Omega-3 fats are known to have many health-promoting benefits.
For this reason, fatty fish like sardines, salmon, trout, mackerel, and herring have been recommended for young and old because they’re rich in omega-3s (1, 2).
For many, supplements are an easy way to increase their intake of omega-fats and typically reach for those derived from the usual suspect, fish oil.
However, there are two other animal-based formulations including calamari (squid), and the lesser-known seal oil.
But what about vegetarians, vegans or anyone who doesn’t want to rely on an animal-derived omega-3 supplement? What are they to do?
This post will answer that question and review vegan omega 3 supplements while providing an overview of the different types of omega-3s because confusion still reigns supreme where omega-3s are concerned.
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What are the different types of omega-3 fats?
Like all fats, there are different types of omega-3 fatty acids as there are different types of saturated fatty acids and poly-unsaturated fatty acids. The term omega-3 fat doesn’t refer to just one type with only one biochemical structure.
Therein lies the problem.
While most health experts, dietitians, and nutritionists included, say there are three main types of omega-3s, that isn’t the whole picture.
Most talk about ALA, EPA, and DHA but neglect their omega 3 DPA sibling. These distinctions are important so a refresher is in order.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Anything your body can’t make on its own or that it can’t make in large enough quantities to satisfy its needs is considered essential because it must obtain from your diet (3). That’s why we have essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids.
ALA is one of those nutrients; an essential fatty acid. Of the four omega-3 fats that are important to human health, it’s the shortest which influences its ‘potency’ compared to its siblings EPA, DPA, and DHA which are longer in length.
Also contrary to popular belief, ALA is found in both animal foods and plant foods although found in higher amounts in plant foods. This fact has resulted in many referring to ALA as the ‘plant form of omega-3’ but that’s not technically correct.
For vegans though, ALA is the only omega-3 fat that they get since EPA, DPA and DHA are only found in animal foods.
Some of the plant foods with the most ALA include:
- Flaxseed oil (4)
- Ground flaxseed (5)
- Ground chia seed (6)
- Echium oil (7)
- Walnuts and walnut oil (8)
- Canola oil (9)
- Soybean oil (10)
- Hemp seeds (11)
As mentioned above, ALA is found in many other foods, both animal and plant which is why ALA deficiencies are rare unless someone is a very high risk such as being homeless, those with substance use disorders, living in shelters, restrictive type eating disorders (anorexia nervosa), poor quality diets, etc.
The amount of ALA considered adequate for health is 1.6 g/day for men and 1.1 g/day for women. Foods very high in ALA, like those listed above, have between 0.8 to 7 g of ALA per serving making it easy to meet your needs for this essential fat. For example, 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed has 1.6 g of ALA and 1 oz of walnuts, 2.5 g.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
EPA is the first of the three forms of omega-3s that are the end products of omega-3 metabolism that have the greatest health benefits.
The conversion looks like this: ALA…………….=> EPA => DPA => DHA
Some of the EPA will be converted to DPA, and some of that DPA converted further to DHA (3, 12).
EPA is found in large amounts in fish (especially fatty fish, such as herring, sardines, salmon, etc). One 200 g or 7 oz can of sockeye salmon has a whopping 1068 mg of EPA (13). EPA is also found in all seafood.
Essentially any aquatic-based food source (salt or freshwater) will have EPA. People often then ask me, “Doug, what about tuna or clams?”. Yup, they live in water. Mollusks, shellfish, etc have EPA too but so does roe (fish eggs/caviar).
Omega-3 enriched eggs or pasture-raised eggs will contain some EPA. Depending on whether or not the chickens are fed ground flaxseed or ground flaxseed and fish oil, one large omega-3 enriched egg will typically have about 15 mg of EPA. Where omega-3 enriched eggs really shine though is in their DHA content.
Docosapentaenoic acid (DPA)
The omega 3 fat DPA is just as beneficial as EPA and DHA, but it’s often overlooked in 99% of all omega-3 discussions 🙁 .
