The Best Plant-Based Sources of Omega-3s

algae farm

Recent statistics show that more than 7 million US adults are vegetarians. One million of those are vegans—they consume no animal products at all. And on top of that, an additional 22 million say they follow a vegetarian-inclined diet, meaning they limit or eliminate any combination of red meat, poultry, fish, dairy, or eggs.

While there are some health benefits associated with reduced consumption of animal products (such as the potential for lower risk of certain forms of cancer), there is one glaring and major problem. Non-fish eating vegetarians—and practically all vegans—don’t get sufficient long-chain omega 3 fatty acids DHA (docosahexanoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) in their diets. Both of these fatty acids are sourced almost exclusively from fish.

Some oils claim to offer vegetarian-sourced EPA and DHA. But do they really deliver much-needed omega-3s as well as fish oil does? In many cases, the answer is only if you’re lucky.

Let’s take a closer look at the two most popular vegetarian omega-3 sources and see how they fare under the bright lights of science.

Flaxseed and Chia Seed Oil

Probably the most popular omega-3 choice for vegetarians and vegans is flaxseed oil. However, it’s a bit of a gamble whether or not flax will provide you with the DHA and EPA you need. That’s because the omega-3 in flaxseed oil is not EPA and DHA. Rather, it’s ALA (alpha linolenic acid), which has the potential to be converted to EPA, which in turn can be converted to DHA. What this means is that the body must turn ALA into EPA by running it through three biochemical steps, followed by four additional steps to produce DHA. Unfortunately, the human ability to convert ALA into EPA and DHA is, at best for any human, slow and inefficient.

Studies in the past few years indicate that genetics play a critical role in how inefficient the process is.10 We now know that for a high proportion of humans, the conversion process is hampered—often even blocked—by our genetic makeup. Specifically, our ability to convert ALA depends, at least in part, on whether we inherited one, two, or neither of two gene variants that drive the process.

The evidence is that 46 percent of us are blessed with both gene variants, 43 percent have one but not both, and 11 percent have neither. With only one, the conversions are even less efficient than usual, and for the vast majority, dietary ALA (from, say, flaxseed oil) never gets converted. Those of us with neither are non-converters: ALA simply cannot be relied upon as a source, so we must look elsewhere for EPA and DHA.

Our converter status has an ethnic pattern dating back tens of thousands of years, but because ancestry wasn’t even considered in omega-3 research until recently, it’ll take time for scientists to clarify the pattern. Furthermore, our lineage has so many overlapping layers, individual ethnic backgrounds often hold surprises. So it’s safer, and smarter, to get your EPA and DHA directly, rather than gamble with your health by assuming you’re genetically well equipped to convert ALA.

Chia seed oil has the same limitations as flaxseed oil. In summary, both are rich sources of ALA but neither has any EPA or DHA. If you’re not a strong converter, neither will meet your needs and help balance all those omega-6 fatty acids in our Western diets.

I’m not saying to throw out your flax or chia seed oils. They can play a supporting role in your diet because they’re still beneficial, but not as your primary source of DHA/EPA. So let me introduce you to some lesser-known plant-based options that can provide you with the omega-3 fatty acids you need, in an already converted form.

Algae Oil

Oil extracted from commercially grown algae is a new supplement choice that parallels fish oil’s direct supply of EPA and DHA. It’s already used in infant formulas to mimic the DHA levels naturally found in breast milk.

The algae is cultivated in factory or huge pool settings, which means a potentially bottomless supply without worries about impacting the oceans or being exposed to mercury contamination. Several algae oil supplements are commercially available. The key to getting adequate levels of DHA and EPA is to read the label for the number of milligrams of each.

Yeast Oil

Biotechnology researchers have also engineered a new strain of yeast (Yarrowia lipolytica) found in cheese, which produces an EPA-rich vegetarian alternative to fish oil, now available as a land-based human EPA supplement.

Apparently there’s been some concern because this EPA-generating yeast is a genetically modified organism. At some point, though, we must recognize that with the planet’s exploding population and resulting overfishing and destruction of natural habitats in many parts of our oceans, there isn’t a “yes/no” answer to this argument. With cautious science and technology, we must figure out how to have a brighter, safer life for our health and that of our oceans.

I’m thrilled that there are effective, EPA- and DHA-direct supplements for vegetarian and vegans.

Remember, my promise to you is that I will always provide you with accurate information, based on the latest science. I look forward to helping you live your best life.

About Author

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the President of Gene Smart and the leader of our Gene Smart team. His mission is to provide supplements to help you control your inflammation, your weight, and your life, based on the latest scientific information.

Related Posts

Download Our FREE e-Book

Get the Free Special Health Report, Healthy Eating Guide: A lifestyle approach to reducing inflammation. You'll learn safe, simple, natural ways to reduce inflammation, boost your energy, lose weight and live life to its fullest! Plus, get the weekly Gene Smart Solutions newsletter, FREE.