Everybody needs omega fatty acids, so luckily, today’s market has something to suit all lifestyles and preferences. “It is clear that, for non-fish-eating meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans, vegetable sources of omega-3 are the best option,” says Carolina Chica, manager of nutrition research and regulatory issues for Proprietary Nutritionals, Inc., Kearny, NJ.
But, plant-derived omegas aren’t just about vegetarians and vegans. Whole food supplements and plant-based omega options (including flax, chia, certain nuts, algae and more) should be given serious consideration by all health-conscious people. They pack a nutritional punch that stems in large part from their rich and varied omega content.
Here, experts will dissect what makes plant-based omegas worthwhile choices in the omegas marketplace next to fish and other marine oils, including a nutritional overview. They’ll also tackle issues of processing, formulation and delivery formats, as well as examine the prospects for plant-based omegas, taken broadly as a category.
Making the Case for Plants
We live in a world where the terms fish oil and omega-3s have become something like synonyms for many consumers. What qualities can we identify that make some plant-based sources of omegas similarly valuable? The simple answer, of course, is that they are also potent carriers of the omega-based nutrition we need to thrive. The long answer follows.
“Contrary to conventional wisdom, some fat is actually good for you and even healthy,” says Trisha Sugarek MacDonald, B.S., M.S., director of R&D and national educator for Bluebonnet Nutrition Corp., Sugar Land, TX. So-called “good” fats, some of which are known as essential or conditionally essential fatty acids, are obtained from a variety of sources, many of which are found in the plant kingdom, she explains.
Plant-based omega products, whether in supplement, whole food supplement or whole food form, are a significant source of omega-3s, omega-6s and omega-9s, Sugarek MacDonald says. Alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is perhaps the most centrally important fatty acid derived from plant sources, and it is classified as essential because the body cannot synthesize it on its own.
To a limited extent, ALA is converted into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in the body. In turn, EPA plays a part in the synthesis of prostaglandins (PGE-3), which Sugarek MacDonald says are anti-inflammatory hormone-like substances that promote healthy cellular membranes. This means plant-based omegas can present benefits not only for the heart, but for joints and skin as well, she says.
According to Chica, the elongation and desaturation of molecules are involved in the conversion of short-chain ALA to long-chain omega-3 forms like EPA. Along with omega-3 DHA, EPA has many important functions in the body. Though the rate at which this conversion process takes place has been debated, one study found that conversion of ALA may be heightened in those that don’t consume EPA and DHA omega-3s from meat or fish (1).
In fact, Alexandra Charles, director of education at Essential Formulas, Inc., Irving, TX, says studies have shown ingestion of plant-based omega-3s can be sufficient to meet the nutritional requirements of humans, with significant increases in blood plasma concentration of ALA observable within two weeks.
Then there are the DHA products sourced from algae that have come to market. Sugarek MacDonald explains that they can provide the same health benefits currently established for omega 3 DHA when it comes from other sources. These algal DHA ingredients can deliver substantial amounts of DHA in supplement form.
Contrasting the fatty acid content of some plants with marine wildlife, Shane Emmett, CEO of Health Warrior, Richmond, VA, quotes Neal Barnard, a nutrition researcher and adjunct associate professor at George Washington School of Medicine: “Seventy percent of the fat found in fish is not omega-3…green vegetables have very little fat, but what they do have is heavily weighted toward omega-3.” Other substantial plant sources of omegas, according to Emmett, include walnuts, flax products and chia seed.
Rally Ralston, managing partner of Salba Smart Natural Products, Denver, CO, emphasizes the nutritional consistency of plant sources like his company’s Salba chia variety. “The body truly responds to a constant dosage, which Salba chia has shown and proven, and which clinical research is based upon,” he says. Published research is one way that plant-based omega sources can continue to stake a claim, he believes.
