Algal oil is the oil that is derived directly from algae. It contains DHA, which accounts for 97 percent of the omega-3 fats in the brain.
Unfortunately, not enough Americans get enough sources of this essential fatty acid. Algal oil is a plant-based, marine DHA oil that does not come from cold-water fish.
Cold-water, fatty fish, like salmon, are also good dietary sources of these healthy fats, but beyond salmon there are not many ways to get the nutrient into your diet regularly. Algal oil provides DHA, and because it does not come from fish, it’s sustainable and serves as a plant-based, vegetarian option.
There is also no risk of ocean-borne contaminants when using algal oil.
Cooking oils, yogurts, juices, milk and nutrition bars are being fortified with algal oil, and they can now be found in your local food store, so let’s dive deeper into its nutritional value.
What Is Algal Oil?
The health impacts of omega-3 fatty acids have been well-studied and established. They’re known for being anti-inflammatory agents, and they help the body reduce blood clots.
Fish oils contain these omega-3s that are predominately made up of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The fatty acids come from organisms that have adapted to the cold, such as cold-water fish.
ALA, or linolenic acid, is also a type of omega-3, but the body converts it to EPA and DHA. However, the amounts converted are not significant enough, which is why you need to eat other sources of the nutrients.
These fish obtain EPA and DHA by eating algae that have the flax-type omega-3s typical of plants. When the fish consume these algae, they then concentrate high amounts of EPA and DHA in their tissues.
They’re also able to keep the membrane cells from becoming too stiff when exposed to frigid temperatures.
When the health benefits of omega-3s became well-known and doctors began recommending omega-3s to their patients, some issues surfaced. Using cold-water fish for its docosahexaenoic acid and expecting people to take one gram per day became unsustainable. Plus, vegetarians did not feel comfortable taking a supplement that came from fish, but they needed omega-3s, too.
Researchers realized that the answer was to go to the source — the benefit-rich algae. They started looking into the microscopic algae that actually make DHA. Instead of getting the fatty acids from the fish that ate the EPA and DHA algae, they thought start producing DHA algae, and keep the fish out of it!
This algae, they found out, can be raised on a farm and yield sustainable DHA that is also vegetarian, kosher and organic. This algae-derived DHA is called algal oil, and it’s now added to food products to ensure that we get enough omega-3s in our diets in a sustainable and humane way.
Researchers wanted to ensure that people were getting high-quality omega-3s, and studies were done to prove that algal oil is just as effective as the fatty acids found in cold-water fish.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association evaluated the effects of algal oil capsules and the oil from nutrient-packed salmon. Researchers were looking to understand if the two types of algal oil would provide DHA to both plasma and erythrocytes equivalently.
The results found that algal oil DHA capsules and cooked salmon appear to be bioequivalent.
Another 2014 scientific review published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that algal oil serves as an effective alternative source of docosahexaenoic acid. Studies showed that ingestion of algal oil led to significant increases in blood erythrocyte and plasma DHA.
This has promoted future studies that focus on the plant-based options for people in need of omega-3 fatty acids.
1. Supports Healthy Pregnancy
The omega fatty acid DHA is essential for brain development during a healthy vegan pregnancy. Studies have shown that when a pregnant women consumes omega-3s, it improves the child’s development.
Omega-3 requirements increase during pregnancy in order to aid brain growth, especially as it accelerates during the second half of pregnancy.
Researchers have used a variety of tests, such as general developmental milestones, problem solving and language development, to assess neurodevelopmental outcomes among infants whose mothers were supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids compared with those who were not.
A 2004 study conducted by Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare found that higher maternal DHA consumption during pregnancy resulted in higher novelty preference on visual recognition memory and higher scores of verbal intelligence.
Animal studies have demonstrated that deprivation of omega-3 fatty acids, which are present in algal oil, during pregnancy is associated with visual and behavioral deficits that cannot be reversed with postnatal supplementation. This is why guidelines have recommended that pregnant women consume at least 200 milligrams of DHA per day.
2. Boosts Eye Health
The brain and eye are highly enriched with omega-3 fatty acids, which accumulate in these tissues during late fetal and early neonatal life. A scientific review conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (U.S.) states that “clinical research has only scratched the surface with respect to understanding the possible utility of the intake of omega-3 fatty acids as a primary or secondary prevention in eye health.”
It’s known that there are very high levels of DHA present in the retina, and the role of DHA may be related to its biophysical effects on the cell membrane. It’s believed that it may modulate the activity of membrane-bound enzymes, which are responsible for the maintenance of cellular function.
It may also regulate the receptors and kinetics of membrane transport systems.
Macular degeneration is a condition that is age-associated vision loss and blurry vision related to damage to the macula, or center of the eye. This can be a result of aging, poor digestion, smoking, high blood pressure, exposure to UV radiation and a low-vegetable diet.
A natural treatment for macular degeneration is an omega-3 fatty acid capsule that contains EPA and DHA because it helps relieve intra-ocular pressure.
