Omega-3 supply debate rages on

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Omega-3 fatty acid

The marine versus plant-derived omega-3 debate continues in the wake of recent studies that found in favor of one or the other on environmental or physiological grounds.

The publication of the meta-analyses has drawn a lot of industry and academic response as opinion has been voiced about the highly contentious and complex issues surrounding the varying forms of omega-3 and where they are sourced from.

One of the studies, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) criticized the promotion of fish oils as a healthy food options because fish supplies are under threat.

The other, a summary of omega-3 research conducted by the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL), questioned the nutritional value of plant-derived ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).

ALA converted poorly to DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in the body, it said, and offered far less nutritional value than marine forms of omega-3 like DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).

The reports have drawn attention to the debate over efficacy and supply that has raged between the various camps of the omega-3 industry for many years.

Fish supply issues?

One company that has ingredients drawn from both sides of the fence is Canadian-based, Bioriginal, and its sales director, Michael Chubb, noted that the supply issue is one that is being played out, and answers were still being arrived at.

There were supply issues the fish-sourced omega-3 industry needed to address.

“Beyond the defensive response around the role of ALA vs EPA and DHA, it’s worthy to note that the industry (marine oil specifically) is facing a challenge related to sustainability,”​ he said.

“We see (as buyers and vendors of fish oil) EPA and DHA levels from the ocean’s catch of small species fish varying significantly – with no defined reason – with no clear path as to what may be sustainable – with no clear description of the impact of wild marine harvest on the broader ecosystem and on the species we depend for fish oil.”

But the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) has pointed out that 80 percent of the fish oil used in human consumption comes from sustainable anchovy, sardine and mackerel fisheries in Peru, Chile and Morocco.


Chubb noted a common misconception that ALA should deliver the same heart and brain health benefits as marine-sourced DHA and EPA, when ALA had other, in some senses, more subtle, health benefits such as anti-inflammatio.

In this sense ALA copped a bad rap because apples were not always compared with apples.

“Either way, we see that there is room in the market for ALA EPA and DHA omega-3s,” ​he said. “Consumers that are railroaded into fish oil products or flax oil products in isolation are not getting the whole story on the value of health support that comes from all the elements.”

He noted that ALA constitutes 75-80 per cent of the total omega-3 fatty acids in breast milk, supporting its role in the growth and development of infants.

“The reality is that there are various attributes of flax that are not addressed by fish oil,”​ he noted.

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