Upcoming Issue Highlights
Home Subscribe Advertise Sourcebook Free Product Info Home

Growing Health Benefits

Albion Minerals®

As science shows plant-based EFAs are comparable to fish oils, companies are increasingly utilizing them to provide vegetarian options. Part II of NIE’s EFA series.

Plant-based essential fatty acid (EFA) supplements are a growing segment among consumers, especially vegetarians, vegans and eco-conscious individuals.

Sourced from algae, flax, chia and other non-animal sources, plant-based EFAs offer an alternative to the typical marine-based omegas.

And the market is poised to grow, as more companies and consumers recognize the health benefits of plant-based EFAs. “With increased awareness of omega-3s and other EFAs, consumers are increasingly choosing to use health supplements to ensure they are getting adequate levels of these beneficial fatty acids,” said Steve Howatt, vice president of business development at Technology Crops International (TCI), a North Carolina company that specializes in the production of specialty plant-derived oils for health supplements. “This growing demand in the market, coupled with increased awareness and concerns over various issues with marine-sourced fatty acids, should continue to result in intensified interest in sustainable, traceable plant-derived EFAs.”

The Vegetarian Choice 

People opt to follow a vegetarian diet for a variety of reasons, whether it is for religious or ecological motives, to protect animal rights or for a healthier lifestyle, according to Carolina Chica, nutrition, research & regulatory issues manager with New Jersey-based Proprietary Nutritionals, Inc. (PNI), producer of the Benexia chia seed ingredient.But these good intentions can often leave vegetarians lacking in the nutrient department, particularly omega-3s.

“Because fish and fish oils are the most concentrated sources of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), individuals who do not eat fish or fish oils could be at risk of low or inadequate n23 PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acid) status,” said Chica.

“Studies show that those who avoid meat and animal products take in only about 5 mg of EPA and 33 mg of DHA each day, far less than what’s recommended by dieticians,” said David Hart, director of marketing at Qualitas Health, an Israeli company with U.S. offices in Texas that develops highvalue vegetarian food supplements and pharmaceutical ingredients based on microalgae. He added that plantbased EFA supplements are a great way to bridge that gap.

According to Keri Marshall, MS, ND, chief medical officer at California-based Nordic Naturals, a leading supplier of omega-3 products worldwide, research has shown that algae oil supplements effectively improve the omega-3 status in vegetarians, thereby conferring the health benefits of omega-3s. Nordic Naturals offers Algae Omega, which, according to SPINS data, is the No. 1 vegetarian omega-3 in the U.S. since its launch in September 2012. It is made from non-GMO (genetically modified organism) microalgae grown in the U.S. and extracted without the use of hexane.

But plant-based EFA supplements appeal to more than just the vegetarian consumer market. “They appeal to consumers who are concerned about toxicities present in some fish populations, and who want to protect the marine environment (krill, shrimp and other sources of omega-3s) that may be threatened by over-fishing,” said Hart.Sustainable sourcing is an integral part of Qualitas’s operations and ingredients.The company’s flagship product, Almega PL, is sourced from a researched strain of microalgae selected for its high level of EPA omega-3 and unique polar-lipid structure. “The algae for Almega-PL are grown in open ponds on non-arable lands, using solar energy as the main energy input,” Hart explained. “After harvest, water is recycled back into the growing process, and a gentle, hexane-free, wet-extraction process is used, which maintains the low-energy footprint as well as the algae’s valuable polar-lipid structure.” 

Almega PL contains omega-3 fatty acids conjugated with phospholipids and glycolipids that provide superior absorption and digestibility, according to Hart. “Almega PL’s special molecular structure has been clinically shown on a gram-per-gram basis to offer better omega-3 bioavailability than krill oil,” he said, noting that years of research have allowed the company to isolate the correct strain and optimize the biology of that strain to produce consistently high levels of LC-PUFA. 

Safety & Quality 

While plant-based EFAs may not come with the same levels of toxicity that can be found in those sourced from fish, there is still concern for maintained safety and quality levels, which are of paramount importance to vegetarian consumers. To that end, companies that produce algae products can ensure a quality by growing the algae in tanks or controlled algae ponds.

Qualitas’ Almega PL is manufactured with strict quality controls from the growth of the algae through the extraction of the EPA-rich oil, according to Hart. “Qualified third-party laboratories have validated the quality of the product,” he said. “On the safety side, a full battery of toxicology studies have been performed or are currently in process with Almega PL, and the results have been positive.” 

