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If you've ever researched the kinds of dietary supplements you should be taking to improve your health, you've probably seen recommendations for fish oil come up again and again. This supplement is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, a kind of healthy fat that's thought to be highly beneficial for your heart health, brain health, and more.*
One potential option is flaxseed oil. This vegan alternative to fish oil is highly nutritious, made from a plant source, and has its own share of omega-3 fatty acids. Another popular supplement taking the nutrition world by storm is algae oil.
Both of these supplements are highly nutritious and make a great fish oil substitute for vegans and vegetarians. But how does vegan flaxseed oil compare to algae oil for those looking to improve their diet and increase their intake of omega-3s?
What Is Flaxseed Oil?
Flaxseeds, also known as linseeds, are some of the oldest crops on earth. Their fibers have been cultivated and used for textiles and clothing for centuries, but these seeds are also highly valued because of how nutrient-dense they are. In fact, flaxseed is such a nutritious dietary staple that in the 8th century, King Charlemagne passed laws that required his subjects to consume it! Nowadays, it's considered a healthy "functional food" because of its excellent nutrition profile.
Flax can be consumed in different forms to reap its health benefits. For example, flaxseed can be ground with a blender or food processor to be incorporated into cereals, smoothies, and baked goods. You can also use vegan flaxseed oil extracted from ripened and cold-pressed flax seeds.
You can find flaxseed oil on its own to be used for cooking and baking, similar to other vegetable oils. You can also find vegan flaxseed capsules that are meant to be taken as a dietary supplement.
What Are The Benefits Of Flaxseed Oil?
Flaxseeds of any form are an incredibly healthy addition to any diet because they contain various necessary nutrients like proteins, dietary fiber, and antioxidants called lignans. But perhaps most notably, flaxseeds are an excellent vegan-friendly source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a highly valuable nutrient sought out by many people looking to improve their health and longevity. These healthy fats are thought to be good for minimizing inflammatory responses in the body, boosting heart health, aiding in healthy brain development, improving instances of mood disorders, promoting healthy skin and hair, strengthening bones and muscles, and more.*
Oily, cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel are perhaps some of the best-known sources of omega-3s. Many people take fish oil supplements to get their omega-3s, especially when they don’t eat fish frequently enough. But of course, fish oil is not a suitable supplement for vegans, vegetarians, or anyone else looking to minimize their animal product intake and avoid fish. This means that plant-based eaters are often at higher risk for being deficient in omega-3s.
This is where alternatives like vegan flaxseed oil come into play. Vegan flaxseed capsules are a popular supplement for healthy eaters because they are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. Flaxseeds are made up of about 55% ALA, making them the richest plant source of this omega-3.
Vegan flaxseed capsules are a particularly simple, convenient, and effective way to take advantage of flaxseed’s rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. Studies have shown that the potential health benefits of flaxseed and flaxseed oil include:
- Reducing risks of heart disease*
- Helping with high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure*
- Reducing arthritis *
Even better, flaxseeds and flaxseed oil come with the significant benefit of being plant-based. This is an obvious perk for anyone who follows a vegetarian or vegan diet who can't incorporate fish or fish oil pills into their daily routine. It's also a better choice for people with seafood allergies and those who don't like the taste of fish oil capsules since they often come with unpleasant fishy aftertastes and "fish burps."
It's also a much more sustainable option for those looking to reduce their carbon footprint since fish oil production can come with environmental risks like overfishing, contamination, and damage to the marine ecosystem.
Using flaxseed rather than fish oil can also reduce your potential exposure to heavy metals like mercury contamination that often end up in seafood like cold-water fish. This is especially important since mercury can accumulate and become toxic in large quantities.
Flaxseed Oil vs. Algae Oil
But flaxseed isn’t the only option for vegans looking for an alternative omega-3 fatty acid source. Algae oil supplements, which are extracted from microalgae, are another contender. Both of these supplements are vegan-friendly and better than fish oil when it comes to providing sustainable and plant-based omega-3s, but what’s the difference?
The answer lies in the type of omega-3 oil that each provides. Flaxseed oil contains alpha-linolenic acid or ALA. This type of omega-3 is found mostly in plants. Other plant-based food sources of ALA include walnuts, chia seeds, and kale.
On the other hand, Algae oil contains eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These two types of omega-3s are the same kinds that you would get from a serving of fatty, oily fish. Those fatty fish are so rich in EPA and DHA because of the microalgae used to produce algae oil! Microalgae produce these omega-3 fatty acids by photosynthesis, which is then passed on to the fish who eat them and ultimately to human consumers.
Why Flaxseeds Aren’t A Comparable Substitute To Algae Oil
So both flaxseed oil and algae oil are renowned for their omega-3 fatty acid content. But when it comes to the best option for reaping the benefits of those omega-3s to improve your health, it turns out that algae oil is probably a better choice.
Yes, flaxseeds contain plenty of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA. However, it’s important to note that ALA on its own is not bioactive, which means that your body can’t use that ALA on its own.
Instead, ALA needs to be converted in your body into DHA and EPA, which are the omega-3s that are actually usable and yield the health benefits that you want from taking an omega-3 fatty acid supplement. From there, the converted DHA and EPA can then go on to have all those potential health benefits like fighting inflammation and helping your heart stay healthy*.
Unfortunately, taking ALA and converting it into DHA and EPA isn’t a very efficient process. In fact, it’s estimated that only about 5-10% of the ALA you consume is converted into EPA, and less than 2-5% of it is converted into DHA!
To put it simply, getting only ALA may not be the best strategy for eating omega-3s. What you really want to do is to consume omega-3s in the DHA and EPA forms in order to reap the most potential benefits. Eating plant-based ALA can certainly boost your omega-3 intake, but it might not be enough, and it’s certainly not equivalent to the other marine sources of omega-3s.
This is where algae oil supplements shine. Because they have both DHA and EPA, taking algae oil pills allows you to consume the best kinds of omega-3 directly, rather than having just ALA. While other plant sources like flax, chia seeds, and hemp seeds only provide omega-3s in the form of ALA, microalgae are the only known plant-based source of both DHA and EPA.
This opens up the possibilities for vegans, vegetarians, and anyone else looking for a better source of omega-3s without compromising on their dietary restrictions or eating a ton of ALA sources to get the same result.
So while both flaxseed oil and microalgae oil are better than fish oil pills when it comes to health and sustainability, they are not equal. Instead, microalgae oil directly provides the EPA and DHA that bring potential health benefits, while flaxseed oil provides only a precursor to the omega-3s that your body really needs. Taking an algae oil pill is a more direct and bioavailable way to get the omega-3s DHA and EPA, which means they are ultimately more effective at bringing results.
Before taking any of these omega-3 supplements, please consult with your doctor or physician to determine the appropriate doses and types for your needs.
Flaxseeds are a nutritious staple for any diet. However, vegan flaxseed capsules are not the best plant-based source for anyone looking to bolster their omega-3 fatty acid intake significantly.
Instead, turn to algae oil supplements for your omega-3 needs. These plant-based pills are sourced from microalgae that are isolated and grown in isolated labs to minimize the risk of contamination and environmental damage, all while providing the EPA and DHA that your body needs.