Vegan Omega-3 or Fish Oil: Which One Is Healthier?

Most people in the health and wellness community agree that supplementing with a high-quality omega-3 is essential to maintain optimum health and avoid deficiency. Healthy adults should get a minimum of 250–500 mg combined EPA and DHA every day. Scientific studies show that maintaining adequate levels of DHA and EPA is necessary to improve your memory, sleep quality, brain function, and eye health, among many others. Omega-3 plays a role in numerous functions of the human body, making it critical for your health.

These long-chain omega-3 fatty acids also seem to play an important role in reducing anxiety and depression symptoms and lowering your risk of heart disease. There is, however, great controversy about the source of omega-3 people should take to reap the most notable benefits. It turns out, quality and source of DHA and EPA matter. What exactly does the latest science say? Which one is healthier, plant, or fish sources of omega-3? 

Fish Oil

Fish pollutants

Fish and fish oil have enjoyed widespread popularity partly due to the American Heart Association's recommendation, which suggests that patients at high risk of heart disease should add fish oil to their regimens.

Fish oil and fatty fish such as salmon and tuna are the most common omega-3 fatty acid sources. There are, however, several issues with eating fish and taking fish oil supplements that most people are not aware of. One of the most significant issues is the presence of pollutants and contaminants.

Researchers found that all fish oils are contaminated with PCBs and other pollutants. Dioxin-like pollutants in fish oil are often so high that people can easily reach dangerous levels even when they take the supplements as directed. How do we know this?

A group of scientists has put 13 fish oil-containing children's dietary supplements under the magnifying glass to evaluate potential exposure to PCBs and other toxic industrial pollutants. Every single product contained PCBs. What about purified fish oil? Sadly, there was no difference in PCB level in those supplements either.

Bottom line, considering the contamination level present in our oceans today, relying on fish oil to get your daily amount of DHA and EPA may not be the best idea. So let's explore what other options you have, shall we?

Plant Sources of Omega-3

 plant-based

People on a plant-based or vegan diet often worry that they do not get an adequate amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. Obviously, for vegans, fish is not an option, and considering the risks of toxicity, even those on a meat-based diet might want to reconsider and seek out plant-based sources.

Many plants are rich in naturally occurring omega-3 fatty acids. Some of the most well-known sources are hemp seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, spirulina, walnuts, and Brussel Sprouts. The problem with most plant-based sources is that they contain short-chain omega 3s, which the body needs to convert into long-chain omega-3s, like DHA and EPA.

As we get older, however, our body's ability to do this conversion may decline. Why is this a concern? Because when our EPA and DHA levels drop below the recommended levels, our brain function can worsen.

Vegan Omega-3 Supplements

 Capsule

Scientists have confirmed that algae-derived EPA and DHA are safe and effective forms of Omega 3. This study shows that fish oil is, by far, not the only form of supplement that can bring up EPA and DHA levels. Another study showed that algal oil is similar to cooked salmon in terms of tolerance and absorption, making it an excellent alternative to fish oil.

What about contaminants and algal oil? Vegan sources of omega-3s derived from algae are much safer than fish-derived oils, as they do not contain dangerous pollutants, such as PCB and mercury. Besides fewer contaminants, algae also offer a more sustainable alternative to deriving oils from fish.

How Much Vegan Omega-3 Should I Take?

Although dosages vary by supplement, taking algal oil containing about 400–500 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA seems to be an ideal amount for most people. In addition to supplementation with a high-quality vegan omega-3, you should also include some of the plants that contain high amounts of omega-3, such as hemp seeds, flaxseeds, chia seeds, spirulina, and walnuts.

References:

Ashley, Jeffrey T F, Joshua S Ward, Christopher S Anderson, Michael W Schafer, Linda Zaoudeh, Richard J Horwitz, and David J Velinsky. 2013. “Children’s daily exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls from dietary supplements containing fish oils.” Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess. 30(3):506-14. doi: 10.1080/19440049.2012.753161.

Hoh, Eunha, Steven J Lehotay, Kristin C Pangallo, Katerina Mastovska, Helen L Ngo, Christopher M Reddy, and Walter Vetter. 2009. “Simultaneous quantitation of multiple classes of organohalogen compounds in fish oils with direct sample introduction comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography and time-of-flight mass spectrometry.” J Agric Food Chem. 57(7):2653-60. doi: 10.1021/jf900462p.

Lane, Katie, Emma Derbyshire, Weili Li, and Charles Brennan. 2014. “Bioavailability and potential uses of vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids: a review of the literature.” Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 54(5):572-9. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2011.596292.

Witte, A Veronica, Lucia Kerti, Henrike M Hermannstädter, Jochen B Fiebach, Stephan J Schreiber, Jan Philipp Schuchardt, Andreas Hahn, and Agnes Flöel. 2014. “Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids improve brain function and structure in older adults.” Cereb Cortex. 24(11):3059-68. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht163.

Pottala, James V, Kristine Yaffe, Jennifer G Robinson, Mark A Espeland, Robert Wallace, and William S Harris. 2014. “Higher RBC EPA + DHA corresponds with larger total brain and hippocampal volumes: WHIMS-MRI study.” Neurology. 82(5):435-42. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000080.

Dams, Sebastian, Sandra Holasek, Melina Tsiountsioura, Martin Edelsbrunner, Pavel Dietz, Harald Koefeler, Daniela-Eugenia Malliga, Ayse Gürbüz, Nathalie Meier-Allard, Brigitte Poncza, Sonja Lackner, Elke Schwarzenberger, Yvonne Jansenberger, and Manfred Lamprecht. 2020. “Effects of a plant-based fatty acid supplement and a powdered fruit, vegetable and berry juice concentrate on omega-3-indices and serum micronutrient concentrations in healthy subjects.” Int J Food Sci Nutr. 71(6):769-780. doi: 10.1080/09637486.2020.1725960.

Arterburn, Linda M, Harry A Oken, Eileen Bailey Hall, Jacqueline Hamersley, Connye N Kuratko,  and James P Hoffman. 2008. “Algal-oil capsules and cooked salmon: nutritionally equivalent sources of docosahexaenoic acid.” J Am Diet Assoc. 108(7):1204-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2008.04.020.