Another company that keeps a watchful eye on its production processes is California-based GCI Nutrients (GCI), which specializes in bulk botanical extracts and EFAs, such as the company’s algae-based DHA (sold under the brand name DHA-3 Sure). “GCI’s DHA is made from microalgae that are grown in large, enclosed fermentation tanks free of heavy metals and other contaminants. Then the DHA oil is extracted from the microalgae using a solvent-free extraction process,” said David Pihlcrantz, the company’s technical director, adding that DHA derived from microalgae could in fact be safer than DHA derived from fish oil, since some types of fish oil contain relatively high levels of mercury and other environmental contaminants.

Combatting the ALA Argument 

A common criticism of plant-sourced omega-3 supplements is that they do not contain the important fatty acids, and that their delivery is inefficient— unlike fish oil, which contains EPA and DHA, plant-based varieties contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which must be converted in the body into EPA and DHA. 

Vegetarians have traditionally relied on flaxseed, chia, walnuts and soybeans for their omega-3 fatty acids, but these plants do not contain DHA, according to GCI’s Pihlcrantz. “Instead they contain the short-chain omega-3 fatty acid ALA, which must go through an extensive process in the body to be converted into DHA,” he said. “In many cases, very little ALA is eventually converted into DHA, which means many vegetarians are not getting their daily requirement of DHA.” 

According to a recent review by British researchers, the body converts less than 10 percent of ALA to EPA and less than one percent to DHA, noted Qualitas’ Hart. This deficiency could lead to health concerns, especially among women who are pregnant or nursing.

However, as new plant sources are being developed and improved, the fish oil superiority argument is losing ground. While ALA from plants are not as potent as the LC PUFAs found in fish, said Hart, algae products differ from chia- and flax-based omega oils as they do can contain EPA and DHA. “While the algae we grow are indeed plants, they provide EPA and DHA directly. In fact, the EPA and DHA in fish are not produced by the fish, but rather come from the algae that they eat,” he added.

Nordic Naturals’ Marshall agreed and said omega oils derived from algae are an effective source of EPA and DHA.“Based on the latest science, we believe algae oils are plant-based EFAs that provide the omega-3s necessary for optimal health,” she said.

Further, due to suppliers’ continued innovation, DHA obtained from microalgae, instead of from fish, not only offers consumers a viable vegetarian option, but one some might consider superior.For example, Pihlcrantz explained that GCI Nutrients’ DHA oil complex has a minimum of 35 percent DHA, and the company’s Oil Complex from algae is also high in omega-3/omega-6 fatty acid DPA (docosapentaenoic acid).“Although this fatty acid is not as well known as DHA and EPA, recent research indicates that DPA can play a substantial role in supporting cardiovascular health and cognitive function,” he said.

And ALA does have health benefits all its own as it is an essential vitamin-like nutrient, according to PNI’s Chica. “One major aspect often neglected is the ability of ALA to reduce the conversion of omega-6 EFA into longer chain omega-6 fatty acids (i.e. arachidonic acid, or AA) thereby contributing to re-balancing of inflammatory omega-6 omega-3 derived mediators (eicosanoids) influencing blood fatty acids omega-6 status and/or red blood cells omega-3 index,” she said.

The Health Benefits 

As Pihlcrantz mentioned, DPA may help support cardiovascular and cognitive health, but plant-sourced EFAs also offer many other benefits. “Gammalinolenic acid (GLA) is another beneficial EFA that is derived from plants,” said Nordic’s Marshall. “While it is an omega-6, it has been shown to support hormonal balance, respiratory health and skin health.

“Also, vegetarian DHA, which can be found in Nordic Naturals’ Baby’s DHA Vegetarian formulation, is beneficial for infants as it helps support healthy brain, eye and nervous system function,” she added.

Lignans, one of the major classes of phytoestrogens that also act as antioxidants, are another healthy nutrient delivered in plant-based EFA supplements, according Mary Ann Siciliano, national sales manager at Connecticut-based Arista Industries, a supplier of natural marine and vegetable oils. “Plant-based EFAs are used in foods, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals and personal care offering benefits in a wide array of applications.ALA-rich oils can have therapeutic properties and the seeds and meal are also a good source of fiber,” she said.Arista Industries offers flax seed oil, hemp seed oil, perilla seed oil from China, chia seed oil and rose hip seed oil from Chile, as well as Sacha Inchi oil from Peru.

