What are the best Vegetarian and Vegan Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Recent years have seen a turnaround in the way we think about fats.

In stark contrast to the fat fears of the previous generation, today’s scientists are now recommending certain key fats as essential human nutrients. Chief amongst these are Omega oils: polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) with a double bond that the human body cannot synthesize by itself.

Are omega-3s found in plant foods?

Yes, omega-3 fatty acids are found in plant foods, although the type and amount differ from those found in animal sources. Plant-based omega-3s are primarily in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is a precursor to the longer-chain omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) found in fish and seafood.

How are plant-based omega-3 sources different from fish-based sources?

Yes, plant-based and fish-based omega-3 sources are different. Plant sources, like flaxseeds and walnuts, contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 that our body can partly convert to the omega-3s found in fish. Fish sources, such as salmon and mackerel, directly provide eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which have well-known health benefits. The conversion of ALA from plants to EPA and DHA in our body is limited, so fish sources are more efficient for getting EPA and DHA.

Do people eating vegan and vegetarian diets have adequate omega-3 levels?

People following vegan and vegetarian diets can have adequate omega-3 levels, but it requires careful planning. Since their diets exclude fish, a major source of EPA and DHA, they rely on plant sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) for their omega-3 intake.

While the body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, this process is not very efficient. Therefore, vegans and vegetarians may need to consume larger amounts of ALA-rich foods or consider supplements like algae-based omega-3s, which provide EPA and DHA directly.

What are the 11 Best Plant Based Sources of Omega 3?

Algae

Algae is considered the single best plant source of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are the two main types of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.

This is because algae is the primary source of EPA and DHA in the marine food chain, and is consumed by small fish, which are then eaten by larger fish. As a result, consuming algae-based supplements or incorporating algae into the diet can provide a more direct and efficient source of EPA and DHA than plant-based sources such as flaxseeds or chia seeds.

Furthermore, algae-based supplements typically contain high levels of EPA and DHA and can provide a more concentrated source of these omega-3s than whole algae.

Consuming an omega-3 source containing EPA and DHA, such as algae, can be considered far superior to a source containing only alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in flaxseeds and chia seeds.

This is because EPA and DHA are the more bioavailable and beneficial forms of omega-3s, and are directly involved in numerous bodily processes, including brain function, heart health, and inflammation regulation. While the body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, the conversion process can be slow and inefficient, particularly in people with certain genetic variations or health conditions.

Flax Seeds

Flax seeds or linseeds ((Linum usitatissimum)) are one of the best vegan sources of the ALA form of omega-3 fatty acids (source).

They contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 that the body can convert into EPA and DHA, the more active forms of omega-3s.

To get the maximum amount of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from flaxseeds, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Grind the flaxseeds: Flaxseeds are very hard and can be difficult for our bodies to digest whole. Grinding flaxseeds into a fine powder can help break down the tough outer shell, making it easier for our bodies to absorb the nutrients. You can grind flaxseeds in a coffee grinder or a food processor.
  2. Store flaxseeds properly: Flaxseeds can become rancid over time. Store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer. Whole flaxseeds can be stored for up to a year, while ground flaxseeds should be used within a few weeks.
  3. Consume flaxseeds with other healthy fats: Consuming flaxseeds with other healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds, avocado, or olive oil, can help your body better absorb the ALA and other nutrients in the flaxseeds.

Walnuts

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but a handful of walnuts a day can keep the heart disease at bay,” goes the old saying. Walnuts are another great source of omega-3s, with about 2.5 grams per ounce, the highest of any nut.

They also contain antioxidants and other important nutrients.

When it comes to telling if walnuts are ready, the best way to do so is to crack one open and check the nutmeat inside. The nutmeat should be plump, firm, and creamy in color. If the nutmeat is shriveled or discolored, the walnut may be past its prime.

Rapeseed oil

Rapeseed oil, called canola in the US, is a plant-based oil that is high in omega-3s, with about 1 gram per tablespoon. It is a versatile oil that can be used for cooking, baking, or in dressings.

While rapeseed oil can be considered a source of omega-3s, it cannot be compared to algae as an omega source for several reasons.

Firstly, the amount of ALA present in rapeseed oil is relatively small, with only about 1 gram of ALA per tablespoon (15 ml) of oil.

Secondly, rapeseed oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which can be pro-inflammatory in excess. Consuming too much omega-6s without balancing them with omega-3s can contribute to chronic inflammation, which is associated with a range of health problems.

Hemp Seeds

Hemp seeds are a great source of ALA omega-3s, with about 1 gram per tablespoon. They also contain protein and fibre, making them a nutritious addition to smoothies, salads, or oatmeal. While their omega content can’t compare with algae, they are a great source of nutrition and worth eating for a number of other reasons:

  1. Good source of plant-based protein: Hemp contains all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own.
  2. High in minerals: Hemp seeds are a good source of minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and iron.
  3. Digestive health: Hemp seeds are a good source of fiber.
  4. Skin health: Hemp seeds contain compounds such as vitamin E and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which may help improve skin health and reduce inflammation.
  5. Nutrient-dense: Hemp seeds are nutrient-dense, meaning they provide a range of essential vitamins and minerals in a small serving.

Edamame

Edamame, or boiled soybeans, are a good source of omega-3s, with about 0.3 grams per half cup. They are also high in protein and fibre, making them a filling snack or addition to salads.

Kidney Beans

Kidney beans are another good source of omega-3s, with about 0.1 grams per half cup. They are also high in fiber, protein, and other important nutrients, making them a healthy addition to soups, stews, or salads.

