If you have ever had to face a serious conversation with your doctor regarding your heart health, you know that your diet is one of the first things you should be tweaking if you want to lower your cholesterol, improve high blood pressure, and keep your cardiovascular system working smoothly. In addition to improving your diet, increasing your omega-3 intake may be beneficial*.
Omega-3 supplements come from a wide range of sources, with the most popular coming from fish oils. However, concerns about overfishing and sustainability have made room for the rise of another popular source for omega-3 supplementation: krill oils.
Krill oil offers an alternative for those who don't want to consume fish to get their omega-3s. But krill oil does come with its own unique set of concerns, especially for vegans, vegetarians, and anyone who wants to minimize their impact on the environment through their consumption choices.
We'll break down why algae oil is the best vegan krill oil.
What Is Krill Oil?
Krill oil is produced from Antarctic krill, a small crustacean that is similar to shrimp. These tiny creatures are relatively low on the food chain. They are a fundamental food source for various Antarctic marine animals, including whales, seals, and penguins.
The oil from krill is rich in omega-3s so that it can be used as the key ingredient for heart-healthy omega-3 supplements. It is becoming especially popular in comparison to the long-standing omega-3 source: fish oil. Because fish oil production is linked to pressing environmental concerns like overfishing, ocean pollution, and habitat destruction, many people are turning to krill instead.
But why do we take krill oil supplements in the first place?
The Benefits Of Krill Oil
High cholesterol, heart disease, and other inflammatory chronic illnesses are important global health concerns. While there is a genetic component involved in developing these serious conditions, many are also linked to habitual lifestyle and dietary choices.
Some of the most important nutrients for maintaining heart health are omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential healthy fats that your body can't make independently. This means that you have to get them from your diet. Unfortunately, many people don’t get enough of it from food alone. Because of this, omega-3 supplements are in high demand.
Two of the most important omega-3s you should get in your diet are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Together, these two fatty acids play significant roles in cell development and structure, making them crucial for healthy hearts and minds. EPA and DHA can:
Reduce inflammation*, an immune response that can contribute to chronic illnesses like heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and asthma
Improve your cholesterol levels*
Lower blood pressure*
Protect your brain from neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia*
EPA and DHA are most notably found in marine sources like oily cold-water fish, but they are also found in crustaceans, making krill oil supplements a promising alternative.
In addition to its rich omega-3s, krill oil has its own special set of anti-inflammatory properties because it contains the antioxidant astaxanthin. Our cells become damaged over time by elements called "free radicals." This eventually leads to oxidative stress, a damaging process that can hurt our immune systems and put us at risk for serious health conditions and diseases. Antioxidants like astaxanthin can help by neutralizing the damage from those free radicals, and astaxanthin is beneficial for boosting your skin and eye health in addition to your cardiovascular system.*
But what sets krill oil apart from fish oil is its increased bioavailability - or in other words, your body's ability to absorb and use those essential nutrients. This is because the omega-3s from krill oil comes in the form of phospholipids, a specific kind of fat molecule. In contrast, the omega-3s in fish oils are in triglyceride form. Your body can absorb phospholipids more easily than triglycerides, which means that it can get those omega-3s more efficiently from krill than fish oils.
While there’s still more research to be done on the subject, early studies comparing the two popular oils have found that the EPA and DHA in krill oil were more bioavailable than those in fish oil. So taking krill oil looks to be more effective than fish oil when it comes to reaping those valuable omega-3 fatty acid stores.
In addition, krill oil pills may also be more palatable than their fish oil alternatives. Even though they come in capsule form, common complaints among fish oil pill consumers include dealing with a fishy aftertaste and those dreaded “fish burps.” Fish oil pills are also not suitable for anyone with a fish allergy, so krill oil pills may be a better choice.
So krill oil pills have plenty of benefits, especially when compared to the more popular fish oil option. But are there any downsides?
Downsides Of Krill Oil Supplements
Krill oil supplements look a lot more promising than fish oil supplements, especially when you understand the major impact that our global fishing habits have had on the oceans. But they aren’t necessarily the best choice, for either the oceans or for our health.
The first major downside to taking krill oil supplements is that they tend to be pricier when compared to fish oil supplements. Harvesting krill for its oil is a relatively new process, especially when comparing it to the booming fish oil industry. So you can expect a higher price tag when reaching for krill. In addition, it may be harder to find krill oil in your local stores than fish oils since fish oil is a more popular medicine cabinet staple.
Krill oil supplements also come with their own set of health concerns for consumers. Shellfish allergies are some of the most prevalent food allergies, so krill oil pills are not suitable for anyone who experiences an allergic reaction from consuming crustaceans.
Even though krill are further down on the food chain and run less risk of being contaminated by heavy metals like the fish used in fish oil pills, krill oil supplements are still subject to contamination from pollution and organic pesticides.
Perhaps most importantly, major ethical and environmental concerns are associated with harvesting krill for their oil.
Environmental Concerns Of Krill Oil
One of the biggest reasons that krill is becoming a popular alternative to fish oil is because overfishing has a massive impact on the environment. Fish oil production affects marine ecosystems, leads to excessive bycatch, and directly contributes to ocean pollution, which leaves many consumers looking for a more sustainable alternative.