One person involved in such research is Vladimir Vuksan, Ph.D., a professor and researcher at the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital who has researched Salba chia. He says that plant-based omegas have been shown to be cardio-protective, as they have been linked with improved vascular health, lowered inflammation and a blood thinning effect. He adds that oily seeds should not be the choice of only vegetarians/vegans but also the general public, as they compare favorably to oft-recommended whole grains when it comes to nutritional composition.
Another oily seed option is hemp, touted by Jim Saunders, CEO and founder of Hemp Naturals, Inc., El Segundo, CA. “Hemp seed oil is a natural, whole food product that—depending on its form—can be used in a wide range of recipes, consumed on its own as a whole food supplement, applied topically as a moisturizing oil or even used in industrial settings,” he says. In addition to topical benefits to skin, he says, “You can also take the oil internally to experience improved skin texture and suppleness.”
Hemp oil, of course, contains a healthy dose of the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids associated with the health benefits described previously. This includes gamma linolenic acid (GLA) and stearidonic acid, according to Saunders. Why are non-EPA and -DHA compounds such as these nutritionally valuable?
Sugarek MacDonald starts by noting that all fat, pound for pound, contains more caloric energy than protein or carbohydrates. Additionally, some of the non-EPA and DHA unsaturated fatty acids found in plant oils, including omega-6s and omega-9s, have their own benefits. “These dietary fats have been shown in research to be beneficial in maintaining lung, gastric, muscle, heart, joint, brain, skin and women’s health,” she says.
The omega-6 family consists of the parent compound linoleic acid (LA) and its derivatives GLA and arachidonic acid (AA), which Sugarek MacDonald notes are naturally found in flax seed oils. LA and GLA are precursors for the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, which also positively influence blood pressure, heart rate and immune response. Other dietary sources of LA and GLA, she adds, are evening primrose and borage oil. Herb Joiner-Bey, scientific advisor to Barlean’s, Ferndale, WA, says, “We are missing GLA in our diet because nowadays people seldom eat organ meats, a good source of GLA. Therefore, plant-based sources are indispensable.” See the table titled “Biochemical and Biophysical Functions of Omega-6 Fatty Acids” for more.
We’ve already discussed another major component of plant oils in ALA. Emmett notes that both the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommend a 1,200 mg daily intake of ALA for a healthy diet. “Just two tablespoons of chia seeds will provide 6,000 mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acid,” Emmett says.
Omega profiles. There is plenty of knowledge out there regarding the precise nutritional content of various plant sources. Sugarek MacDonald notes that among the many different plant oils available on the market for human consumption, fatty acid compositions vary greatly, and each plant’s profile is unique. Chica says a few of the best options for consumers, beyond hemp, chia, flax and primrose, include canola, perilla and sacha inchi.
According to Sugarek MacDonald, coconut oil and palm kernel oil are high in lauric acid at about 45 g/100 g of oil. They also contain a significant amount of myristic acid and palmitic acid. Palm oil is high in saturated fatty acids, while soybean oil contains about 50% LA. Sunflower oil is even higher in LA at about 66%, and a high oleic acid sunflower oil is also available on the market. Olive oil is high in oleic acid, and borage and peanut oils contain some erucic acid.
The concentration of ALA present in salvia hispanica seeds (commonly known as chia) is 65% of its total fat, according to Vuksan. Hemp oil, meanwhile, can deliver 8 g of omega-6s per tablespoon, and 2.5 g of omega-3s, with no trans fat or cholesterol, according to Saunders. “Safflower oil contains an abundance of the essential omega-6 fatty acid, linoleic acid,” adds Susan Hazels Mitmesser, Ph.D., director of nutrition research for Solgar, Leonia, NJ.
Each of these compounds has their pros and cons, and these are often hard to decipher. But the nutritional impact of a plant-based oil is based largely on these fatty acid profiles.
Plant advantages. Hemp oil can also, Saunders adds, deliver 10% of the recommended daily intake for vitamin E. This extra nutrition is a common trait for the category. “Plant-based sources offer a particular advantage, as ingesting them will not only supplement our diet with omega-3, but at the same time with multiple micronutrients that some seeds contain, such as calcium, magnesium, iron and antioxidants,” says Vuksan. Oily seeds, he adds, often have exceptionally high contents of dietary fiber, and are low in carbohydrates. They can have high levels of protein and a complete amino acid profile, often better than soy.
