Omega-3 levels in vegans are low and can successfully be addressed with algae-based omega-3 supplements according to a new study (1).
The study of 165 vegans found that their omega-3 index was just 3.7%, which is too low and indicates a raised risk for heart disease.
The ‘omega-3 index’ is a measure of omega-3 in cell membranes. A level below 4% represents a high risk of developing heart disease, while a level of above 8% is considered low risk (2).
A selection of the group were supplemented with 243mg of algae-derived EPA + DHA each day for four months. During this time, the omega-3 index of this group rose from 3.1% to 4.8%. The researchers concluded that “low dose supplementation with algae-sourced DHA and EPA may mitigate the potential adverse effects of deficiency in this population.”
The recommended intake of omega-3 is 450mg per day, according to the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. Unfortunately in the UK the average intake is around half this amount, at just 250mg per day.
Incidentally, the level of omega-3 found in vegans in this study is actually no lower than that found in omnivores. This population-wide deficiency in omega-3 is a concern, especially considering the range of health benefits linked with this particular fat. In addition to its cardio-protective benefits, omega-3 has been linked with eye health, brain health and a healthy immune system.
An important consideration for those wanting to boost their omega-3 intake is the danger of toxins. The richest source of omega-3 is oily fish, but unfortunately these fish have a tendency to accumulate mercury and other toxic pollutants such as dioxins and PCBs. For this reason, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised not to eat more than two servings of oily fish each week.
Because mercury tends to accumulate in protein rather than fat, fish oil supplements can provide a ‘cleaner’ way to obtain your daily omega-3. For this reason, supplements do not pose the same concerns over mercury ingestion as oily fish in the diet.
Dioxins and PCBs are rather a different story. These contaminants tend to accumulate in fat, and so are present not only in oily fish, but also in poor quality fish oil and algae-based supplements. For this reason it is essential to choose a very good-quality supplement. For example, Eskimo-3 was found to contain the lowest levels of dioxins and PCBs in independent testing. Products from Biocare and Higher Nature also performed well. To illustrate the variability in quality, the same study found that the level of contaminants in Boots Cod Liver Oil was more than 50 times greater than that found in Eskimo-3. Dioxin levels in Tesco’s Cod Liver Oil were also well above the maximum limit for fish oils intended for human consumption (3).
Good quality vegan supplements represent a clean way of supporting omega-3 levels, as algae can quite easily be grown in controlled, unpolluted conditions. This is the case for supplements such as opti3, which is made from algae grown in a fully-controlled pharmaceutical facility. This particular supplement is therefore recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women owing to its clean profile.
In light of the above study results, vegans wanting to ensure healthy levels of omega-3 would certainly do well to consider such a supplement. Even those of us who aren’t vegan or vegetarian might consider algae-based supplements as a sustainable and pure source of omega-3.
1. Sarter B et al (2014) Blood docosahaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in vegans: Association with age and gender and effects of an algal-derived omega-3 fatty acid supplement. Clinical Nutrition. March 2014.
2. Harris WS (2008) The omega-3 index as a risk factor for coronary heart disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 87: 6 1997S-2002S
3. FSAI (2002) Dioxins, Furans and PCBs in Farmed and Wild Salmon, Farmed Trout and Fish Oil Capsules. http://www.fsai.ie