3. Supports Cardiovascular Health
Algal oil helps regulate heartbeat, reduce blood pressure, decrease blood clot formation and reduce overall inflammation. This decreases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Algal oil also helps reduce triglycerides.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Nutrition identified 11 randomized controlled trials with 485 healthy participants and evaluated the relation between algal oil DHA supplementation and cardiovascular disease risk factors. The results indicate that DHA supplementation from algal oil may reduce serum triglycerides and increase HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in persons without coronary heart disease.
4. Aids Cognitive Development and Function
Omega-3 foods are important for cognitive development and function. The brain is made mostly of fat, and it functions especially well with high levels of EPA and DHA. They help the brain’s communication processes and reduce inflammation, which can help slow aging.
EPA and DHA are also required for the functional development of the brain in infants and maintenance of normal brain function in adults. The inclusion of plentiful omega-3s in the diet improves learning ability, whereas deficiencies are associated with deficits in learning.
Another interesting benefit of algal oil and other EPA and DHA foods is they may be able to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. The European Journal of Neuroscience published a study showing that oil containing omega-3s reversed all anxiety-like and depression-like behavior changes induced in rats.
5. Improves Memory
Studies have shown that higher intakes of omega-3 oils significantly reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease as well as vascular dementia. Oils like algal also improve quality of life and memory in those affected by dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that progressively causes memory loss, dementia and early mortality. Memory loss is caused when plaque forms in the brain.
A 2012 animal study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation improved cognitive function. This effect appeared larger in rats compared to mice and in males compared to females.
The fatty acid supplementation also diminished the amount of neuronal loss, especially in female animals.
6. Reduces Inflammation
Preliminary studies suggest that omega-3s may help improve symptoms of osteoarthritis and joint pain. Inflammatory bowel disease may also be relieved with omega-3 supplementation.
Because people consuming the standard American diet don’t boost their omega-3 intake to balance out the elevated omega-6s they consume regularly, there has been an onslaught of chronic diseases and inflammatory processes. By reducing inflammation, which is at the root of most diseases, with algal oil or omega-3 supplements, you place your body in a state that is conducive to healing from these diseases and other health conditions.
A recent 2021 study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry concluded that algal oil could alleviate inflammation by reducing levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines. In this case, the oil was able to improve gut microbiota disorders and promote mucosal healing.
Another inflammatory condition is osteoarthritis, which occurs when cartilage between joints wears down, causing inflammation and pain. This type of arthritis generally occurs in the joints we most frequently use, such as knees, hips, spine and hands.
By reducing inflammation in the joints, algal oil serves as a natural arthritis treatment, and it reduces swelling and pain significantly.
Algal oil is also helpful for inflammatory bowel diseases, which generally causes severe symptoms, such as diarrhea or ulceration of the digestive tract. This illness can often be related to a number of other health conditions, including ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and leaky gut syndrome.
Algal oil can reduce inflammation in the GI tract and serve as an IBS diet treatment.
Algal Oil vs. Fish Oil
Two major reasons why algal oil may be a better choice than fish oil supplements are because using fish for their oil is not sustainable and has a major impact on the oceans, and fish oil may include contaminants.
Fish can accumulate toxins such as mercury, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Plus, spoiled fish oil may produce peroxides.
While a serving of fish may contain anywhere from 10 to 1,000 parts per billion of mercury, fish oil supplements have not been found to contain similar mercury levels because they’re typically purified.
Studies show that unpurified fish oil supplements contain unsafe levels of environmental contaminants, but 80 percent of fish oil supplement companies verify that they have met the strictest U.S. standards for eliminating contaminants.
When using fish oil supplements, the best form of omega-3 fish oil contains astaxanthin (a powerful antioxidant that also helps stabilize fish oil), and the preferred choice is fish oil made from wild-caught Pacific salmon, which has high levels of DHA/EPA and astaxanthin. Algal oil products or supplements are also great options for people who follow a vegetarian diet or wish to go with a more sustainable option.
Research suggests that supplementing between one and two grams of algae oil per day will significantly elevate blood levels of EPA and DHA. This dose may also help lower blood triglycerides, raise HDL, control inflammation, and lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Algal oil supplements may have a lower recommended dose than fish oil supplements because algal oil is more concentrated in EPA and DHA. It’s also formulated to be better for the human metabolism.
Keep in mind that every brand offers a different serving of omega-3s, so read the label carefully before use. Look for a product that specifies the EPA and DHA content.
Risks and Side Effects
There is still more research to be done on algal oil and its ability to work as well as fish oil to reduce cholesterol and inflammation. Studies have suggested that they are equivalent in efficacy, but more information on the potential long-term side effects is needed.
Algal oil is safe for consumption as a supplement or part of a food product. Look for brands that are organic and 100 percent algal oil.
When you are shopping for algal oil, you may notice that it’s also called algae oil.
- Algal oil is a plant-based, marine source of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.
- The health impacts of omega-3 fatty acids have been well-researched and established. They are known for being anti-inflammatory agents, and they help the body reduce blood clots, support eye health and cognitive function, and improve memory.
- Algal oil may be a better source of omega-3s than fish oil because using fish is not sustainable and has a major impact on the oceans, and fish oil may include contaminants.