By now it is well known that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for health; however, it is important to know that not all omega-3s are the same. The various chemical structures of different types of omega-3 fatty acids exert varying effects on health.
The science of fatty acids
So a bit about the science: ‘short-chain’ fatty acids are those found in plant oils and as the name suggests, they are made up of a smaller number of carbon atoms, therefore making the chain short in length. ‘Long-chain’ fatty acids, such as omega-3 EPA and DHA found in fish, are those with more carbon atoms, and are longer in length. The longer chain fatty acids are those that produce the anti-inflammatory effects in the body by producing hormone-like substances called eicosanoids.
Vegetarian plant source
If you are vegetarian or vegan, you may be wondering how you can achieve this anti-inflammatory effect without eating fish. Fortunately, the body is adept at converting fatty acids (to a certain extent), so that when we eat ‘short-chain’ fatty acids such as echium seed oil, the body can metabolise these fats into the same chemical structure as the ‘long-chain’ omega-3 EPA found in fish. In this process, only a certain amount of short-chain fatty acids are converted to long-chain fatty acids, depending on both the type of fat consumed and the presence of other vitamins and minerals which are required for enzymes to work properly.
Echium seed oil
Echium seed oil is one of the finest oils of choice for vegetarians, as it naturally contains an optimal balance of omegas 3, 6 and 9. Unique to echium seed oil is its rich source of the specific omega-3 fatty acid SDA, which is the direct precursor to omega-3 EPA, meaning that it is very easily converted to EPA in the body, with usually around 25-30% conversion. This makes echium seed oil one of the best plant-sourced oils to consume for reducing inflammation; it may therefore help to reduce symptoms for conditions such as arthritis and inflammatory skin disorders. EPA is also required for synthesising neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, so echium seed oil may help to enhance mood.
Echium seed oil also contains the omega-6 fatty acid GLA, which is great for skin health and hormone balancing. Omega-9 oleic acid, also in echium seed oil, is high in a Mediterranean-type diet and is otherwise found in olive oil. Echium seed oil contains twice as much omega-3 compared to its omega-6 and omega-9 content, therefore is considered to be anti-inflammatory, and can help to balance the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
Linseeds are often the omega-3 of choice for vegetarians as they are the richest source of the short-chain fatty ALA, although in reality only around 5-8% of this is converted to EPA, so for vegetarians, you would have to consume huge amounts of linseed oil to obtain the anti-inflammatory effects. It is important to stress that it’s healthy to continue to include these fatty acids in your diet as the fibre and vitamins & minerals found in linseeds are particularly beneficial to health, so keep up with the ground linseeds sprinkled over your breakfast, but don’t rely on the oil to reduce inflammation in the body.
Algae oil is another interesting oil of choice for vegetarians, as algae are a direct source of food for fish. Algae oil contains the long-chain omega-3 DHA, and a very small amount of EPA. The high DHA to EPA ratio does not give great support for controlling inflammation in the body, as it is EPA required at the higher dose, and EPA and DHA also compete for enzymes in the body. High DHA from algae is, however, beneficial during pregnancy, as DHA is required for making the brain structure of an unborn foetus.
Other plant-source oils
Omega-3 can also be found in other plant oils such as hemp seed oil, chia seed oil and pumpkin seed oil; however, all of these oils contain the short-chain fatty acid ALA, which is therefore not converted as readily as the fatty acid SDA found in echium seed oil. Hemp, chia and pumpkin oil are also much higher in omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega 3, so the ratio is not as anti- inflammatory in the body.
For vegetarians and vegans, choosing an oil high in omega-3 SDA such as echium seed oil is likely to do wonders for your health, so consider this an option over other oils which may be more difficult to convert to EPA in the body.