Omega-3 fatty acids have been in the news a lot recently, and the advice given at the end of these articles is usually not so vegan-friendly, urging readers to consume more fish as a source of these essential acids. Most vegans know that omegas are available from plant sources (seeing as how that’s where the fish get them), but this key information is usually left out of stories about omega-3s.
Surprisingly, a recent Newsweek/MSNBC story bucked this trend:
Walnuts, flaxseed and canola oil are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids and people who got their omega-3s from these sources had just as much benefit as those who get them by eating fish…
So that’s good news for vegans, and for people trying to avoid eating fish for ethical reasons, or to avoid dioxins, methylmercury and other toxins.
Before exploring alternate sources of omega-3s, though, let’s look at just why are these fatty acids so essential. Why all the research and news coverage?
Omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory and overall immune system function, increase “good” cholesterol (HDL) and decrease total cholesterol and triglycerides, and are essential to normal developmental health, including formation of a healthy brain, eyes, and nervous system.
The human body can generally synthesize all the necessary omega-3 fatty acids from the simpler omega-3 fatty acid, α-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential nutrient which must be obtained from food. Other essential omega-3 fatty acids, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) can be either synthesized from ALA within the body or obtained from food sources.
Omega-6s, also an essential fatty acid (dermal integrity, renal function, and so on), can interfere with transformation within the body. Omega-3 and omega-6 compete for the same metabolic enzymes, so the omega-6:omega-3 ratio significantly influences hormone production and the body’s metabolic function. Western diets are have grown ever higher in omega-6, throwing the balance out of whack, with ratios from 10:1 – 30:1. The recommended ratio is closer to 3:2, or 1.5:1, to give you a more direct comparison. Obviously our culture needs to reduce omega-6s and increase omega-3s, and that’s what explains the deluge of studies and articles on the subject.
Corn, soybean, and olive oil contain relatively high ratios of omega-6s, so you could start by cutting back on those (especially corn oil) and using canola oil instead, or eating a lower fat diet. Then you could supplement your omega-3 intake with whole foods like walnuts and flax seed or, for your convenience, omega-3 supplements containing EPA and DHA. Why EPA and DHA instead of relying on ALA to convert in the body?
Flaxseed oil consists of about 55% ALA. Flax, like chia, contains approximately three times as much omega-3 as omega-6. According to The Vegetarian Society, 15g of flaxseed oil provides about 8g of ALA, which is converted in the body to EPA and then DHA, but at an efficiency of only 2%-15%, and 2%-5%, respectively. Not so efficient, and some people have further trouble synthesizing ALA, which is a justification I’ve heard from a lot of people recommending increased intake of fish.
But the EPA and DHA found in fish come from algae, and we can get it there, too. Algae, organically grown in bioreactors, provides an environmentally- and animal-friendly source of EPA and DHA, eliminating concern over contamination from toxins as well. There are only two products I’ve tried in this market for algae-derived omega-3s, and only one of them combines both EPA and DHA, Water4Life’s V-Pure capsules, out of the UK.
V-Pure is Vegetarian Society approved and registered with the Vegan Society, and each container comes with 90 capsules, or 30 days, which provides 75mg of EPA and 270mg of DHA. What’s more, unlike the other supplement I’ve tried, V-Pure doesn’t stink.
So, if you’re looking for the one capsule that covers your omega-3 needs, V-Pure may be the way to go. The daily cost of this supplement may seem a little high, especially with the currently lousy exchange rate, but the company is offering a couple of specials right now, it’s certainly a lot less expensive than a filleted fish, and you get to forgo the cruelty, exploitation and environmental destruction!