DPA is found abundantly in whole, omega-3-rich food sources such as fish and seafood. The same 200 g or 7 oz can of sockeye salmon has a boastful 268 mg of DPA (13).
Most omega 3 supplements (both fish and calamari derived) don’t include DPA because it’s largely filtered out for reasons that are beyond me.
Studies that have looked at the DPA content of subjects’ red blood cell concentration of omega-3 fats (the Omega 3 Index) in fish oil supplement users who don’t eat fish or seafood, found higher amounts of DPA than in non-fish, non-seafood eaters who also didn’t use supplements at all.
This shows that even though DPA is actively filtered out, some is left behind in standard fish oil supplements. The exception to this is seal oil. The fat (blubber) of mammals, such as seals, has very high amounts of DPA so, like fish and seafood, seal oil is an option for anyone looking to increase their intake of DPA.
DPA helps to increase the concentrations of both EPA and DHA in cells because it helps to spare the conversion of EPA to DHA (EPA => DPA => DHA). Whole food sources of DPA are also better raising all three omega-3 in your body than just EPA and DHA alone (14).
DPA also helps EPA to ‘do its job’ better such as the repair of the endothelial cells of the cardiovascular system (15). But if someone isn’t getting enough EPA and DHA (like most North Americans), then any source of EPA and DHA is better than none.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
DHA is the last omega-3 in the chain if you will and like both EPA and DPA, it is considered one of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids as all three are longer than ALA (3, 12).
As mentioned, DHA can be made from EPA and DPA but the conversion efficiency of this in humans isn’t very good. We’ve never had to be because preformed sources of DHA was found in ancestral diets.
Again, DHA omega 3 is found in fish (salt and freshwater ) and other seafood. Again, our 200 g (7 oz) can of sockeye salmon has 1390 mg of brain-loving DHA (13)
But DHA is also found in the fat of herbivores which are 100% grass-fed and 100% grass-finished which ancestral diets provided from while game. Because of this fact, 100% grass-fed and grass-finished meats are popular (13).
FUN FACT: the source of DHA for fish and seafood is microalgae. Fish and seafood eat the algae and the algae’s DHA accumulates in their flesh (16, 17).
Today, with our highly processed and refined diets/foods, and grain-finished meats, most people end up getting their DHA through food and/or supplements, that is, if they get much DHA at all (or EPA and DPA for that matter).
The reality is, only about 10% of the population get the recommended intake of DHA (and EPA).
Without considering food enrichment (eggs, milk, cheese, etc) the main source of DHA in the food supply again is fish and seafood but this leaves most vegetarians and 100% of all vegans at risk of deficiency.
Are there vegan or plant sources of EPA and DHA?
In a word, no.
There are no plant sources of EPA, DPA or DHA. They are found exclusively in animal foods. There’s no getting around this. This is why vegans (and lacto-vegetarians) are, for the most part, deficient in these omega-3 fats.
Ovo-vegetarians (those who eat eggs) will get some EPA and DHA; more so if they eat omega-3 enriched eggs.
Doesn’t ALA get converted to EPA, DPA, and DHA?
Vegan, vegetarian or omnivore, getting enough ALA is not only easy, it happens without effort which is why ALA deficiencies are rare.
There’s huge confusion on the world wide web. Many “health coaches”, unlicensed “nutritionists”, and other health “gurus” make claims that all you have to do, is get lots of ALA and you’ll be able to convert enough of it to EPA and DHA.
This is a major stretch. No one denies that ALA is converted to EPA, DPA, and DHA. The question to ask is, is the conversion sufficient to provide the human body with optimal amounts of the longer chain omega 3s?
Luckily we have science on our side to answer this question. Of course, or rather the answer is, NO.
The conversion of ALA is piss poor in humans. It’s estimated that between 8 to 21% of ALA is converted to EPA and only 0 to 9% of that is further converted to DHA (3, 16, 17).