Unfortunately, harvesting krill for its oil also hurts the environment. It's no secret that the Antarctic oceans are already threatened, and the over-harvesting of krill will only exacerbate the problem. Because krill consumption is relatively new, we have not yet overharvested and depleted their populations. However, if we continue to increase our demand, it can have a devastating effect.
Krill is such an essential part of marine ecosystems that the overharvesting of krill for our omega-3 fatty acid supplements is thought to be destroying the already-threatened Antarctic. Whales, seals, penguins, seabirds, and a wide variety of fish all eat krill. So when you threaten one of the most crucial sources of energy on the aquatic food chain, all of those animals are affected.
This problem will only increase over time and as more consumers turn to krill as an alternative to fish oil.
Krill also consume carbon-rich foods, so they are also important for reducing excessive carbon, which is a greenhouse gas that directly contributes to global warming. An article by The Guardian estimates that krill sequester the same amount of carbon that 35 million cars emit every single year! As demand for krill oil continues to rise, the more we will eliminate these important carbon-neutralizing factors out of our environment.
So ironically, choosing krill oil as a “sustainable alternative” to fish oil may actually hurt the health of the oceans even more.
Ethical Concerns Of Krill Oil
Krill oil is also not suitable for vegetarians, vegans, or anyone else who avoids eating animal products for ethical reasons. Crustaceans are animals, not plants, and the fishing and consumption of them mean compromising on your plant-based diet.
Even if you are a vegetarian krill oil consumer who is open to including crustaceans in your diet, contributing to krill overharvesting can have a significant ripple effect on fragile ocean ecosystems.
Unfortunately, this presents a big problem for vegetarians and other plant-based eaters. Despite the availability of plant-based omega-3s, this population is especially at risk for not getting enough omega-3s in their diet.
What Is The Best Vegetarian Alternative To Krill Oil?
So even though krill oil is slowly rising in popularity versus the classic fish oil option, it still comes with its own health, ethical, and environmental concerns. The problem is especially pertinent for vegetarians who need a reliable omega-3 source.
Omega-3s can be found in numerous plant-based foods, including walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds. Unfortunately, the omega-3s that are prevalent in most plant-based foods are alpha-linolenic acids (ALA). While still an essential nutrient, ALA needs to be converted into DHA and EPA in your body in order to be used for any health benefits. The conversion process has a notoriously low yield, which means that you would have to eat an extraordinary amount of ALA-rich fare to reap any health benefits.
The best way for vegetarians to get their necessary omega-3s would be to get their EPA and DHA directly, but fish oil and krill oil are not suitable.
So what is the best vegetarian alternative for krill oil? All signs point to a revolutionary new solution: algae oil supplements.
Krill Oil Vs. Algae Oil
Algae is an aquatic plant that many marine organisms depend on for nutrition. Their dense nutrition factor means algae can also be used for our health without destroying fragile ocean populations in the process.
There are two different kinds of algae: macroalgae, which most commonly takes the form of seaweed, and microalgae, which are tiny single-celled organisms that can multiply to form large colonies like the "pond scum" that you might find on a calm body of water.
Algae is plentiful and has been used as a nutritious food source by many different cultures. Recently, we’ve begun to harness the power of algae as a valuable source of plant-based, bioavailable omega-3s.
Unlike other plant-based omega-3 fatty acid supplements, microalgae are rich in both EPA and DHA, not ALA. They produce these two fatty acids via photosynthesis. Since they're a dietary staple for many cold-water, oily fish, this is actually where fish oils get their EPA and DHA!
In addition, the EPA and DHA from microalgae may also be more bioavailable than omega-3s from other sources, including other vegetarian omega-3 supplements. So by taking supplements with microalgae, you’re setting yourself up to successfully absorb and use all of those important nutrients.
But perhaps the best benefits of algae oil omega-3 supplements come when you evaluate how their production impacts the environment compared to krill oil and fish oil. Since algae can be harvested and grown indoors and outdoors, it creates an opportunity for responsible omega-3 production that does not impact marine ecosystems nearly as much as krill oil or fish oil.
Not only does using microalgae-based omega-3 supplements minimize the impact of overfishing and pollution, but it can also actively reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere. Algae is an unsung hero in the fight against climate change: one study found that it is responsible for capturing up to 90% of our global carbon emissions! So the careful cultivation of microalgae helps reduce our carbon footprint. It also leaves krill populations alone so that they can also actively reduce carbon.
So for vegetarians and vegans who are hesitant to start taking krill oil, the most straightforward choice would be to use algal oil supplements instead. Be sure to consult with your physician before beginning any supplement regimen.
Krill oil may have been presented as a more sustainable alternative to fish oil, but it comes with its own set of problems as it becomes more popular. We don't have to scour the oceans and destroy our fragile marine ecosystems to get our essential fatty acids. Omega-3 supplements that use algal oil, not fish or krill, have a much smaller impact on our carbon emissions and the health of our oceans. It is becoming increasingly clear that microalgae are the best solution for solving all of our omega-3 needs without sacrificing the ocean's most valuable resources.