Algae oil is a plant-based alterative to fish oil

Algae Oil vs. Fish Oil: What's the Difference?

By: Sonali Ruder, DO

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

When it comes to getting our daily dose of omega-3 fatty acids, many of us turn to fish oil supplements as a reliable source to fill in any nutritional gaps in our diets. However, there's a new player on the scene for those who avoid fish: algae oil.

Algae oil is gaining popularity as a sustainable and plant-based alternative to fish oil. You can even find supplements made from algae. But how do the two oils compare in terms of their nutritional value and potential health benefits?

Let's dive in and learn all about it!

What is algae oil?

Algae oil, or algal oil, is exactly what it sounds like: a type of oil derived from various species of algae. Algae are a diverse group of aquatic organisms ranging from single-celled microscopic organisms, known as microalgae, to kelp and seaweed. These plants can produce oil through photosynthesis or other metabolic pathways. Algae grow in various aquatic environments, including oceans, lakes and ponds, and serve as a primary source of food for many marine organisms.

Algae have gained significant attention as a source of renewable and sustainable oil that can be used for various purposes. This plant-based oil is rich in many beneficial compounds, including omega-3 fatty acids.

While fish oil and krill oil are also a good omega-3 source, algal oil may provide a good alternative for vegans and those who don't eat seafood or can't tolerate fish oil. A study showed the omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) from algae capsules appears to be bioequivalent to cooked salmon in providing DHA to plasma and red blood cells.

Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fat that our bodies need for optimal health. They are deemed "essential" because our bodies cannot produce them on their own, so we need to obtain them through our diet. Omega-3s help form the structural basis of our cell membranes and provide energy for the body. They help support the body's cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune and endocrine systems.

The Food Chain, Explained: Algae, Fish and You

Omega 3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are primarily found in animal foods like fatty fish. Salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel and anchovy are some common omega-3 sources.

Ever wonder why these foods are so rich in these healthy fats? The answer lies in what they eat! Interestingly, although cold-water fatty fish are a great source of EPA and DHA, they cannot synthesize them on their own. Rather, they obtain these omega-3s through their diet of microalgae and plankton.

So, when you eat fatty fish, you're getting the benefits of fatty acids because the fish ate algae. You can "cut out the middle man" (or, in this case, the middle fish) and get omega-3 benefits from an algal oil supplement if your diet does not include fish.

How is algae oil harvested?

Algae oil is produced by growing algae in large-scale cultivation tanks or ponds. These tanks are designed to provide optimal conditions for the algae to grow and thrive. Unlike terrestrial sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds and flaxseed, algae can be induced to produce more fatty acids. This is done by manipulating their exposure to UV light, oxygen, sodium, glucose and temperature.

Once the algae reach maturity, they are harvested, and the oil is extracted. The algal oil is then purified and used in a number of ways, such as in plant-based vitamins, omega-3 supplements and infant formula. It's also used to enrich animal, poultry and fish feed.

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Health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are important for maintaining optimal health. Here are some key health benefits:

  • Heart health

  • Omega-3s support heart health by various mechanisms. These include helping to maintain healthy levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol and triglycerides and maintaining already-healthy blood pressure.

  • Brain health

  • Omega-3s are important for brain health and may play a role in supporting cognitive function and memory. They are also critical building blocks of the brain and eyes in babies. Their accumulation in the brain starts during pregnancy and continues throughout the first two years of life. Therefore, DHA-rich nutrition is important. However, pregnant and breastfeeding women should check with their healthcare provider before making any changes to their diet and supplement regimen.

  • Eye health

  • Omega-3 fatty acids are also important for eye health. DHA, in particular, is important for maintaining the structural and functional properties of the retina. Studies suggest that consuming higher amounts of this omega-3 may help protect eye health.

Is algae the only source of plant-based omega-3s?

No. The omega-3 fatty acid ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is the type of omega-3 typically found in a number of different plants. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, hempseeds and walnuts are some common sources of this fatty acid.

ALA is the most common omega-3 in our diet and is an essential precursor of EPA and DHA. Our bodies convert some ALA into EPA and DHA, but this conversion process is highly inefficient in humans. Only a small percentage of ALA fatty acid is converted into EPA, and even less is converted into DHA. This is why DHA is among the nutrients that may be a challenge to get from a vegan diet.

Does algae oil have EPA and DHA?

Depending on the algae from which it is derived, algal oil can be a rich source of both EPA and DHA, which are two of the most important omega-3 fatty acids for human health. Algal oil can also be a good source of the fatty acid ALA, depending on how it is grown and harvested.

These properties make algae omega-3 an excellent option for vegetarians, vegans, and those who are allergic to fish or seafood. An algal oil supplement can help them to reap omega-3 benefits without relying on animal-based sources.

Algae oil and fish oil: How to choose

Both algae oil and fish oil are sources of omega-3 fatty acids. When choosing your omega-3 supplement, these are the factors worth considering.

  • The source

  • Fish obtain their omega-3 fatty acids from eating marine algae or other organisms that have consumed algae. They do not inherently have omega-3 in their bodies. The algae omega-3s accumulate in the fish's tissues, and then fish oil is extracted from the tissue of the fish.

    Algal oil is extracted directly from microalgae, so it is a vegetarian and vegan-friendly omega-3 source.

  • The sustainability factor

  • Algae oil is considered to be a sustainable omega-3 source, as it can be made using algae, a renewable resource, grown in tanks and ponds.

    You can also find fish oil that's from sustainably sourced fish. Life Extension makes its Super Omega-3 formula with a pure, potent fish oil caught in a certified-sustainable fishery and processed within hours to provide exceptional freshness.

  • Purity and quality

  • Algae is grown in a controlled environment that can be protected from environmental toxins or pollutants. It is also purified during processing. Sustainable fishing practices reduce the risk of contamination for fish oil as well. High-grade fish oils are sustainably fished, processed quickly, and tested to meet very strict standards of purity and quality.

  • Palatability

  • Algae oil and fish oil are similar in smell and taste because of the omega-3 content. But certain types of processing, such as the addition of a natural lemon flavor to a formula, or taking fish oil in gummy form, can help eliminate fishy-tasting burps.

Can algae oil replace fish oil?

Depending on your nutritional needs, algae oil may be a suitable plant-based alternative to fish oil for vegans and vegetarians who want to increase their omega-3 intake and support their heart health. For those who do enjoy seafood, fish oil supplements remain the better choice thanks to the concentration of omega-3s.

However, it's important to keep in mind that the quality and effectiveness of algae oil can vary depending on the specific type and brand of the product. Like fish oil supplements, omega-3 supplements made from algae oil vary in their amounts and types of omega-3 fats, as well as their serving sizes. So, it's best to compare labels when shopping.

Want to pump up your body's most important muscle? Life Extension's heart health needs quiz can help you target nutrition that might help.

About the Author: Sonali Ruder, DO, is a board-certified emergency medicine doctor, classically trained chef, cookbook author and founder of the popular website, Dr. Ruder is a contributing writer, recipe developer, spokesperson, and health and wellness expert for several national magazines, websites, and organizations. Her passion is giving people the tools to take control of their health, starting in the kitchen!