Fish oil vs Flax seed oil

When dietary supplement newcomers are looking for a starting point, one of the first supplements they may think of is omegas. These healthy fats support a variety of functions in the heart, brain and eyes, and scientific studies are beginning to link balanced levels of omegas to many other health functions as well. However, due to a lack of certain omegas in the traditional Western diet, levels can often be imbalanced—and supplements can help fill this nutritional gap.

Many omega supplements on the market use marine sources, like Antarctic krill and cold-water fish. While scientific research has shown them to be effective, the plant world also boasts omega sources that simultaneously offer other health benefits.

Know Your Omegas
Flax seed oil and fish oil both contain omega-3 fatty acids, a category that contains three key members involved in human physiology - ALA, EPA and DHA.

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA): Necessary for physical and mental health, this type is found primarily in fish and fish oil.
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): Especially important to your body and necessary for various bodily functions involving your brain, blood vessels and immune system. It’s found in shellfish, fish and fish oil.
  • Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): This is the parent compound of the omega-3 family of polyunsaturated fatty acids. ALA is found in plant sources including seeds, nuts and their oils. ALA is also found in plant sources such as phytoplankton in the ocean.

Fish oil naturally contains both EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are the most beneficial of the omega-3 fats, but we don’t tend to get a lot of them in our diets, so our bodies also produce them from the more prevalent plant sourced ALA, which is one of the most important flax seed oil benefits. When humans and animals consume these plant sources of ALA, the body breaks down the ALA into EPA and DHA as needed.

Flax seed oil is the most commercially abundant source of plant ALA and whilst the bulk of omega research revolves around marine sources (the fish oil industry is several hundred years old, whereas ALA only began to attract interest after 1980) there is still promising scientific evidence coming out about flax seed’s potential health benefits. Scientific study suggests around 10% of the total amount of ALA consumed is converted to EPA and DHA. So in terms of omega-3 'power', one tablespoon of New Zealand flax seed oil is worth about 900 milligrams (mg) of EPA and DHA. That's still more than the 300 mg of EPA and DHA in many 1-gram fish oil capsules.

Since ALA, EPA and DHA are so well intertwined, some shoppers may not understand why they should seek out plant-based omega sources over marine, outside of consumers like vegans who do not consume fish. As it turns out, there are many things to consider. A huge advantage that plant-based omegas have is that they usually need far less processing than marine sources, which can cause some issues for marine-sourced omega supplements. Omega-3 derivatives EPA and DHA found in marine sources are five times more sensitive to damage than ALA.

In addition to being more rapidly damaged, fish oils undergo further steps to improve palatability and ensure purity, which can further minimise potential nutritional content. Since many plant-based omega sources don’t have this issue, this means plant-based oils are more self-stable and less prone to spoiling. That’s one of the reasons plant-based oils typically taste better, too. Plant-based omegas offer the option of certified organic and non-GMO. Organic certification in particular can be hard to come by for marine sources.

Sustainability is another important point. Though marine oil makers have made strides in improving sustainability issues, plant-based products will always have an edge on sustainability initiatives. This is simply due to the fact that plant sources will by nature lend themselves to more organised and sustainable farming practices than fish sources. So long as healthy soil is maintained, sustainable plant farming will always be a possibility, while marine sources may have concerns such as over-fishing. These concerns aren’t omnipresent for marine, krill as a source isn’t really at risk from over-fishing, though pollution still remains a concern.

The Conversion Question
The omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is important for health, though it can sometimes be missed when it comes to the dietary discussion. Experts recommend a 2:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, but due to imbalance in the Western diet, ratios of 1:15 to 1:20 can often be seen. The reason these ratios are so important is that omega-3 and omega-6 compete for the same conversion enzymes in the body. An imbalance between the two will actively interfere with the enzymes involved in converting ALA to EPA and DH, as these enzymes become ‘saturated’ with omega-6s.

As a precursor to the well-known EPA and DHA, it’s easy to see why ALA is the star nutrient in many of these plant-based omega choices, but some believe it may not be the ideal choice. They feel that during the conversion process in the body, a level of nutritional value is lost, sometimes to the point where these plant sources may still be applicable for a variety of other supplemental concerns, but not for omegas. While experts do acknowledge that this conversion takes place, they also say that the fears of plant-based omegas being ineffective are blown out of proportion.

More studies are happening to further the understanding of how ALA works in the body, due to fish oils and their components being dominant in the omega space for so long. However, due to the rise of veganism as well as sustainability concerns, plant-based omegas are becoming more popular and understood. And as more studies on ALA develop, some interesting facts are being found. One study showed that vegans and non-fish eating individuals converted plant-based ALA to EPA and DHA at faster rates than fish eaters.