What Is The Best Source of Omega 3? A Guide To Omega 3 Sources

Nov 5, 2021 | Nutrition, Vegan Living | 0 comments

What Is Omega 3?

Omega 3. It’s perhaps one of the best known nutrients and food supplements in the world, and there are many sources available. So what is the best way to get Omega 3?

To find the best source of Omega 3, we first need to clarify what is meant by ‘Omega 3’. The term Omega 3 refers to the fatty acids Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA). Once consumed, ALA needs to be converted in the in to the other two forms (DHA & EPA) for it to be used by the body. [1]

These three fatty acids are used for a variety of cellular functions across nature, and so there are many different sources that we can use as humans.

Sources of Omega 3

Let’s take a look at seven of the most common ways to get Omega 3 in the diet.

1. Eating Fish

Eating fish is a simple way to aquire omega-3s, and can provide you DHA and EPA without needing to supplement.

Salmon is one of the most readily available fish products that is well known for it’s omega-3 content. Often, it is even stated to be ‘rich in omega 3s’ on the packaging itself. So, as a point of reference let’s use salmon as an example of a dietary source of omega 3.

How much Omega 3 does Salmon contain? Well, this is unfortunately a question that is impossible to give a precise answer to. Naturally, unlike with curated supplement forms, the amount of Omega-3s present in ocean caught fish will have a variability due to natural circumstances. This makes it difficult to get an exact figure on how much omega-3 is actually present in the final meal.

To muddy the waters further, a study has shown that the way fish is cooked can damage and denature DHA and EPA fatty acids. This is because the high temperatures used in cooking damage the structure of the fatty acids through oxidation. Pan frying was found to be the most damaging. [2]

Salmon Is A Rich Food Source of Omega 3s
Salmon Is a Common Dietary source of Omega 3s

The conclusion here therefore is that consuming fish such as salmon may be the most natural and simple way to consume omega-3 fatty acids. This simplicity is offset by the lack of precision in knowing exactly how much you are actually consuming.

It is also important to mention that eating large quantities of ocean caught fish may not actually be all that healthy!

A potential downside with eating large amounts of fish in your diet is that our oceans are becoming more and more polluted with heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic. The FDA have issued guidelines on fish consumption due to this prevelant issue.

Another obvious issue with eating large amounts of fish is the potential effect on ecosystems. Stocks can suffer from overfishing, and ocean caught fish may not have been sustainably or ethically sourced. Industrial fishing can lead to a process called bycatch, whereby other fish species get caught up in nets unintentionally. This can cause huge damage to underwater ecosystems.

2. Fish Oil Capsules

Perhaps the most famous and common form of Omega 3 supplementation, Fish Oil is routinely stocked and sold cheaply in almost every health store and supermarket. Fish Oil is cheap to purchase, readily available, and is often seen almost as the archetypal ‘Omega 3 Supplement’.

Fish oil is sourced from oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, and of course, salmon.

Fish Oil Is A Source Of Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Fish Oil Capsules Are A Cheap And Readily Available Source Of Omega 3s

Taking fish oil supplements has advantages over consuming fish as food. Firstly, the dosage is precise and you can accurately monitor your intake. Fish oils contain EPA and DHA

Secondly, by taking a supplement, you can ensure you get adequate omega-3 intake even on days when your diet is poor.

If you do not like eating fish, then fish oil supplements provide a quick and easy way to enjoy some of the benefits of dietary fish intake without having to prepare any seafood meals.

We should also mention that some people dislike taking fish oil capsules due to the tendency for it to repeat a classic fishy aroma upon burping. You can decide for yourself if that is something that you would be concerned about!

A more serious potential downside with fish oil supplements is the risk of contamination from ocean pollutants. [3]

Our Modern Oceans Are Highly Polluted With Plastic And Industrial Chemicals
Ocean Borne Pollutants Can End Up In Fish Oil Capsules

As we mentioned above, when waste is pumped in to the ocean, it eventually makes it’s way up the foodchain to fish. As fish oil capsules are generally processed from ocean caught oily fish, this means that some pollutants may end up in your final product.

3. Cod Liver Oil / Cod Liver

Cod is technically not the name of one fish, but is a name given to a group of fish of which there are several different species. The two most widely fished Cod species are Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) and Pacific Cod (Gadus macrocephalus). As their common names suggest, these are salt water species fished in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans respectively.

