by Chris Speed
Fueled by consensus among global experts that omega-3 deficiency is one of the biggest health challenges to the future of humanity, (1) the fish oil and flax oil markets have grown considerably as they aim to address this pervasive dietary problem. Joining the cause are algae and krill oils that seek to provide consumer choice.
It is important to realize that regardless of source, omega-3’s exert their important and essential effects when they are ultimately incorporated into cell membranes (2). Popular and emerging sources provide three main omega-3’s; eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Whether a consumer chooses fish, flax, algae and/or krill should not be the real public health issue, as long as they obtain a source that is right for them and promotes adequate consumption (3).
Although consuming all types of omega-3 is important and add to the body’s overall pool of essential fats, EPA and DHA from marine sources appear to be structurally more important to the integrity of every cell wall in the body and exert greater anti-inflammatory effects than ALA found in flax and other plant forms (2). Most Westernized diets contain very high levels of omega-6 intake which prevent the body from converting ALA to EPA and DHA, making it very important for consumers to seek out the preformed long chain fatty acid forms (4,5,6)
As it currently stands the vast majority of omega-3 research has been carried out on fish oil derived EPA and DHA. No other nutrient has been tested as rigorously and shown to be safe and important throughout many disease management processes, let alone be used daily for proactive disease prevention purposes (3).
Although fish sourced omega-3’s have enticed consumers for many years, algae and krill oils are two competitors that have impressive sales growth potential because they have come to market underpinned by clinically proven health benefits and excellent marketing.
Algae oil is relatively new to the omega-3 industry and provides the long chain omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA. They are a great choice for those seeking vegan sources of omega-3, have been featured in some compelling health studies and are now produced at a volume that meets the growing market’s needs (7).
Krill oil supplies a phospholipid form of EPA and DHA, which appears to be better utilized by the body than other traditional sources (8) and is appealing to health-seeking consumers because it also provides astaxanthin, a naturally occurring pigment that is also found in salmon and pollock oils (9,10). Like fish oils, krill oil has been shown to promote cardiovascular health, support a healthy inflammatory response and play key roles in proper cell structure and function (11). The Achilles heel for krill however is that it provides a low concentration of EPA and DHA and requires several servings to match a similar dosage of fish oil.
Regardless of the source, the sustainability platform of omega-3 oil sources have been increasingly questioned throughout the natural food industry (12) despite the existence of brands approved by rigorous environmental groups such as the Marine Stewardship Council (13,14,15) – the iron clad guarantee of sustainability.
Although fish oil will continue to be a driving force in the omega-3 industry it will only continue to achieve this by being “clinically proven”, safe and highly sustainable. Unfortunately very few brands can tout all of these product qualities and consumers should be urged to seek them out so that future generation can ultimately address the global, pervasive public health crisis of omega-3 deficiency.
(1) Omega-3 Summit http://www.omega3summit.org/pdf/ConsensusStatements.pdf (sourced on July 24, 2012)
(2) Lands, W. (2012) Consequences of Essential Fatty Acids Nutrients. 4, (1338-1357).
(4) Tur JA et al (2012) Dietary sources of omega 3 fatty acids: public health risks and benefits.Br J Nutr. 2012 Jun;107 Suppl 2:S23-52.
(5) Gibson, RA et al (2013) Docosahexaenoic acid synthesis from alpha-linolenic acid is inhibited by diets high in polyunsaturated fatty acids Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 88,139–146,
(6) Brenna, JT et al (2009) a-Linolenic acid supplementation and conversion to n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in humans. Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 80, 85–91
(8) Schuchart, JP et al (2011) Incorporation of EPA and DHA into plasma phospholipids in response to different omega-3 fatty acid formulations – a comparative bioavailability study of fish oil vs. krill oil. Lipids in Health and Disease 10:145
(9) Takaichi S et al (2003) Fatty acids of astaxanthin esters in krill determined by mild mass spectrometry. Comp Biochem Physiol B Biochem Mol Biol. 136(2):317-22.
(11) Ulven, SM. (2011) Metabolic effects of krill oil are essentially similar to those of fish oil but at lower dose of EPA and DHA, in healthy volunteers. Lipids. 2011 Jan;46(1):37-46