The term “algae” refers to a wide variety of aquatic plant life, including both macroalgae (seaweeds) and microalgae (phytoplankton). Algae are an important food source for many aquatic creatures, and they also play a role in global ecosystems by producing oxygen and helping to sequester carbon dioxide (1).
Recently there is also a source of algal oil, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats are essential for human health, yet our bodies cannot make them on our own. We must get this from our diet (5).
While salmon and other fatty fish are the best-known sources of omega-3s, microalgae are actually the original source of these nutrients.
Let’s dive into the science to know more about how microalgae produce omega-3 fatty acids and why they are such a sustainable source of these essential nutrients.
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that is important for human health. There are three most important types of omega-3 fatty acids:
- ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
ALA is found in plant-based oils, such as flaxseed oil and chia seed oil. DHA and EPA are found in animal-based sources, such as fatty fish and fish oil supplements.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for human health (5). As our bodies cannot make them on our own, we must get them from our diet. Omega-3 fats are involved in many important processes in the body, including:
- Brain development and function
- Heart health
- Immune system function
The three main omega-3 fatty acids have different effects in the body. For example, DHA is especially important for brain health, while EPA is primarily anti-inflammatory. Our bodies can also convert ALA into DHA and EPA, although inefficiently.
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Why Are Microalgae A Sustainable Source Of Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
There are many reasons to choose plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids over animal-based sources. For one, plant-based omega-3s are generally less expensive than fish oil supplements. They are also more sustainable because they do not require the capture and harvest of wild fish.
Microalgae are a particularly sustainable source of omega-3 fatty acids because they are easy to grow and require few resources. For example, they can be grown in salt water with minimal inputs of land, water, and energy.
In addition, microalgae do not compete with food crops for land or water resources. They can even be grown using wastewater from other agricultural processes. This makes microalgae a very efficient and sustainable source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Unlike fish oil, algal oil does not come from a creature that is high on the food chain and therefore does not accumulate toxins such as mercury. Algal oil is also a vegetarian/vegan source of omega-3 fatty acids.
How Do Microalgae Produce Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
Microalgae produce omega-3 fatty acids through photosynthesis, which is the process that plants use to convert sunlight into chemical energy.
During photosynthesis, microalgae convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and organic matter, such as omega-3 fatty acids. This process is similar to the way that land plants produce oxygen and organic matter from sunlight, but it happens on a much smaller scale.
What Are The Health Benefits Of Algal Oil?
Algal oil is a rich source of DHA and EPA, the two omega-3 fatty acids that are most associated with health benefits.
DHA is especially important for brain health and development. It is a major component of the cell membranes in the brain and is involved in neurotransmitter signaling (4). Decreases in DHA have been linked to cognitive decline and dementia.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart health. They help to lower blood pressure, reduce triglycerides and slow plaque buildup in the arteries (7). EPA and DHA are thought to decrease the risk of heart disease.
Immune System Function
Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in immune system function. They help to reduce inflammation and modulate the immune response (3), EPA and DHA have been shown to have beneficial effects in people with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.
DHA is essential for the development and function of the retina. Low levels of DHA have been linked to age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in adults. High intakes of DHA may protect against this condition (2).
Inflammation is a normal response of the immune system to injury or infection. However, chronic inflammation is associated with diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, and cancer.
Omega-3 fatty acids help to combat inflammation by reducing the production of inflammatory molecules. They also help to modulate the immune response. EPA and DHA have been shown to be especially effective in reducing inflammation (6).
Mental Health Benefits
People diagnosed with depression often have low levels of EPA and DHA. Studies have shown that supplements of these omega-3 fatty acids can help improve symptoms of depression, but they are not a substitute for other treatments recommended by your doctor.
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What Are The Risks Of Algal Oil?
Algal oil is generally safe and well tolerated. It has fewer side effects than fish oil supplements. The most common side effect is gastrointestinal upset, such as nausea and diarrhea.
Algal oil can also interact with certain medications, such as blood thinners and cholesterol-lowering drugs. It is important to speak to a healthcare provider before taking algal oil or any other supplement.
Frequently Asked Questions
These are some of the most commonly asked questions about algal oil:
What Is Algal Oil?
Algal oil is an oil that is derived from microalgae. It is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to have numerous health benefits.
What Can Algal Oil Be Used For?
Algal oil can be used to improve brain health (or fetal development), heart health, immune system function, eye health, and mental health. It can also help to reduce inflammation (5).
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Is Algal Oil Better Than Fish Oil?
Yes, it is. Algal oil is a sustainable source of brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. It does not deplete fish populations or contribute to ocean pollution the way fish farming does.
What’s more, algal oil is a completely vegetarian/vegan source of omega-3s, so it’s ideal for people who don’t eat fish.
Does Algal Oil Have Mercury?
No, it does not. Algal oil is free of mercury and other contaminants often found in fish. This is because algae are not exposed to these pollutants the way fish are.
How Do I Use Algal Oil?
You can take algal oil supplements by mouth or use pure oil in cooking. You can also find algal oil in some food products, such as energy bars and salad dressings. Note that heat will destroy the omega-3s in algal oil, so it may be best to use it only in cold dishes.
The Bottom Line
Algal oil is a sustainable and environmentally friendly source of omega-3 fatty acids. It is rich in DHA and EPA, the two omega-3 fatty acids that are most associated with health benefits.
Algal oil is generally safe and well tolerated.However, it can interact with certain medications. Speak to a healthcare provider before taking algal oil or any other supplement.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Algae as promising organisms for environment and health (2011, nih.gov)
- Essential fatty acids in visual and brain development (2001, nih.gov)
- Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Immune Cells (2019, nih.gov)
- Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (1999, nih.gov)
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids (2021, nih.gov)
- Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases (2002, nih.gov)
- Omega-3 fats – Good for your heart (2020, medline.gov)