An Ocean Alternative

By Liz Robins / August 31, 2012

Most Americans don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids from diet alone, and many of us rely on fish or flaxseed oil to fill in the gaps. But another source of these essential fatty acids is making waves of late. Microalgae, or phytoplankton, is the source of the marine omega-3s that fish consume, and it is now available in a growing number of supplements. The benefits are certainly easy to swallow.

A rich source of DHA
Like fish oil, microalgae oil is a substantial source of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid that the body needs but can not make on its own. DHA supports the nervous and immune systems. It is also associated with positive mood and is considered essential to healthy fetal, infant and child development.

Here is where microalgae trumps flaxseed oil, another vegetarian- and vegan-friendly omega-3 source. Flaxseed doesn’t contain DHA, although it does contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), an omega-3 that the body partially converts to DHA and EPA, another omega-3 also found in marine sources.

“However, even under optimal conditions, research shows that conversion rates are very low,” says Dr. Keri Marshall, MS, ND, Chief Medical Officer at Nordic Naturals, a manufacturer of high-quality omega-3 supplements. A review of published research studies confirms Marshall’s assertion. “As a result, marine-based omega-3s are a superior source of DHA and EPA,” she says.

EPA in every serving (if you choose wisely)
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) is renowned for helping to maintain a healthy heart and circulatory system, supporting immune function and decreasing inflammation, which is associated with many chronic diseases including arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Select microalgae supplements contain significant EPA, but many don’t, so read labels before you buy. The expert-recommended level is at least 500 mg of [combined] EPA plus DHA per serving, according to Marshall.

Safety first
Microalgae can be cultivated in a controlled environment free of heavy metals (including mercury), dioxins and other deleterious environmental contaminants that may accumulate in fish swimming in contaminated waters.

“Algae-based omega-3s are nice due to the purity issue,” says Kelly Grant, R.D., N.C., a nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona. She adds that some manufacturers have very high purity standards for their fish-oil products. If you opt for the latter, she recommends seeking out a product made from fish that are lower on the food chain (anchovies and sardines) and free of mercury, pesticides, PCB’s and dioxins.

Nothing fishy going on
While the health benefits of taking fish oil may be great, let’s face it: the flavor of some supplements is not. For those who’d prefer to avoid any fishy taste or odor, microalgae oil in liquid or soft-gel form is a welcome alternative due to its neutral flavor and smell. After all, you shouldn’t have to smell like the sea in order to reap its benefits.

Liz Robins
Liz Robins

Latest posts by Liz Robins (see all)