Algae-Based Omega-3 Supplements: Are they good for you?

For years, maybe decades now, we’ve heard about how essential omega-3s, and more specifically, DHA and EPA, are for our health. Fish oil has been the standard source of omega-3s, and mounds of research support its use. However, some people don’t eat animal products. Others have grown concerned about overfishing and would prefer an alternative source for omega-3 supplements. These consumer demands led to the development of algae oil, a vegan and sustainable omega-3 source.

At first, consuming an oil derived from that slimy green stuff might sound strange. But, when you think about it, fish oil is high in omega-3s because fish eat algae. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that if we can consume it in some way, we’ll get the same omega-3s the fish get without needing to consume it from them.

This article isn’t to convince you to ditch fish oil. We use it regularly. Instead, I only hope to give you an alternative if fish oil isn’t your thing. Hopefully, being healthy is your thing, and the research shows that for optimal health, you need to get in more omega-3s than your diet provides.

What is algae oil?

When you hear “algae”, your mind might picture greenish blobs floating on the surface of a pond or ocean. But, there’s so much more to these simple organisms. They are tiny, yet powerful, factories capable of creating essential nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids.

So, what exactly is algae oil? Algae oil is a plant-based oil derived directly from algae. Unlike fish or krill oil, it doesn’t come from animals, but from microalgae cultivated in controlled environments. This is why it’s a go-to source of Omega-3 for those on a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Here’s how it works. Algae are grown in large, closed systems where they can be fed with carbon dioxide and sunlight. As they grow, they produce oil rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—the most beneficial types of Omega-3 fatty acids.1Lenihan-Geels, G., Bishop, K. S., & Ferguson, L. R. (2013). Alternative Sources of Omega-3 Fats: Can We Find a Sustainable Substitute for Fish? Nutrients, 5(4), 1301–1315. Once the algae are mature, the oil is extracted, purified, and voila—you’ve got algae oil.

The best part is that this process doesn’t contribute to overfishing or disrupt marine ecosystems. Quite the opposite: it’s a sustainable practice that reduces carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But beyond its green credentials, the real power of algae oil lies in its high-quality Omega-3 content.

Algae Oil and Omega-3s

Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat that your body can’t produce on its own, meaning you need to get them from your diet.2Swanson, D., Block, R., & Mousa, S. A. (2012). Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Advances in nutrition, 3(1), 1–7. There are three types you should know about: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

ALA is commonly found in plant-based foods like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Your body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but the conversion rate is extremely low.3Brenna, J. T. (2002). Efficiency of conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to long chain n-3 fatty acids in man. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, 5(2), 127–132. That’s where EPA and DHA, the Omega-3 superstars, come into play. They’re primarily found in fatty fish and algae.

So where does algae oil fit into all of this? Algae oil is an incredibly potent source of DHA and EPA, meaning it provides these valuable Omega-3s in a form that your body can use directly. This is a significant advantage over plant-based Omega-3 sources, which only provide ALA.

You might be wondering why we often associate fish with Omega-3s. The truth is, fish are rich in Omega-3s because they eat algae, which naturally produce these fatty acids. It’s a bit like going straight to the source.

Algae oil offers the Omega-3 benefits traditionally associated with fish, without the environmental impact or dietary restrictions. This isn’t just good news for vegans and vegetarians; it’s an invitation for all of us to rethink our Omega-3 sources.

Benefits of Algae Omega-3 Oil

Now that we’ve established what algae oil is and why it’s such a potent source of Omega-3s, it’s time to look at the direct benefits it can offer for your health.

Heart Health

Omega-3s from algae oil can contribute to heart health. DHA and EPA, which are abundant in algae oil, have been shown to lower triglycerides, slow the development of plaque in the arteries, and reduce blood pressure.4Abdelhamid, A. S., Brown, T. J., Brainard, J. S., Biswas, P., Thorpe, G. C., Moore, H. J., Deane, K. H., AlAbdulghafoor, F. K., Summerbell, C. D., Worthington, H. V., Song, F., & Hooper, L. (2018). Omega-3 fatty acids for the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2018(7), CD003177. By incorporating algae oil into your diet, you’re offering your heart a potent ally in its vital mission.

