When you think of algae, you might picture slimy pond scum or algal blooms from pollution. But certain types of microscopic algae, called microalgae, are actually surprisingly useful and are full of nutrients that are beneficial to humans. Most significantly, microalgae can be grown to make a microalgae oil supplement rich in omega-3 fatty acids essential to human health.
The importance of omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 long chain fatty acids are a group of dietary fats that have several functions in the human body. The fatty acids EPA and DHA are especially essential and have been studied extensively. They are used in cell membranes, participate in anti inflammatory responses, and are essential to fetal develop and healthy aging. DHA is also present in large amounts in the brain and retina.
EPA and DHA are produced naturally by marine plants such as algae and are also present in the marine animals that consume them. Humans typically acquire these fatty acids from fish. A shorter chain fatty acid, ALA, can be found in commonly eaten land plants and can be converted to EPA and DHA, but the conversion rate is very low (1).
The crisis of low omega-3 fatty acids.
Another group of dietary fats, omega-6 fatty acids, are also important to humans, but they cause inflammation and have negative health effects. They are found in red meat and fried food. The recommended ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids is 1:1, but with the rise of fast food, the American diet has shifted over time to favor an unhealthy proportion of omega-6 fatty acids (2).
Also, since EPA and DHA are only found in marine organisms which aren’t very common in our diet, it can be difficult to obtain enough of these healthy fats from diet alone. Vegans and vegetarians are especially at risk for deficiency, as well as people who don’t like fish or simply don’t often include it in their diet. Considering all these factors, it is easy to see how low omega-3 fatty acid intake could be a widespread problem.
Microalgae as an alternative source
Fish and fish oil have traditionally been considered the ideal sources of omega-3 fatty acids. However, EPA/DHA supplements have been successfully manufactured using oil from microalgae grown especially for that purpose. Microalgae as an alternative to fish oil has gained momentum in recent years because of concerns about over harvested fish stocks and harmful contaminants in fish.
Other alternatives such as fungi and land plants have been considered, but microalgae is the ideal sustainable source of EPA and DHA for a variety of reasons. Microalgae synthesizes these fats naturally, so it does not require the genetic engineering that would be needed for land plants. It has shorter growth times than fungi and can produce fatty acids in greater quantities than any other organism (3).
Benefits of microalgae oil.
Studies have shown that microalgae supplements have health benefits equal to those of fish oil supplements. Microalgae supplements increase DHA levels and reduce cardiovascular risk factors by lowering triglycerides. Some cardiovascular benefits of high EPA/DHA include protection against coronary heart disease, arrhythmia, atherosclerosis and inflammation. In epidemiological studies, high EPA/DHA consumption is correlated with reduced risk of cancer, and in animal studies the consumption of EPA/DHA has decreased cancer growth and increased the effectiveness of chemotherapy. EPA/DHA may also indirectly prevent type 2 diabetes (2).
The benefits of EPA/DHA and the importance of consuming adequate levels have been demonstrated through numerous studies. Increasing your consumption of these fats is an obvious choice, so you are only left to choose a source. For vegans and vegetarians, microalgae is the only acceptable option for EPA/DHA. But the relative safety of microalgae alone is enough reason to take it instead of fish oil.
As mentioned, fish contain significant levels of contaminants such as PCBs and methyl mercury, which are considered dangerous to humans. If fish oil supplements are taken on a long term basis, these substances can accumulate in the body over time. The effects of such long-term exposure is unknown, but one study has linked the pollutants in fish to the development of type 2 diabetes.
In contrast, heavy metals and pollutants are undetectable in DHA-rich microalgae. In addition, the types of algae grown for supplements have been shown to be safe for human consumption. Compared to both the customary fish oil and other, new alternatives such as genetically modified plants, microalgae is the safest, most sustainable, and most efficient source of EPA/DHA supplements.
How to take microalgae oil supplements.
A general recommendation for omega-3 fatty acid consumption intake is 500 mg/day of EPA and DHA combined. There have not been recommendations established for EPA and DHA separately, but this does not mean that the two fats are interchangeable. Generally speaking, fish contains more DHA and supplements contain more EPA. So far, it is unknown whether DHA and EPA have different functions and by extension different health effects (4).
You can meet your daily EPA/DHA recommendation with a single Vegan Omega-3 softgel taken every day. There are several brands of microalgae available which have slightly varying amounts of DHA and EPA. Since microalgae supplements are sold in some different varieties and for different purposes, be sure to select a supplement that specifically mentions omega-3 fatty acid content.
Starting a microalgae oil supplement is a great investment in your long-term health. You will be protecting your cardiovascular system, preventing disease, and helping your brain, all due to microalgae, the safest and most sustainable source available. Microalgae is already providing essential omega-3 fatty acids to fish and the people who eat them, so a microalgae oil supplement will allow you to get all the great benefits directly from the original, natural source.
1. Swanson, 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. doi:10.3945/an.111.000893
2. Doughman, S. D., Krupanidhi, S., & Sanjeevi, C. B. (2007). Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Nutrition and Medicine: Considering Microalgae Oil as a Vegetarian Source of EPA and DHA. Current Diabetes Reviews, 3(3), 198-203. doi:10.2174/157339907781368968
3. Adarme-Vega, T., Lim, D. K., Timmins, M., Vernen, F., Li, Y., & Schenk, P. M. (2012). Microalgal biofactories: A promising approach towards sustainable omega-3 fatty acid production. Microbial Cell Factories, 11(1), 96. doi:10.1186/1475-2859-11-96
4. Kris-Etherton, P. M., Grieger, J. A., & Etherton, T. D. (2009). Dietary reference intakes for DHA and EPA. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 81(2-3), 99-104. doi:10.1016/j.plefa.2009.05.011