Ask the average person what they know about omega-3, and they’ll probably be able to give some sort of answer. Ask them about dietary sources of omega-3 and many people will know that if you want to increase your intake, eating fish is probably the best way. The other option, of course, is to take a fish oil supplement. But what if you can’t or don’t want to eat fish? Given that fish and fish oils are a significant source of the long-chain omega-3s that are essential for normal growth and development, how do non-fish eaters ensure their needs are met, and do they know the best source to achieve optimal levels? It is known that diets that are devoid of marine products are often low in important long-chain fats. As our bodies are generally inefficient at converting the short-chain fatty acids common in vegetarian diets, vegans and vegetarians are more susceptible to deficiencies in long-chain fatty acids which, over time, may have health consequences for cardiovascular, immune and inflammatory pathways, as well as influencing brain function, memory and mood.
We asked a group of 80 vegetarians and vegans about their knowledge of omega-3 and how much they knew about non-fish sources. Of the 80 people surveyed, only 30% felt they had a reasonable knowledge of omega-3, 43% were unsure of the differences between types of omega-3 and 8% felt there were no differences between plant- and marine-sourced omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, those fats that are derived from plants, such as hempseed and flaxseed, must be converted to the long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA (present in fish and fish oil) before they have any significant health benefits. However, the rate at which humans can successfully convert short-chain plant derived omega-3 into physiologically beneficial long-chain omega-3 is a mere 6-8% and, not surprisingly, individuals who rely on plant sources tend to have low levels of EPA and DHA. When asked if they felt their diets were lacking in omega-3, 58% of respondents stated they were aware that they needed to increase their intake, with 89% interested in knowing the benefits likely to be gained from increasing intake.
Whilst 38% of individuals said they used culinary oils that they knew contained omega-3, only 33% stated they actively supplemented with omega-3 products. We then asked the participants what sort of oils they used, with flaxseed oil and hempseed oil by far the most popular. Flaxseed oil was also the most commonly used supplement, with the majority stating that they did so for general health reasons. However, 39% stated they were supplementing for specific health reasons, including: joint care (10%), cardiovascular health (7%), skin disorders (10%), as a memory boost (6%) and a further 6% also acknowledged the benefits for treating depression.
Quality and branding were important for 63% of those who used [any] oil/supplement and, with regard to pricing as an influential factor in their choice of product, only 20% claimed to buy the cheapest value-for-money product. A majority 78% said that company reputation and aftercare were key factors when it came to choosing a product, and green issues such as recycling of packaging were also a factor in choice for over 80% of the respondents. The survey indicates that many vegetarians and vegans are unaware that plant-derived omega-3s differ significantly from their long-chain derivatives EPA and DHA. As such, this lack of knowledge affects individual choices, which may influence long-term health.
Until recently, flaxseed was considered as the best source of omega-3 for vegetarians and vegans, as it contains around 58% of the short-chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA. However, because the body frequently (and for a number of reasons) blocks the conversion of ALA to SDA, which is the first fatty acid in the chain of conversions to EPA and DHA, oil with a high ratio of ALA may not ensure a good supply of EPA and DHA. This has for some time been acknowledged as a problem and, as such, the search for a solution has been widespread. This search came to fruition in 2009 when echium seed oil gained novel food approval in the EU. Our vegetarian product, Echiomega, especially formulated for those unwilling or unable to take fish oil supplements, provides a rich source of vegetarian and vegan omega-3 SDA, the fatty acid derived from ALA and the precursor to EPA. It has been shown to be around 5 times more effective than ALA in producing EPA, and because it naturally includes the anti-inflammatory omega-6 GLA (present in echium but not found in flaxseed oil), this raises red blood cell EPA levels more efficiently than SDA alone, making it a unique and superior source of vegetarian omega-3.