Brain Health

Your brain is made up of nearly 60% fat, and DHA, in particular, is one of the most prevalent fatty acids in your brain.5Chang, C. Y., Ke, D. S., & Chen, J. Y. (2009). Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta neurologica Taiwanica, 18(4), 231–241. It’s crucial for brain health throughout life, from fetal development to aging. Studies suggest that consuming enough DHA can support cognitive function, mental health, and even slow cognitive decline in older adults.6Yurko-Mauro, K., Alexander, D. D., & Van Elswyk, M. E. (2015). Docosahexaenoic Acid and Adult Memory: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLOS ONE, 10(3), e0120391.

Eye Health

It’s not just your heart and brain that benefit from Omega-3s. DHA is a major structural component of the retina of your eye.7Querques, G., Forte, R., & Souied, E. H. (2011). Retina and omega-3. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 2011, 748361. Getting enough DHA may help prevent macular degeneration, which can cause vision impairment and blindness.

These are just a few of the potential benefits of algae oil. One other benefit that’s often overlooked is the impact omega-3s have on muscle mass. Combining omega-3s with a high-protein meal stimulates protein synthesis better than eating the high-protein meal alone. As one of my readers, I can’t stress the importance of muscle mass enough.

I’ve written extensively about the health benefits of omega-3s elsewhere, and even though most of that research uses fish oil in its studies, there’s no reason to doubt the same benefits could come from algae oil.

Read more: Do You Take Fish Oil? If Not, You’re Missing Out!

In the next section, we’ll look at why these benefits are crucial for both vegans and meat-eaters.

Algae Oil Benefits for Vegans and Meat-Eaters

The beauty of algae oil is that its benefits aren’t restricted to any one group. Regardless of your dietary preferences—whether you’re a die-hard vegan, a devoted meat-eater, or somewhere in between—algae oil can be a beneficial addition to your diet.

For Vegans

Vegans often rely on plant-based sources of Omega-3s like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. But as we’ve discussed earlier, these foods provide ALA, which the body must convert to EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, this conversion is inefficient.8Gerster, H. (1998). Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)? International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research, 68(3), 159–173. Enter algae oil. It offers a direct source of EPA and DHA, sidestepping the conversion problem and ensuring that vegans can get these vital fatty acids in a form the body can use effectively.

For Meat-Eaters

While meat-eaters may consume fish to get their Omega-3s, it’s worth considering algae oil as an addition or even an alternative. Why? For one, overfishing is a significant problem, and turning to algae oil can help alleviate that environmental pressure.9FAO (2018). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2018 – Meeting the sustainable development goals. Rome. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.

Moreover, not all fish are equally rich in Omega-3s, and some may carry the risk of heavy metal contamination.10Lloret, J., Zaragoza, N., Caballero, D., Riera, V., & Giménez, N. (2020). Fish Consumption and Lifetime Mercury Exposure in the Mediterranean: A Concern for Environmental Sustainability? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(7), 2385. Algae oil offers a clean, sustainable source of EPA and DHA without these concerns.

For Everyone

In a nutshell, no matter your diet, algae oil offers a high-quality, sustainable, and potent source of Omega-3 fatty acids. It’s a simple way to boost your intake of these essential nutrients and support your overall health.

How to Add Algae Oil to Your Diet

By now, you might be convinced of the benefits of algae oil. But how do you go about incorporating it into your diet? It’s simpler than you might think.

Algae Oil Supplements

One of the easiest ways to get your algae Omega-3 is through supplements. These are usually available in capsule form, making them convenient for daily use. When choosing an algae oil supplement, look for one that specifies the amount of EPA and DHA it contains. These are the Omega-3s you’re after. Also, check for any third-party testing to ensure quality and purity.

The American Heart Association recommends at least two servings of fatty fish per week, which equates to about 500 mg of EPA and DHA daily.11Siscovick, D. S., Barringer, T. A., Fretts, A. M., Wu, J. H., Lichtenstein, A. H., Costello, R. B., Kris-Etherton, P. M., Jacobson, T. A., Engler, M. B., Alger, H. M., Appel, L. J., Mozaffarian, D., & American Heart Association Nutrition Committee of the Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health; Council on Epidemiology and Prevention; Council on Cardiovascular Disease in the Young; Council on Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing; and Council on Clinical Cardiology. (2017). Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid (Fish Oil) Supplementation and the Prevention of Clinical Cardiovascular Disease: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 135(15), e867–e884. If you have heart disease or high triglyceride levels, the recommendation increases to 1,000 mg to 4,000 mg of EPA and DHA per day.12Skulas-Ray, A. C., Wilson, P. W. F., Harris, W. S., Brinton, E. A., Kris-Etherton, P. M., Richter, C. K., Jacobson, T. A., Engler, M. B., Miller, M., Robinson, J. G., Blum, C. B., Rodriguez-Leyva, D., de Ferranti, S. D., & Welty, F. K. (2019). Omega-3 Fatty Acids for the Management of Hypertriglyceridemia: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 140(12), e673–e691.

