Sardines - DPA Omega 3. The Forgotten Omega 3

DPA Omega 3. The Forgotten Omega 3

Sardines - DPA Omega 3. The Forgotten Omega 3

By now, everyone and their uncle has heard of omega-3 fatty acids.


Almost everyone I encounter, counsel or talk to seems to have a good sense that they do a body good.


From conception and throughout life, well into old age, omega 3 fats are crucial for optimal health.


Whether we’re talking about heart health, joint, cognitive & mental health or reducing the risk for certain cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure and more.


Savvy consumers might even be able to list the more commonly known omega 3 fatty acids:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid or ALA found in walnuts, hemp, soy, chia & flax seeds, other plant foods, eggs, fish, meats, poultry
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA found in fish & seafood, fish and seafood supplements, omega-3 fortified eggs and algae oil
  • Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA also found in fish & seafood, fish & seafood supplements, omega-3 fortified eggs, and algae oil


……but almost no one has ever heard of docosapentaenoic acid or DPA omega 3

What is DPA omega 3 and why is it important?

DPA is another type of long-chain omega-3 fatty acid.


Like EPA & DHA, DPA is found in fish, seafood, certain omega-3 supplements and to a lesser extent in meats and poultry.


DPA omega 3’s biological properties have not been studied to the same extent as EPA & DHA which have stolen the spotlight when it comes to health promotion. Despite this, DPA is starting to be seen as an unsung hero in the world of omega-3 fats and is starting to enjoy the attention it deserves especially given its many health benefits.


Fish oil supplements 300x200 - DPA Omega 3. The Forgotten Omega 3

DPA and its role in omega 3 metabolism

It’s too bad that DPA hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. DPA omega 3 plays a central role in how your body uses EPA and DHA. It this sense, DPA is the omega 3 resource manager.


Foods that have the longer chain omega 3 fats such as fish and seafood, have all 3 types EPA, DPA, and DHA. Your body will use all 3 as needed but it’s also able to reassemble some of them if more of a particular omega 3 fat is needed. That’s pretty freaking amazing!


So, like EPA and DHA, DPA is absorbed from foods that contain it. But, as you can see from the diagram below, some of the EPA you get from food is converted to DPA. Conversely, some of the DPA is ‘retro-converted’ back to EPA as needed.


Also, some of the DPA is converted to DHA, and DHA can be retro-converted back to DPA as well. Yes, technically speaking you could just take EPA and some of it, but not a lot, would be converted to DPA and further to DHA. Likewise, you could just take DHA and a small amount of it can be converted ‘upstream’ to DPA and then to EPA

EPA steps 1 - DPA Omega 3. The Forgotten Omega 3

But, and it’s an important but. Your physiology and omega 3 metabolism rely on having all 3 present for best results. It’s inefficient, and therefore less effective, to overly rely on just EPA or DHA to supply DPA from their respective conversion.


In this sense, DPA can be seen as a reservoir for EPA and DHA given its ability to be converted to both as need. This is why getting whole foods that contain all three omega 3 fats is better. As dietary intake of DPA increases, tissue concentrations, or levels, of both EPA and DHA increase too.

Boosting DPA omega 3

Do you want to boost your levels of EPA and DHA? You can when you eat foods or take supplements that also contain DPA.


Getting DPA along with EPA and DHA increases the amount of all three fatty acids in tissues where you want them the most. This includes the heart, brain, eyes, never tissue and in the membranes of all cells.


DPA increases levels of EPA and DHA to a greater extent than just getting EPA or DHA alone or in combination.


In a study comparing fish oil supplements that only had DHA & EPA to a supplement that included all 3 fatty acids, omega-3 levels increase in subjects’ tissues by 63% in just 14 days compared to 41% in those getting only EPA & DHA [1].


This is due to the fact that DPA increases the amount of DPA, as well as, EPA & DHA in the molecules [triglycerides] that transport fats throughout the body to the targeted tissues like muscle, brain, eye, nerves, red blood cells and more [2].


DPA omega 3 is like those famed Japanese transit constables who increase the number of people [EPA & DHA] who can get packed into the Tokyo subway [triglycerides]. DPA really helps to stuff more omega-3s in.


