and going straight to the original source of the algae itself is a more sustainable choice."
Algae oil supplements also don't pose the same risk of contamination with pollutants found in farmed salmon and other fatty fish, per ConsumerLab.