To put this in perspective, 2 Tbsp of ground flax has 3.2 g ALA. Assuming be case scenario with optimal conversion, this would only provide 672 mg of EPA and 60 mg of DHA. The reality is though, the conversion is much less efficient when using validated biomarkers of omega-3 status; the Omega-3 Index. Getting pre-formed EPA, DPA, and DHA is the way to go.
Women are better at converting ALA than men, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. DHA is crucial to support brain, nerve and eye development in utero and during the first two years of life. By being more efficient at converting ALA to DHA, a mother’s breastmilk will supply some of what’s needed (18, 19).
However, there are other factors that work against our ability to convert ALA to EPA, DPA, and DHA such as our modern diet with too many omega-6 fats. This throws off the ideal omega-6: omega-3 ratio which should be closer to 1:1 rather than the current 16:1 (20, 21).
Because omega-6s and omega-3s share the same enzymes (proteins) for their metabolism, more enzymes will be shuffled towards the omega-6s in order to deal with the excess leaving the omega-3s in the cold.
Like with everything, there’s also wide genetic variability between people and their ability to convert ALA effectively which is why vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores often choose to take supplements (22, 23).
OK, so much omega-3s do we need?
Only ALA has an official recommended daily intake of again, 1.6 g/day for men, and 1.1 g/day for women (3).
There’s no official recommendation for EPA, DPA or DHA but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a general idea based on several lines of evidence.
General health including vegans
It’s generally accepted that for general health (omnivores, vegans, vegetarians) and for basic physiological needs, between 250-500 mg of EPA + DHA (combined/in total) per day is needed (24, 25, 26, 27).
The reality is, most North Americans are sadly missing the mark and get about 100-140 mg of EPA+DHA per day (28, 29).
While a food first approach is always best since food has other nutrients that single supplements don’t, this won’t work for vegans who regardless of their dietary philosophy, still need a reliable and steady source of EPA and DHA for optimal health.
This is why an algae omega 3 supplement is non-negotiable in my opinion but is also generally recommended (30, 31).
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
For women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, an additional 200 mg of DHA per day is recommended for optimal brain, retina (eye), and nervous system development (32, 33).
Chronic health conditions
There’s a wide variation in dosages of omega-3 fats (EPA, DPA, and DHA, NOT ALA) in the treatment of health conditions.
Omega-3s have the best evidence for those with inflammatory conditions (arthritis, depression, atherosclerosis, eczema, psoriasis, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, prediabetes, asthma, etc) or heart diseases in general (34, 35, 36, 37).
The American Heart Association recommends 1000 mg of EPA+DHA combined per day for anyone with a history of cardiovascular disease (38).
Both EPA and DHA effectively lower triglycerides, a blood fat that increases the risk for heart disease. Typical doses used are between 2000-4000 mg per day (39).
Depression and anxiety
Studies suggest that higher doses of omega-3, 1500–2,200 mg per day, can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety (40, 41, 42, 43).
In cases of mood and mental disorders, a supplement with higher amounts of EPA than DHA may be optimal.
Algae omega 3
Algae are unique. They are by far the most abundant primary producers of nutrients, O2 and more that can be found in most aquatic systems.
They photosynthetically convert light energy (sun) and carbon dioxide (CO2) into biomass (their physical structure), and nutrients such as carbohydrates (44), proteins (45) and lipids (46) yet they’re considered neither plant nor animal.
Vegetarian omega 3 supplements are now quite common. Most are derived from algae which are a viable and sustainable source of EPA and DHA (47, 48).
You can get a vegan DHA supplement, and many vegans were advised to do that, but it’s likely those supplements were developed at a time when we assumed that some of the DHA would be retro-converted back to EPA.
Recent research shows that this is not the case which is why it’s best to get both EPA and DHA in any supplement, vegan or otherwise (49, 50, 51).
What is the best vegan omega 3 supplement?
Studies show that algae omega 3 supplements increase blood levels of EPA and DHA just as effectively has eating fish or omega-3 enriched eggs or taking fish oil supplements, although not surprising at all. Like all omega-3 supplements, absorption is best with a larger meal that contains fat (52, 53, 54, 55, 56).