Jennifer Li, CEO and managing partner of Novotech Nutraceuticals, Inc. in California, a company that specializes in manufacturing chelated minerals and fish and plant-based omega-3 powder, also noted that ALA and plant-based EFAs are a rich source of lignans, and that they are an excellent source of protein.“[A] three-fold increase in daily ALA intake has 73 percent cardiac death-risk reduction, [according to] Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine in 2005,” she said.


Since ALA must be converted to EPA or DHA in the body, companies must innovate to make ingredients and, in turn, products that are more bioavailable. “For this reason, we have been investing in development of Ahiflower oil, the first commercially feasible source of plantderived, non-GM, omega-3 fatty acids with enhanced omega-3 availability,” said TCI’s Howatt. “Ahiflower oil contains stearidonic acid (SDA), an alternative omega-3 which is much more bioavailable to humans than ALA.” 

Novotech Nutraceuticals also places bioavailability at the core of its efforts.“We focus on not only converting the omega-3 product from 100 percent oil to 100 percent powder, but also work to make it more bioavailable,” Li said.

To achieve this, Li said her company has followed the way of Mother Nature.“Ask yourself, ‘How are fats and oils are consumed by humans?’ The very first step when the body is digesting any fatty acid is hydrolysis (saponification), which is a separation of fats and oils into glycerin and free fatty acids,” she said.“From the chemical point of view, our product is a salt of omega-3 fatty acids— we are converting free fatty acid into salts of calcium, magnesium, iron, etc.” 

For Qualitas, the company’s omega-3s are in the form of polar lipids, particularly phospholipids that have been shown to have higher bioavailability than the triglycerides commonly found in fish oils, according to Hart. “This has led to the popularity of krill oil, which boasts higher bioavailability than standard fish oil,” he said.

Qualitas has performed a clinical trial1 that directly compares the absorption of omega-3s between that of algal oil of Almega PL and krill. On a gram-pergram basis, the results showed that Almega PL offers significantly high absorption and bioavailability of EPA. “Thus it offers a great option for healthconscious consumers who want a high quality omega-3 that comes straight from the source,” said Hart.

Facing Challenges 

The challenges for the plant-based EFA market are less than that of marinebased fish oils. In fact, the challenges that fish oils face are actually viewed as assets for plant-based oils. For example, while the marine oil market faces problems with sustainability and quality control, the plant-based EFA category addresses concerns about sustainability and has more control over quality. “This market addresses sustainability challenges faced by omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish,” said GCI’s Pihlcrantz. “While algae are abundant, quick-growing and sustainable, dwindling fish populations globally pose real sustainability concerns as a source of fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids.” 

But one challenge faced by this sector is spreading awareness of the benefits offered by plant-based EFAs. Qualitas is helping manufacturers overcome this hurdle by providing marketing and education efforts around the company’s Almega PL to inform consumers that there is a vegetarian and environmentally sustainable source of omega-3 EPA, said Hart. “Algae can be a good source of LC-PUFA omega-3s EPA and DHA,” he said, adding that the company tries to help consumers understand that not all LC PUFAs are the same, and that DHA and EPA have different health benefits for different age groups. “For example, DHA is focused on early development, while EPA is more relevant for the adult population,” he added.

Arista also supports manufacturers through education and information that can help in marketing its products, according to Siciliano.


1 Kagan et al., “Acute appearance of fatty acids in human plasma – a comparative study between polar-lipid rich oil from the microalgae Nannochloropsis oculata and krill oil in healthy young males.” Lipids. 2013.


■ Arista Industries, Inc., (203) 761-1009
■ GCI Nutrients, Inc., (650) 697-4700
■ Nordic Naturals, (800) 662-2544
■ Novotech Nutraceuticals, Inc.,(805) 676-1098
■ Proprietary Nutritionals Inc.,(201) 246-1000
■ Qualitas Health, (432) 242-4620,
■ Technology Crops International (TCI),(336) 759-7335

Qualitas Health’s algae ponds from a pilot farm in Israel

GCI Nutrients’ fermentation tanks used in growing the algae for the company’s DHA oil

Albion Minerals®