Omega-3s, some of the most commonly recognized essential fatty acids (EFA), have become staples of the dietary supplement and natural product industries. Known for supporting regular cell processes, hormone production, and helping to reduce inflammation, the Omega-3 family has also been recognized as the key component for balancing the excessive amounts of Omega-6 EFA that we can get thanks to our corn and soy-heavy diets. Traditionally, Omega-3 supplements have been derived from fish or krill oils; but thanks in part to an increasingly troubled marine ecosystem and increased consumer demand for plant-based alternatives, another source of Omega-3s is slowly making its way into the spotlight…
The Three Types of Essential Fatty Acid
Before we dive into the growing case for plant-based Omega-3s, it’s worth noting that there are three major forms of EFA: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). The first two, EPA and DHA, are longer-chain EFA often found preformed in animal sources, which our bodies can metabolize in greater quantities and with greater ease. The third type, ALA, is most often found in plant sources. While both EPA and DHA can be metabolized from ALA, the body can only process so much ALA at a time (then deriving only a limited amount of the more bioavailable EPH and DHA).
Even with the body’s slightly limited ALA processing power, the interest in plant-derived Omega-3s continues to rise. Along with their ability to balance the aforementioned Omega-6s while providing other traditional EFA health benefits, plant-derived ALAs are quickly being recognized as a sustainable and effective source of EFA that can meet the needs of vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore consumers.
Two Popular Plant Sources of Essential Fatty Acids
Long recognized in the health and wellness community as being capable of offering a variety of health benefits, flaxseed continues to be one of the most popular non-animal sources of Omga-3s. Flaxseed oil, in particular, has been acknowledged for its ability to provide consumers with a concentrated dose of Omega-3s in the form of ALA. While numerous studies have pointed to the cardiovascular benefits that may come from flaxseed-derived omegas, there’s currently little to no research supporting claims that those same flaxseed-derived omegas support brain health.
Consumer demand for flaxseed oil, flour, and seed butter products continue to rise. Flaxseed’s reputation and fan base make it a great option to consider when looking for an Omega-3 source for your dietary supplement product formulations.
Interestingly enough, Algae is the only plant that naturally contains DHA and EPA, making it the next closest thing to fish oil-derived omega-3s (minus the mercury, PCBs, and other toxins commonly found in fish-based products, that is). One of the lesser known facts about most varieties of algae (despite their growing popularity in the consumables marketplace) is that they are fairly simple and inexpensive to farm: Only requiring sunlight, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorus to grow.
Along with being easy to produce, algae farming has also received praise for its environmental responsibility. It’s one of the few farming operations that has a carbon neutral footprint (meaning that the process expels no new carbon into the atmosphere).
Effective, environmentally responsible, and growing in popularity (to the tune of over $5 million in conventional retail sales last year), algae-derived omega-3s are another viable options for those looking to diversify their dietary supplement’s formulation.
Looking Ahead: The Future of Omega-3s
It seems likely that Omega-3 supplements will continue to hold their ground and even grow as some of the most popular supplements on the market today. It also seems more than likely that, as our industry continues to move towards vegan, vegetarian, and environmentally responsible alternatives to classic staple ingredients, plant-derived Omega-3s will continue to climb in popularity.
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