It’s pretty straightforward. Even though there are DHA vegan supplements on the market, that only contain DHA, look for a product that has BOTH EPA and DHA.
There’s wide variation in the amount of EPA and DHA per dose so be sure to check the label. In my professional opinion, you want to aim for more than the minimum 250 mg per day, but rather shoot for the upper end of the range; 500 mg of EPA+DHA combined.
Go for brands that have that, and if you’re using an algae omega 3 supplement for therapeutic levels, go for a concentrated formula to get more omega-3s per serving.
PRO TIP: Omega-3 Index measures red blood cell membrane levels of EPA and DHA. This is a validates biomarker of chronic omega-3 consumption (57).
Because it takes a ton of algae to produce EPA and DHA, the reality is, vegan omega-3 supplements are more pricey BUT worth it if you’re on a vegan diet or a vegetarian diet where omega-3 enriched eggs aren’t an option (lacto-vegetarian).
Despite what you may have read, don’t sweat the small stuff. Some say that triglyceride formulas are better than ethyl ester versions but in my personal and professional experience, ethyl ester formulas effectively raise the Omega-3 Index adequately.
As an Amazon affiliate, I earn for qualifying purchases;
Nordic Naturals Algae Omega
Soft gels: 2 soft gels has 195 mg EPA & 390 mg DHA (can purchase here, here).
Soft gels: 2 soft gel has 300 mg EPA & 600 mg DHA (can purchase here).
- Regular strength: 1 tsp has 500 mg EPA & DHA total (can purchase here, here).
- Extra strength: 1 tsp has 400 mg EPA & 600 mg DHA (can purchase here).
Soft gels: 2 soft gels has 120 mg EPA & 240 mg DHA (can be purchased here).
Opti3 Liquid: 1 tsp has 300 mg EPA, 500 mg DHA and 200 IU of vitamin D: learn more here
Opti3 Capsules: 2 capsules has 324 mg EPA, 58 mg of DPA, 534 mg DHA and 200 IU of vitamin D: learn more here
In the past, omega-3s and omega-3 supplementation were thought to increase the risk for bleeding because they have beneficial blood thinning (anti-platelet properties), but the latest research casts doubt on that (57, 58, 59).
All four types of omega-3s are important, but the bulk of the evidence supports EPA, DPA, and DHA as having the most benefits, than ALA does. This is especially true for reducing inflammation, managing most chronic degenerative diseases, as well as, supporting brain and eye health.
Vegans get lots of ALA from popular vegan food items such as flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseed oils, nuts, and seeds, especially walnuts. EPA, DPA, and DHA, on the other hand, are found exclusively in animal foods (fish, seafood, meats, eggs, omega-3 enriched eggs).
Because there aren’t any vegan food sources of EPA and DHA, those who follow a vegan diet will have the lowest amounts of these fats in their blood. In fact, both vegans and vegetarians have much lower levels of EPA and DHA than omnivores do. There is an exception, those ‘vegetarian’s that also eat fish, a.k.a. pescatarians.
Algae omega 3 oil supplements are often recommended as an option to increase vegan EPA and DHA intake, but in my professional opinion, supplementation is non-negotiable. But algal oil supplements aren’t just for vegans, they’re suitable to anyone who wants to ensure they’re getting enough EPA and DHA who may also wish NOT to use fish, calamari (squid) or seal oil supplements.
There are no official recommendations for dosing, but most organizations suggest around 500 mg of EPA + DHA per day for general health.
My preferred brand of vegan omega-3 is NutraVege by Ascenta Health not only because it’s a high-quality product but because they offer an extra-strength formula, making it easier to get the therapeutic amounts of EPA and DHA when needed. Like their regular omega 3 products, NutraVeg comes have formulations with added vitamin D.
- NutraVeg Regular strength, 1 tsp:
- 150 mg EPA and 300 mg DHA
- NutraVeg Extra Strength, 1 tsp:
- 400 EPA and 600 mg DHA
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Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, mental health. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.