There’s no denying omega-3s are essential for foundational health. But there’s one common complaint made by just about everyone who takes them: fish burps.
Fish burps are somewhat inevitable, considering most omega-3 supplements come in the form of fish oil softgels. That said, there’s another surprising source of omega-3s gaining popularity lately, and it won’t make your breath stink like salmon: algae. Here’s what you need to know about this vegan alternative.
The Omega-3 Basics
As crucial as omega-3s—specifically EPA and DHA—are for our health (everything from our heart to our mood), our bodies can only produce so much on their own. That means we have to get some omega-3s from our food. Trouble is, research suggests very few Americans actually eat the recommended 250 to 500 milligrams of combined EPA and DHA per day.
“DHA and EPA are found in salmon, tuna, shrimp, herring, sardines, seaweed, and some grass-fed meats,” says dietitian Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. We can also convert the omega-3 ALA—found in plants like soy, walnuts, chia, flax and hemp—into EPA and then DHA. Thing is, just five to ten percent of it makes it to EPA, and just two to five percent makes it to DHA. “Getting the benefits of DHA and EPA from plant-based sources isn’t very efficient for your body,” says Valdez.
Since ALA-containing plant foods don’t offer much EPA and DHA benefit, vegetarians, vegans, and anyone who doesn’t eat fish can benefit from a supplement, says Valdez. Problem is, fish oil isn’t exactly vegetarian- or vegan- friendly.
Algae: The Fish-Free Omega-3 Solution
Ready to have your mind blown? “Scientists found that fish contain high levels of DHA and EPA because they eat algae, which contains high levels of DHA and EPA,” explains Wesley Delbridge, R.D., a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Talk about that whole ‘you are what you eat’ thing…
Recently, brands have been cutting out the middle man (or should we say “middle fish”) by making omega-3 supplements from their original source. Strange as algae supplements may sound, research suggests they get the job one. One study, for example, found that algae-based omega-3 supplements significantly increased vegans’ EPA and DHA levels. A second study found that the same amount of omega-3s was absorbed from algae-based supplements as was from cooked salmon.
Plus, one Nutrients review found that algae-based omega-3 supplements may be less impactful on the environment and more sustainable to produce than even the most sustainable fish oil supplements.
The one downside of these vegan omega-3s: They do tend to be pricier—and lower potency—than fish oil.
If you do invest, Delbridge recommends looking for a supplement that provides more than 300 milligrams of DHA. Ovega-3’s softgels, for example, offer 500 milligrams of total omega-3s, including 320 milligrams of DHA. Ora’s Nothing Fishy Here Vegan Omega-3 Spray (which tastes like oranges), meanwhile, offers 600 milligrams of DHA. The Vitamin Shoppe brand Omega-3 From Algae offers 360 milligrams of DHA and 180 milligrams of EPA.
The Bottom Line
“DHA and EPA work whether you get them from a vegan or vegetarian source, or not,” says Delbridge.
The source you choose ultimately comes down to priority. If you prefer to take a vegan supplement, value environmental sustainability, or simply can’t stand fish burps, an algae-based omega-3 is your best bet. However, if low-cost is top priority, go for fish oil.
Either way, Valdez recommends talking to your healthcare provider before popping omega-3s, since high doses may interact with certain medications.