Cod liver oil is sourced from, you guessed it, the livers of these fish. Cod livers are a rich source of DHA and EPA. Cod liver food products as well as processed cod liver oil both carry this high nutrient density, and so offer a great source of omega 3s.

Cod liver oil also contains Vitamin’s A, D, and E. If you are looking at adding these vitamins in to your diet as well as omega-3s, then cod liver oil can provide a one stop solution for all of these nutrients.

Of course, being sourced from the ocean, Cod Liver Oil and cod liver products share the same issues as oily fish. Cod liver products are certainly not immune for being a potential source of pollutants and contamination from ocean borne chemicals, and studies have been done to find out just how much chemical waste ends up in the final product. [4]

Whilst the levels of contaminants in these products is thought to be relatively low, it is certainly not zero, and therefore this is a factor you should think about when choosing your omega 3 source.

Cod Numbers Are Not Recovering As Much As Some Ecologists Had Hoped
Atlantic Cod Has Been Overfished For Decades

Cod has also been famously overfished, with schemes put in place to reduce the amount fishing allowances on Atlantic cod to allow stocks to recover. [5]

Even with these schemes in place, Atlantic Cod is still considered to be overfished and stocks are not recovering at the speed that was previously hoped. [6]

Additionally, a further environmental concern with cod liver is the fact that the cod fishing industry heavily relies on fossil fuels to power it’s operations. All these aspects put together mean that cod liver oil has quite a negative environmental impact.

4. Krill Oil

Krill oil is a highly regarded food supplement, usually derived from Antarctic krill species. Many suppliers claim that they are also sustainably fished, so we are off to a good start.

Krill Oil is notable for it’s distinctive red colour, which is as a result of the presence of a substance called astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is a keto-carotenoid with antioxidant activity surpasses that of other carotenoids, such as β-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, as well as vitamins C and E. [7]

As a result of this action, astaxanthin has been studied extensively for it’s potential anti-aging effects. [8]

Krill oil also has high levels of DHA & EPA, and unlike in fish oils, they are in phospholipid form, which improves bioavailability. Furthermore, krill oil also contains Vitamin D, which is a welcome addition to this superfood.

Krill Oil Is A Source Of Omega 3s And Astaxanthin
Krill Oil Has A Famously Vivid Colour [9]

The unique and highly desirable mixture of compounds in krill oil has made it one of the most sought after and highly regarded sources of Omega 3. Indeed, research has even found that krill oil seems to have an antidepressant effect on rats! [10]

As we have discussed above, the ocean can be a source of contaminants and unfortunately, krill are no exception to that. Whilst suppliers often like to claim that their products are contaminant free, the data is mixed.

Krill oil was found to have “intermediate levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) contaminants when compared to the other products” in a 2014 study. [11]

Antarctic Krill Are Adapted To Cold Ocean Water
Krill Oil Is Mainly Sourced From Antarctic Krill

Unfortunately, in our modern polluted oceans, this is an inevitability. POPs are a group of chemicals from agriculture, industrial processes, and manufacturing. Since the turn of the century and the increase of industrialisation, these chemicals are frequently found in all ocean waters across the world. [12]

Overall, krill oil shows amazing potential as a food supplement, and many people already are supplementing with it with great results. On top of providing a high amount of omega-3s in a more bioavailable form, it also offers other unique compounds that the other options do not.

The pressence of astaxanthin in krill oil means that it not only is it a great source of omega 3, but also provides a powerful anti-oxidant too! For more information on the benefits of astaxanthin, you can read our article on it by clicking here.

5. Hempseed Oil

A great, vegan option for Omega 3 supplementation is Hempseed Oil (sometimes written Hemp Seed Oil, and sometimes simply Hemp Oil.)

Hemp seed oil is a rich and balanced source of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, and it has been used as an omega 3 source in a study to try and combat atopic dermatitis. [13]

Hemp Is A Super-Crop With Many Uses
Hemp Is A Natural, Vegan Source Of Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Hemp is a supercrop that is used for a wide variety of different commercial uses. Hemp can also be farmed sustainably, and in many ways this could be one of the most environmentally friendly ways to get your dietary requirements of Omega 3’s. This is because different parts of the same hemp plant can go to different industries as every part of the plant is useful.