Several studies have shown that doses higher than those recommended by the AHA can provide additional health benefits.

For instance, research has suggested that a daily dose of 2,000 mg of Omega-3 from fish or algae oil can be more effective for lowering triglyceride levels.13Skulas-Ray, A. C., Wilson, P. W. F., Harris, W. S., Brinton, E. A., Kris-Etherton, P. M., Richter, C. K., Jacobson, T. A., Engler, M. B., Miller, M., Robinson, J. G., Blum, C. B., Rodriguez-Leyva, D., de Ferranti, S. D., & Welty, F. K. (2019). Omega-3 Fatty Acids for the Management of Hypertriglyceridemia: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 140(12), e673–e691. Some studies have also shown that high-dose Omega-3 supplementation (2,000-4,000 mg/day) can support mood and mental health.14Grosso, G., Pajak, A., Marventano, S., Castellano, S., Galvano, F., Bucolo, C., Drago, F., & Caraci, F. (2014). Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in the Treatment of Depressive Disorders: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. PLOS ONE, 9(5), e96905.

Research on Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline has shown that higher doses of DHA, around 1,000 mg to 1,500 mg per day, might have a beneficial effect on memory and cognition in older adults.15Yurko-Mauro, K., McCarthy, D., Rom, D., Nelson, E. B., Ryan, A. S., Blackwell, A., Salem, N., & Stedman, M. (2010). Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s & Dementia : The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, 6(6), 456–464.

In the Kitchen

Algae oil isn’t just for supplements. You can also find it as a cooking oil. It has a mild flavor that makes it a versatile addition to your culinary repertoire. Use it in salad dressings, dips, and smoothies, or drizzle it over cooked vegetables for an Omega-3 boost.

Just remember, while algae oil can handle low to medium heat cooking, it’s not suitable for high heat methods like frying due to its low smoke point.16Li, D., Hu, X., Fish, W., Xue, C., Jiang, J., Liu, Y., Li, X., Li, Y., & Huang, Q. (2019). Evaluation of the chemical quality traits of soybean seeds, as related to sensory attributes of soymilk. Food Chemistry, 270, 243–251.

Incorporating algae oil into your diet is a simple yet effective way to ensure you’re getting your daily dose of Omega-3s.

Practical Summary

After all the discussion on the benefits of algae oil, you might be wondering, “Should I swap my fish oil for algae oil?” When making this decision, a few factors come into play.

  • Sustainability and Purity: In terms of sustainability and purity, algae oil comes out on top. It offers a solution to overfishing concerns and bypasses the risk of heavy metal contamination found in some fish oils.17Nichols, P. D., Petrie, J., & Singh, S. (2010). Long-chain omega-3 oils–an update on sustainable sources. Nutrients, 2(6), 572–585.
  • Omega-3 Content: Both fish oil and algae oil can deliver your necessary Omega-3s, especially DHA and EPA. However, it’s essential to remember that not all oils are created equal. Quality and concentration can vary, so make sure to check the labels carefully, no matter which type of oil you choose.
  • Cost and Availability: When it comes to cost and availability, you might find that high-quality fish oil is more readily accessible and often less expensive than algae oil. The production of algae oil is a bit more complicated, which can make it pricier.18Chauton, M. S., Reitan, K. I., Norsker, N. H., Tveterås, R., & Kleivdal, H. T. (2015). A techno-economic analysis of industrial production of marine microalgae as a source of EPA and DHA-rich raw material for aquafeed: Research challenges and possibilities. Aquaculture, 436, 95–103. However, with growing awareness of its benefits and an increasing market demand, it’s likely that algae oil will become more affordable and widely available in the future.

In essence, whether you should swap your fish oil for algae oil boils down to personal preference, dietary needs, and considerations of cost and sustainability. Either way, the goal is to ensure that you’re getting sufficient Omega-3s in your diet.

If you’re vegan or vegetarian, or if you have concerns about sustainability or contamination, algae oil could be the best option for you. However, if you’re seeking a more cost-effective yet still beneficial source of Omega-3s, fish oil remains a valid choice.

The bottom line is this: Incorporating Omega-3s into your diet, whether through algae oil or fish oil, is an essential step toward optimizing your health.

Photo by Pascal Uhlig on Unsplash

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