Clams steamed - DPA Omega 3. The Forgotten Omega 3

DPA omega 3 benefits


  • Enhances DHA’s ability to…
    • Promote cognitive development from conception through the critical first 2 years of life (DHA is the structural omega-3 fat of the brain) [3]
    • Slow cognitive decline as we age
    • Reduce the risk for mental health & mood disorders
    • Support optimal eye health
  • DPA enhances EPA’s ability to repair damaged blood vessels [4].
    • When more DPA is present in the diet, and therefore body/tissues, 1/10th the amount of EPA is needed for blood vessel repair [good for the brain, eyes, heart, & vessels throughout the body]
  • DPA inhibits thrombosis, in other words, prevents clots by reducing blood cells  called platelets from sticking together [5]
  • DPA improves wound healing by helping new cells to grow and move towards the site of injury so the new cells can repair any damage
  • DPA turns on fat-burning genes which support weight loss and weight management and DPA turns off genes that promote excessive inflammation [6].
  • DPA leads to the production of its own anti-inflammatory molecules known as “resolvins” and “protectins.”
  • Supports EPA and DHA’s ability to reduce the risk for preterm births [7].

DPA and its siblings EPA and DHA can be thought of as the ultimate anti inflammatories !

Whole foods versus supplements

Understanding DPA’s role in the metabolism of all the different forms of omega-3 fats reinforces the idea of nutrient synergy; individual nutrients working together in concert have a greater benefit than each of those nutrients working in isolation.


Of course, it’s impossible for a nutrient to act alone but when nutrients are consumed together, as they are when whole foods are eaten, we usually see greater health benefits.


Given DPA’s role in omega 3 metabolism, it’s the ability to boost levels of EPA and DHA and its overall benefits to promote health, it really begs the question of why it isn’t a standard ingredient in omega 3 supplements? Why is it distilled out during the refining process?  It really should an absolute required ingredient (8, 9).

Omega 3 studies

This would partly explain why we see inconsistencies in omega-3 studies that only use supplements with EPA, DHA or a combination of both. There isn’t any DPA omega 3 fish oil supplement. Those supplements that do contain DPA come from seal oil.


Compared to studies that examined the health benefits of foods rich in the omega-3 fats EPA, DHA and DPA such as fish & seafood, including traditional Indigenous diets that historically included seal and whale meat and blubber, supplement studies don’t do as well.


Supplements are just that, supplements – they are an addition to, not a replacement for – whole foods. Don’t get me wrong, omega-3 supplements and omega-3 fortified foods that include EPA and DHA are an important tool to fill the omega-3 gap that exists in Canada.


As well, there is a robust body of research that shows a benefit from getting more of these fats from supplements and fortified foods but whenever possible, whole foods first.


Salmon fillet grilled 300x200 - DPA Omega 3. The Forgotten Omega 3


DPA omega 3 and brain health

The long chain omega 3 fats EPA, and DHA (not ALA from flax, chia, walnuts, soy, and hemp etc) have long been studied for their role in brain health. This includes their role in preserving cognitive function throughout life and mental health (10, 11, 12, 13). Omega 3 have also been studied for depression and anxiety (14, 15).


Mental health issues such as depression during and after pregnancy is a significant concern for new mothers. It’s believed that the growing fetus depletes maternal stores of all omega 3 fats which are required for fetal brain development.


After birth, maternal stores are empty leaving moms vulnerable to depression. Higher blood levels of DPA during pregnancy is associated with a lower risk for postpartum depression (16).


In terms of long term mental health and cognition, DPA has been suggested as a key player. Not only because of DPA’s role in brain health but because of DPA’s ability to boost the actions of its omega 3 sibling DHA.


As mentioned above, DPA boosts DHA’s ability to:

  • Promote cognitive development from conception through the critical first 2 years of life (DHA is the structural omega-3 fat of the brain) [3]
  • Slow cognitive decline as we age
  • Reduce the risk of mental health & mood disorders
  • Support optimal eye health


When it comes to brain and mental health, go for the golden trio of EPA, DPA and DHA!

Brain 1 300x300 - DPA Omega 3. The Forgotten Omega 3

Getting more EPA, DPA and DHA omega 3 fats is critical

Health authorities such as the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids and other similar organizations recommend getting an average minimum of 250 – 500 mg of EPA & DHA per day;  only 10% of Canadians get more than 250 mg per day.