Hemp Oil Is A Source Of Omega 3 And Has Many Other Uses
The Hemp Plant Has Many Uses [14]

This is an important contrast to the other options on this list if you have environmental concerns.

A drawback of hempseed oil as a source of omega 3s is in it’s bioavailability. In hempseed oil, the omega 3s are in the form of ALA. As we mentioned in the introduction to this article, this then requires further conversion once in the body to become DHA and EPA. This process is not efficient. On average, around 5% of ALA is converted into EPA. The conversion to DHA is even less efficient, with estimations as low as 0.5% efficiency! [15]

The result of this is that one has to consume a much larger amount to get the same equivalent dosage compared to options such as krill oil or cod liver oil.

6. Flaxseed

Flaxseed is another vegan source of omega 3 fatty acids. Flaxseed is also a rich source of fibre, and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways. There are also supplements that offer flaxseed oil in a more potent form that claim to be able to deliver higher doses of ALA without resorting to eating ridiculous amounts of seeds.

Unfortunately, as with hemp oil, the bioavailability of omega 3 from flaxseed is not great. Once again, it comes in ALA form, which the body will then need to convert in to DHA and EPA before using it.

As we discussed above, the efficiency of this transfer is very poor, especially for DHA. The end result of this means that to get the same dosage of one standard cod liver oil capsule (with a usual 500mg of DHA and EPA), one would need to consume half a kilogram of flaxseed to get the same amount of DHA. That’s a heck of a lot of flaxseed. [16]

Flaxseed Is A Vegan Source Of Omega 3 And Omega 6 Fatty Acids
Did You Say Half A Kilogram?!

In normal dietary terms, this is obviously unrealistic and would probably cause a whole host of other issues along the way.

Thankfully, flaxseed oil supplements are available, offering a vegan omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids. Many supplements on the market claim to be oils made from pure, organic flaxseed, and if you find a supplement you like, this could be a much more easy way to obtain your omega 3 intake without having to eat seeds all day.

7. Algae Grown Omega 3

One solution to produce Omega 3 without risking the pollution or contamination of the oceans is to use algae instead of fish. This may sound surprising, but it is actually a very elegant solution. Fish get Omega 3 from eating Krill, who in turn got their Omega 3 from eating algae. So by starting at the bottom of the food-chain, it is possible to develop a plant based, vegan, contaminant free Omega 3 supplement.

Pools of water are created, and the conditions are manufactured to produce a specific form of algae in the pools. This method produces a form of Omega 3 that can be guaranteed to be free from ocean pollutants, whilst still being a totally natural and healthy product.

Being isolated from the wider environment, these algae pools will not be a source of heavy metals, microplastics or other ocean waste. Therefore, algae sourced omega-3 capsules can offer the same high DHA and EPA content as ocean sourced varieties, without any of the pollutant risk. [17]

Algae Is The Foundation Of Omega 3 In Aquatic Food Chains
DHA From Algae Is A Great Fish Free Option

Furthermore, as the entire process is carefully monitored and cared for by people, it is a more environmentally friendly and sustainable way of generating Omega 3 soft gels. No fish need to be caught to create the products. Therefore, choosing algae-grown Omega 3 products could reduce human impact on fish stocks in our oceans. Nice!

NothingFishy are a highly rated UK based company that offer this service, and they provide high quality vegan Omega 3 capsules that have never touched a single fish!

Conclusion

There are many different ways to get omega 3 fatty acids in to your diet. As we have discussed above, the different forms come with their own pros & cons.

If you are a vegan, then hempseed oil or algae-grown are naturally going to be your preferred options. If you are seeking something cheap and no-thrills, then simple Fish Oil capsules or Cod Liver oil may suit your needs. If bioavailability and performance are what you seek, then krill oil may be your best option.

Whether you consider yourself an environmentalist or not, I think the issue of ocean pollution is worth bearing in mind when making your choice.

Finally, if you decide to proceed with omega-3 supplementation, be sure to discuss it with your doctor beforehand! Omega-3 supplements can lower your blood pressure [18], and can even cause nosebleeds. If you suffer from low blood pressure, or you are on blood-thinning medication, you should not add an omega-3 supplement in to your routine without explicit doctors advice.


[References]

1. Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Adv Nutr. 2012 Jan;3(1):1-7. doi: 10.3945/an.111.000893. Epub 2012 Jan 5. PMID: 22332096; PMCID: PMC3262608.

