Where Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Come From?

The human body is adept at not only processing and using the nutrients you consume, but also converting those nutrients into other types of nutrients as needed. For instance, your body can take carbohydrates and convert them into glucose (a type of sugar) as an immediate source of energy, or into glycogen (another type of sugar) or fat to store for later use.

The body is especially good at converting nutrients into various types of fatty acids, which are the basic building blocks of fats. However, there are a few cases where the body can’t make essential nutrients, but must instead get them directly from food.

Three of the essential nutrients the body must take in through food are the omega-3 fatty acids alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Omega-3 fatty acids play critical roles throughout the body. They’re used to build cell membranes, including in the brain. Recent studies have found that people with higher blood levels of omega-3 tend to have better brain structure and cognitive function.

Omega-3s also help regulate inflammatory processes. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, omega-3s appear to assist in regulating heart rate and preventing arrhythmias—which cause the majority of the 500,000+ cardiac-related deaths that occur every year in the United States—while also lowering heart rate and blood pressure.

It’s important for your body to get omega-3s, and it ­must get them from what you eat. ALA is relatively easy to get, as it’s found in widely used plant oils (canola, soy, flaxseed), as well as a variety of plants and the fats of grass-fed animals. However, DHA and EPA are another story.

Ocean microalgae are the sole conventional producers of DHA and EPA.

While there are a variety of marine organisms that are sources of DHA and EPA, only one type of organism synthesizes them in the first place: microalgae.

EPA is produced by a few species of autotrophic microalgae. “Autotrophic” means that they create their own nutrients using only light, via photosynthesis, in combination with free-floating elements in the water around them, such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. These algae form the very bottom of the ocean food chain. The main producers of EPA are the species Phaeodactylum tricornutum, Nannochloropsis oceanica, and Dunaliella salina.

DHA is produced by certain heterotrophic microalgae. These are algae which generate nutrients partially or entirely without photosynthesis, enabling some species to grow in ocean depths where light doesn’t reach. The primary producers of DHA are microalgae which don’t utilize photosynthesis at all, instead using sugars and other organic material around them to produce nutrients. These include Schizochytrium, Aurantiochytrium, Thraustochytrium, and Crypthecodinium cohnii.

DHA and EPA are found in fish and krill which directly consume these microalgae, as well as the fish which then consume them.

You’ve probably heard warnings about how certain people should moderate their fish consumption due to mercury and plastic contamination. This occurs because organisms in oceanwater contaminated with mercury or plastic absorb or ingest them. Those organisms are then eaten by small fish, which are then eaten by larger fish. These contaminants are concentrated in the body tissues of fish and other animals high in the food chain through a process called “bioaccumulation.” When you eat a fish, you’re eating the sum of every link in the food chain leading up to it.

Bioaccumulation applies to nutrients as well. The accumulation and concentration of beneficial nutrients, including DHA and EPA, occurs the same way. A variety of small fish and krill (small ocean crustaceans) eat DHA- and EPA-producing microalgae, and are then eaten in turn by larger fish, transporting increasingly concentrated DHA and EPA up the ocean food chain.

People typically consume omega-3s by eating fish, or by consuming supplements made using microalgae, krill, or fish.

Just about every water-dwelling organism accumulates DHA and EPA in their body tissues because of the foundational role of microalgae in ocean, river and lake food chains. However, the amount varies by species and location.

The most commonly consumed fish in North America that accumulates large amounts of DHA and EPA is salmon. Other oily or fatty fish such as trout, tuna, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and herring are also rich in DHA and EPA. For people who eat the 2-3 servings of fish per week that the FDA advises children and expecting women to eat, they likely get sufficient amounts of DHA and EPA in their diet.

For those who don’t consume sufficient fish, there are a variety of omega-3 supplements on the market which use oils derived from oily fish, krill, or microalgae to deliver omega-3 nutrition. However, many people don’t take omega-3 supplements because they object to the “fishy” taste, are concerned about the bioaccumulation of heavy metals and plastics in the ingredients oils are sourced from, or they’re allergic to fish.

Nutriterra is the world’s first plant-based DHA and EPA oil.

In a collaboration between Nuseed and researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), an Australian government agency that conducts scientific research, the omega-3 building attributes of microalgae were integrated into canola, creating Nuseed Omega-3 Canola, which is used to produce Nutriterra, a canola oil containing DHA, EPA, and ALA.

It’s no longer necessary to harvest millions of tons of fish out of global fish stocks—which are fished at capacity according to the UN FAO—to deliver omega-3 nutrition in supplements or fortified foods. Nutriterra represents a uniquely sustainable and ethical source of DHA and EPA well-suited for consumers who can’t or would prefer not to eat fish or take marine-based supplements.