What foods contain DPA omega 3? Whole foods rich in omega-3 fats such as fish and seafood will not only provide EPA & DHA but will also give you some much needed DPA as well. Also, whole foods are also a great source of other nutrients such as:

  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Phosphorus
  • Vitamins A (retinol/retinal), B12, niacin (B3)
  • Selenium
  • Potassium
  • Iron
  • Vitamin D3 and more.

Foods that are very high in omega-3

The omega-3 content of food varies. Coldwater, fatty fish are the best source of omega-3 fatty acids. All fish and seafood has them but the fattier the fish, the more EPA, DPA & DHA per serving

  • All fish
  • Caviar/roe
  • Seafood & shellfish
    • Clams
    • Crab
    • Eel
    • Lobster
    • Mussels
    • Octopus
    • Oysters
    • Scallops
    • Shrimp
    • Squid/calamari
  • Eggs
  • Omega-3 fortified eggs

Not all omega 3 fats are created equal

“Omega 3 fat” refers to a group of fats that are somewhat similar in structure with some minor variations. These variations are due to their size. There are four that are mentioned above:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid or ALA
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA
  • Docosapentaenoic acid or DPA
  • Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA

For better or worse, when health communicators talk about omega-3s, they lump all four together. This is to try and make health message simple and easy to understand. The downside is that omega-3 fats, their metabolism, and their impact on health are much more nuanced.


You’ll hear and read messages such as “omega 3 fats are good for heart health, reducing depression and improving symptoms of ADD. Omega-3s are found in fish, walnuts, flax, and soybeans”.


The problem with this messaging is that it implies the ALA in flax will help your heart when those with a solid understanding of the science of omega-3 fatty acids know it’s the long-chain EPA, DPA, and DHA that is most beneficial when it comes to health.


You already get more than enough ALA, it’s the other three fats that most in Western societies are lacking.

How much DPA omega 3 is beneficial?

Current omega-3 recommendations are only for alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), EPA & DHA but right now there aren’t any for DPA. While not technically an essential fatty acid because some DPA will be made to prevent a deficiency as long as you get some EPA, getting more than the minimum is better if optimal health is your goal.


More research is needed before we can recommend a specific amount but the good news is that DPA is also found in foods rich in EPA & DHA as the table below highlights.


Eating more of these foods is best but don’t toss out your fish oil supplements or stop buying foods like omega-3 fortified eggs since this helps to bridge the gap between what you need and what you’re getting [or not getting].


Just remember there’s so much more to the omega-3 story.

What foods have DPA omega 3 fatty acids?

While fish and seafood are the best sources of DPA, the levels of DPA will vary. This table helps to differentiate the DPA content.


EPA mg DHA mg DPA mg

Salmon, Atlantic

1 fillet (100 g or 3.5 oz)




Salmon, sockeye

1 can (200 g or 7 oz)

1060 1400



1 fillet (112 g or 4 oz)

763 1200


Salmon, pink

1 can (200 g or 7oz)

645 1400



1 fillet (159 g or 5.5 oz)

266 668


Seal, bearded (Oogruk)

100 g or 3.5 oz


Seal oil, supplement

(varies by manufacturer)

(6 capsules)

(1 tsp oil)

180 (6 capsules)

270 (1 tsp oil)

240 (6 capsules)

360 (1 tsp oil)


114 (6 capsules)

170 (1 tsp oil)


Clams, smoked

1 can (85 g or 3 oz)

124 117



100 g or 3.5 oz

40 20



100 g or 3.5 oz

45 13



1 can (85 g or 3 oz)

603 733


Mussels, smoked

1 can (65 g or 2.2 oz)

210 385



100 g or 3.5 oz

14 16



100 g or 3.5 oz

14 15


Oysters, smoked

1 can (65 g or 2.2 oz)

550 314



Bottom line

• DPA can be uniquely retro-converted back to EPA, as well as converted to DHA, as the body requires.
• DPA supplementation increases tissue levels of both DHA and EPA.
• Even though the dietary intake of DPA is approximately half that of EPA in salmon and other fish, DPA is preferentially concentrated over EPA in the blood.
• DPA levels in red blood cells greatly exceed EPA levels – about twice that of EPA.
• One reason for higher DPA levels in the body compared to EPA and DHA is that DPA is less actively oxidized (burned as energy).



Doug Cook RDN is a Toronto based integrative and functional nutritionist and dietitian with a focus on digestive, gut, mental health.  Follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.