2. Leung KS, Galano JM, Durand T, Lee JC. Profiling of Omega-Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Their Oxidized Products in Salmon after Different Cooking Methods. Antioxidants (Basel). 2018 Jul 24;7(8):96. doi: 10.3390/antiox7080096. PMID: 30042286; PMCID: PMC6116150.

3. Rawn DF, Breakell K, Verigin V, Nicolidakis H, Sit D, Feeley M, Ryan JJ. Persistent organic pollutants in fish oil supplements on the canadian market: polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, dibenzofurans, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers. J Food Sci. 2009 May-Jul;74(4):T31-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1750-3841.2009.01143.x. PMID: 19490345.

4. Falandysz J, Smith F, Panton S, Fernandes AR. A retrospective investigation into the occurrence and human exposure to polychlorinated naphthalenes (PCNs), dibenzo-p-dioxins and furans (PCDD/Fs) and PCBs through cod liver products (1972-2017). Chemosphere. 2019 Sep;231:240-248. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2019.05.073. Epub 2019 May 16. PMID: 31129405.

5. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/atlantic-cod#overview

6. https://www.clf.org/blog/cod-overfishing-continues-framework-59-council/

7. Ekpe, Lawson & Inaku, Kenneth & Ekpe, Victor & Contact, Lawson & Ekpe, Victor. (2018). Antioxidant effects of astaxanthin in various diseases-a review. Oxidants and Antioxidants in Medical Science. 1-6. 10.5455/oams.20180315075538.

8. Kidd P. Astaxanthin, cell membrane nutrient with diverse clinical benefits and anti-aging potential. Altern Med Rev. 2011 Dec;16(4):355-64. PMID: 22214255.

9. Krill Oil Picture: Adobe Stock© – Standard Usage License. Unauthorized use, copying, or distribution is prohibited.

10. Wibrand K, Berge K, Messaoudi M, Duffaud A, Panja D, Bramham CR, Burri L. Enhanced cognitive function and antidepressant-like effects after krill oil supplementation in rats. Lipids Health Dis. 2013 Jan 25;12:6. doi: 10.1186/1476-511X-12-6. PMID: 23351783; PMCID: PMC3618203.

11. Bengtson Nash SM, Schlabach M, Nichols PD. A nutritional-toxicological assessment of Antarctic krill oil versus fish oil dietary supplements. Nutrients. 2014 Aug 28;6(9):3382-402. doi: 10.3390/nu6093382. PMID: 25170991; PMCID: PMC4179167.

12. https://www.epa.gov/international-cooperation/persistent-organic-pollutants-global-issue-global-response

13. Callaway J, Schwab U, Harvima I, Halonen P, Mykkänen O, Hyvönen P, Järvinen T. Efficacy of dietary hempseed oil in patients with atopic dermatitis. J Dermatolog Treat. 2005 Apr;16(2):87-94. doi: 10.1080/09546630510035832. PMID: 16019622.

14. Canadian Department Of Agriculture And Agrifood (2007) Curated By Medical Jane (2015)

15. Plourde M, Cunnane SC. Extremely limited synthesis of long chain polyunsaturates in adults: implications for their dietary essentiality and use as supplements. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2007 Aug;32(4):619-34. doi: 10.1139/H07-034. Erratum in: Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2008 Feb;33(1):228-9. PMID: 17622276.

16. Goyal A, Sharma V, Upadhyay N, Gill S, Sihag M. Flax and flaxseed oil: an ancient medicine & modern functional food. J Food Sci Technol. 2014 Sep;51(9):1633-53. doi: 10.1007/s13197-013-1247-9. Epub 2014 Jan 10. PMID: 25190822; PMCID: PMC4152533.

17. Doughman SD, Krupanidhi S, Sanjeevi CB. Omega-3 fatty acids for nutrition and medicine: considering microalgae oil as a vegetarian source of EPA and DHA. Curr Diabetes Rev. 2007 Aug;3(3):198-203. doi: 10.2174/157339907781368968. PMID: 18220672.

18. Cabo J, Alonso R, Mata P. Omega-3 fatty acids and blood pressure. Br J Nutr. 2012 Jun;107 Suppl 2:S195-200. doi: 10.1017/S0007114512001584. PMID: 22591893.

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Written by Keymer Health

November 5, 2021

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