Chia Seeds

Chia seeds are an excellent source of omega-3s, with about 5 grams per ounce. They also contain fiber, protein, and other important nutrients. Chia seeds can be easily incorporated into the diet by adding them to smoothies, oatmeal, or baked goods.

Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts are a good source of omega-3s, with about 0.1 grams per half cup. They are also high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them a healthy addition to any meal.

Hemp

Hemp is a great source of omega-3s, with about 1 gram per tablespoon. It can be used in a variety of ways, such as in smoothies, salads, or as a plant-based protein source.

Perilla Oil

Perilla oil is a type of oil made from the seeds of the perilla plant. It is high in omega-3s and is often used in Asian cooking or as a salad dressing.

Marine Phytoplankton: the Best Vegan form of Omega 3 EPA?

If we examine why fish oil, the most commonly known source, is high in Omega 3 we see that it is so because fish eat algae.

It is algae, and especially marine phytoplankton which are the primary producers of Omega 3 in the food chain as demonstrated by the species which eat most of them: sardines, anchovies, salmon tuna, mackerel, etc. With a biomass which exceeds that of all marine animals combined, phytoplankton uses complex aerobic pathways to synthesize fatty acids.

So by eating phytoplankton, humans can essentially mimic the method by which fish so successfully gain a robust immune system.

Why Algae is the Best Vegan form of Omega 3 DHA

Schizochytrium sp is a type of marine microalgae that is Phytality uses to produce the vegan form of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is an essential omega-3 fatty acid that is important for brain and eye health. It’s the core ingredient of the Clean Omega product.

Here are some reasons why Schizochytrium sp is considered the best vegan form of DHA:

  1. High DHA Content: Schizochytrium sp is a rich source of DHA, with DHA content as high as 40% of its total lipid content. This means that Schizochytrium sp is one of the most concentrated sources of DHA among vegan sources.
  2. Sustainable and Renewable: Schizochytrium sp can be grown in controlled environments using renewable resources such as sunlight, water, and nutrients. This makes Schizochytrium sp a sustainable and renewable source of DHA, which is important for reducing the environmental impact of DHA production.
  3. Free from Contaminants: Unlike fish and other animal-based sources of DHA, Schizochytrium sp is free from contaminants such as mercury, PCBs, and dioxins. This makes it a safer choice for those who are concerned about exposure.
  4. Vegan-Friendly: Schizochytrium sp is a completely plant-based source of DHA, which makes it an ideal choice for vegans and vegetarians who do not consume animal-based products.

What to Look for in a Vegetarian and Vegan Omega-3 Supplement?

Heavy metals in fish is now a major health issue, with mercury a particular threat, as well as lead and DDE (the toxic product which appears when the pesticide DDT breaks down) In addition, PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls) are synthetic chemicals now appearing at toxic levels in fish, and the effects of these are so severe as to cause cognitive impairment in heavy fish eaters within a matter of months.

This is where marine phytoplankton, particularly that grown in climate-controlled bioreactors as opposed to the open ocean, offers a cleaner, healthier and distinctly safer solution. Not only does ingesting phytoplankton connect you with the primary source of EPA in the natural world, but you can do so with the surety that you are ingesting no nasties of any kind, no toxic residues, no heavy metals, and no pollutants.

Eating Marine Phytoplankton will Help Wild Fish Stocks.

Over a million tonnes of wild salmon are farmed every year. And how are these poor creatures fed? The terrible truth is that they are fed largely on the flesh of wild-caught fish.

As a rough estimate, it takes 5 pounds of commercially caught fish to create one pound of famed fish.

Clearly, this is unsustainable, and, in addition, the farmed fish have radically lowed immunity than their wild counterparts. The final kicker to all this is that, in recent years, scientists are noticing that even these expensively farmed fish, fed on other fish, are not nearly as high in long-chain fatty acids as they once were. In short, the whole aquatic food chain shows signs of depletion and disease, which means we have very little ethical choice but to avoid it altogether.

By choosing to get your body’s EPA requirements from phytoplankton powder, you can omit fish from your diet and still gain the benefits of these powerful life-enhancing long-chain fatty acids.

Marine Phytoplankton vs Other Popular Vegan Omega-3 Supplements

Let’s compare marine phytoplankton to flax, hemp or sea buckthorn, which are common choices for vegans.

Of the three Omega 3 fatty acids, EPA, DHA and ALA, it is ALA most commonly found in the vegetable kingdom.

Flax, walnut and hemp are good sources of ALA, and vegetarians commonly assert that the body simply converts ALA into EPA anyway. The fact of the matter is that our ability to convert ALA into EPA is poor, at best, with estimates falling between 8% and 20% efficiency.

This isn’t to say that ALA isn’t itself a powerful, important thing to include in our diets but if we’re specifically looking at some of the studies which have been done over the beneficial effects of Omega 3’s, it is particularly EPA and DHA which appear to hold the most promise for human health.

For this reason, fish oils are seen as more powerful than plant-based Omega 3’s. As this article has demonstrated, the dangerous levels of pollutants now found in all ocean-borne fish mean that, for the first time in our evolutionary history, the oceans are no longer a safe or sustainable source of food for our species.

Fortunately, thanks to the power of the humble marine phytoplankton, we can still get the oils we need, but we don’t have to cost the planet in the process. As the only known long-chain source of plant-based omegas, algae oil – of which marine phytoplankton is the stellar example when it comes to lipids – is the obvious choice.

Cara Hayes is an experienced natural health practitioner with a Masters in Clinical Nutrition & Dietetics from the University of Sydney. She has been writing for Plankton for Health since 2019 and contributes widely to many well-known health publications.