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 mgDHA mgDPA mg

Salmon, Atlantic

1 fillet (100 g or 3.5 oz)




Salmon, sockeye

1 can (200 g or 7 oz)




1 fillet (112 g or 4 oz)



Salmon, pink

1 can (200 g or 7oz)




1 fillet (159 g or 5.5 oz)



Seal, bearded (Oogruk)

100 g or 3.5 oz


Seal oil, supplement

(varies by manufacturer)

(6 capsules)

(1 tsp oil)

180 (caps)

270 (oil)

240 (caps)

360 (oil)


114 (caps)

170 (oil)


Clams, smoked

1 can (85 g or 3 oz)




100 g or 3.5 oz




100 g or 3.5 oz




1 can (85 g or 3 oz)



Mussels, smoked

1 can (65 g or 2.2 oz)




100 g or 3.5 oz




100 g or 3.5 oz



Oysters, smoked

1 can (65 g or 2.2 oz)




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.

Comments 38

  1. evans jaghroo
    August 1, 2018

    excellent info as per blog and then some

  2. Phil Alder
    January 14, 2019

    Fantastic that you have actually listed the amount of DPA in the different foods. This has been very difficult to find. Thank you

    1. Doug Cook
      January 14, 2019

      So true, which kinda ‘sucks’ since it’s just as important

  3. Owner, Be The Change
    July 13, 2019

    Really awesome and informative content! Thank you for making the effort! ~Namaste

    1. Doug Cook
      July 14, 2019

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.

  4. Mike
    August 31, 2019

    It’s definitely all true…I made up my mind to eat fish 3-4 times a week and other days minimum amounts of poultry etc… and eating my greens and my inflammation has gone way down and clarity in my thoughts and feeling better in general. Knees don’t hurt and joints feel better and more flexible. Salmon mostly and some sardines as well. Truly helps me without taking supplements, I’d rather have the real thing! Works for sure obviously like we’ve always been told! DPA very important!

    1. Doug Cook
      September 1, 2019

      Ya! great to hear! Food and nutrients are powerful allies!

    January 26, 2020

    Thank you for such an informative blog.

    1. Doug Cook RDN MHSc
      January 26, 2020

      Thanks, glad it’s beneficial. I love to read and learn and summarize what I find!

      1. Paul Apollonio
        April 5, 2020

        I suspect many doing comparisons with your supplied chart will ignore the fact you are comparing a 100 gram portion of Atlantic Salmon to a 200 gram portion of Sockeye Salmon. Given the current market price of Wild Caught Sockeye vs Atlantic Salmon, this choice seems somewhat confusing. It would be more accessible to many were the portions equal IMHO. Thank you for the information. I loved this page, bookmarked it also. Kudos.

        1. Doug Cook RDN MHSc
          April 5, 2020

          thanks for your feedback, these comparisons really are ‘big picture’; no one is expected to count milligrams etc but rather to see where DPA comes from in the diet. Focusing on a dietary pattern will ensure people are getting enough…

  6. wanda j simer
    March 9, 2020

    I would like your recommendation for a supplement that has all 4 in it. Thank you!

    1. Doug Cook RDN MHSc
      March 10, 2020
  7. Mary heitmann
    March 14, 2020

    Now I know what I need to improve my issues that have hindered my overall health between my brain fog lack of energy joint pain memory and weight. Man never thought it would be so easy to do a few simple things to improve so many issues all at once. Thank you doctor Doug cook.🤝🤭😊🤝 And GOD BLESS YOU 🙏

  8. Jo
    March 27, 2020

    Great article. I’m wondering whether whole-body fish oil, or algae oil supplements (which contain both DHA and EPA) might inherently contain any DPA? Many labels dont give the whole break down of fatty acids, they just list the commercially important ones. I dont know whether theres any research on this or what your thoughts might be? Many thanks!

    1. Doug Cook RDN MHSc
      March 27, 2020

      yes, there are traces from whole-body fish oil…typically there’s a ‘total omega 3’ and the EPA and DHA total is less than the total omega-3 amount; some of that will be ALA and DPA but it’s largely filtered out. There will be none in an algae oil though. There’s been studies looking at fish oil supplement useres and non-users (while not eating fish and seafood) and in the fish oil supplement users, their RBC DPA does increase a bit but not as much as eating whole fish or taking something like seal oil since mammals blubber are excellent sources of DPA.

  9. john
    April 6, 2020

    The problem with seafood is the inherent amounts of heavy metals, particularly mercury.
    I love fish but it’s something to be aware of
    Salmon seems to be fairly low on the list while tuna is high. Everything in moderation

    1. Doug Cook RDN MHSc
      April 6, 2020

      The greatest contributor of mercury is the atmosphere from coal. The bulk of the eivdence is clear, eating more fish and seafood confers health benefits versus avoiding it. Selenium protects the body against mercury…

  10. jack
    May 17, 2020

    just as an FYI, spirulina,chlorella and spirulina oil are the vegan sources of DHA,EPA,DPA. they are also better sources than fish given that you avoid the contaminants from the ocean.

    1. Doug Cook RDN MHSc
      May 17, 2020

      THere is some DHA and EPA in algae like spirulina etc, very small amounts, subtherapeutic…you could never get 2-5 g worth of the long chain omega-3s from powders nor could you raise your RBC membrane/Omega 3 index to 8 or higher which is needed to reap the benefits of EPA and DHA and DPA (no DPA in spirulina, ALA yes). People just don’t consume large amounts need to the most of DHA and DPA (e.g. 1/2 cup or more versus 1 tsp or so that’s usually consumed). Chlorella, spirulina, etc have been known to have heavy metals, contaminants etc. Of course, that’s eliminated with quality brands, as it is for fish oils etc, in fact, oils have all contaminants filtered out so the argument of getting ocean pollution is unsubstantiated…..but yes, you can get good amounts of EPA and DHA in algae oils……

  11. Randy Osbourne
    May 30, 2020

    I heard wild caught menhaden fish have the highest level of DPA Omega 3. Is this true?

    1. Doug Cook RDN MHSc
      May 31, 2020

      Not sure off the top of my head..I wouldn’t pit one against the other as all fish and seafood will have it. You could check the USDA Nutrient Database, they have a comprehensive listing of almost all nutrients

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