Gaining the health benefits of fish oil…sans fish

By Sarah Selig

Gaining the health benefits of fish oil…sans fish
Fish oil supplements boast many health benefits however mass-scale production is threatening marine sustainability. MiNDFOOD investigates viable alternatives.

The mental health benefits of fish oil have been widely researched and marketed over the years. The human population relies on external sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids from those found in fish oils, as our bodies cannot synthesise the product itself.

Today, supplement production relies on fish being supplied at a maximum historical rate which has ignited conversations surrounding marine sustainability. With mass-scale fishing an ethically questionable and unsustainable process to synthesise fish oil products in the long term, consumers are seeking alternative sources for polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the bioactive fatty acids found in fish oils that are known to generate cognitive health benefits. Paul Amminger from the University of Melbourne reported in 2010 that daily fish oil capsules could protect the brain and help prevent psychotic illness in young adults. Fish oil has been heralded the liquid gold responsible for improving brain cells to defend against depression and other mood disorders. So where can we get our daily dose without the unsustainable aftertaste?

Three academics practising in the Nutrigenomics, Medical and Health Science Faculties of the University of Auckland investigated algae-derived oils as an alternative to fish oil. Algae synthesise omega-3 fatty acids, providing the foundation of the aquatic food chain. The algae-derived oils are “vegetarian-friendly and easy to grow on a large scale due to their small size.” Algae products are becoming commercialised in the nutritional supplement industry with American product Ovega-3 proving popular. Its supplements contain the DHA and EPA containing properties of algae to create a vegetarian, ethically viable alternative to fish oil.

In particular, the Schizochytrium microalgae strain produces non-toxic, DHA-rich oil which mimics the benefits of fish oil. David Cannon practises primary care internal medicine within the Medical Associates at Central Virginia, Lynchburg. He reports that the Schizochytrium oil strain appears to be a sustainable alternative to fish oil. In addition to providing essential long-chain fatty acids, algal derived oils are produced through controlled cultivation methods, eliminating the threat of mercury and pollutant issues concerned with fish oils.

Warranting more in-depth research as a viable plant-based alternative to fish oil, are omega-3 oils derived from oil seed crops such as rapeseed and soya. A 2014 academic paper published in Nutrients, a journal of human nutrition, revealed seed oil products are genetically modified to engineer the EPA genes into crop plants. Further research into the commercialisation of oilseed crops enriched with DHA is in demand, as oil crops are an economically and environmentally viable source of omega-3 oils. It seems oil seed products are definitely ‘watch this space’ products that could stand on the pharmacy shelf as a viable alternative to fish oils.

More on the benefits of polyunsaturated fatty acids…

Can fish oil enhance mental health?

Fishy business


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