Sugarek MacDonald also emphasizes that plant-based omega sources are replete with other vital nutrients. “For example, flaxseeds are known to be a naturally rich source of magnesium, potassium, B vitamins, protein and zinc,” she says. Chia seeds, meanwhile, are a good source of calcium, B vitamins, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and more, according to Charles. “To put this into relatable terms, chia has three times more iron than spinach and 15 times more magnesium than broccoli,” she says.
Running through hemp’s nutritional profile outside omegas, Saunders says, “Hemp seed oil is an abundant source of protein, phytosterols, phospholipids and chlorophyll. It also contains many vitamins and minerals, including calcium, sulfur, magnesium, potassium, zinc, sulfur, potassium and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, C, D and E. The digestible protein in hemp seed oil contains all 10 of the essential amino acids.”
There are other factors lending plant-based omegas an edge. For one, like other plant sources, chia seed oil is easily digested by the human body, Charles notes. Taste profiles are also important, as Saunders says the delicate nutty flavor of hemp makes it enjoyable to consume. Joiner-Bey notes that “plant-based EFAs can be certified organic. Most animal-based EFAs are from ocean sources, which can never be certified organic.” Vuksan points out that the lack of preparation needed for plant-based omegas in some delivery formats is also a plus. For instance, liquid oils can often simply be mixed into beverages.
Plant oils can also, Vuksan says, be bottled for use as a household oil or salad dressing. This allows individuals to supplement with a high omega-3 oil by incorporating it into daily meals. This can be a desirable practice even for non-vegan/vegetarian consumers, he says, since the optimal omega profile in some plant sources is superior to typical salad oils.
The health benefits of plant-sourced omegas can be accentuated when used to replace the less healthy saturated and trans fats commonly found in our diets, according to Mitmesser. Joiner-Bey echoes this point, explaining that plant oils are not only nutritional supplements: “They are also food ingredients that can be used to displace the undesirable fat sources in the diet.”
The backgrounds and lifecycles of plant-based omega products vary from source to source. The way they are rendered into easily consumed soft gels, with consistent omega contents in each batch, or into fresh, whole seeds and other formats like whole food supplements, is best left to the experts to deal with and describe.
Speaking specifically to food fortification with plant-based omegas, Chica says, “There are many challenges faced by food technologists when trying to incorporate omega-3 oils into foods; however, the one most frequently cited is the issue of oxidative stability.” Because omega-3s have multiple double bonds on the carbon backbone of the fatty acid molecule, they are highly susceptible to oxidation, she explains. This becomes more of an issue when oils go through food processing involving high heat, such as pasteurization.
The result for formulators is that some oils can only be added to foods where the food matrix offers enough protection from oxidation, Chica says. Spray drying is one of the most popular methods for incorporating omega-3s into foods, she adds. The resulting product can take the form of a powder or a microencapsulated powder. Chica says the materials used to encapsulate oils can range from lipids to polysaccharides or proteins. Other products make use of emulsion technology to reduce the contact of the lipids with oxygen, trace metals and other substances that can oxidize.
For his end of the industry, Vuksan explains that chia seeds do not undergo any chemical processing, and are instead consumed “raw.” He also points to a study that found his company’s seeds can be consumed either whole or ground without a change in health benefits (2). However, when it comes to fortifying foods, he says the application of high temperatures in making some products, like chips, may result in a reduction of omega-3 levels. Other fortified foods, Vuksan says, retain their fatty acid compositions fairly well, such as bread, muffins, cookies and other similar items. Sugarek MacDonald concurs that, for flax oil in particular, functional food applications are fine as long as the flax is not exposed to high heat for long cooking times, as this may degrade the material and reduce potency.
“The key to high-quality flax oil is freshness,” says Andreas Koch, marketing director for Barlean’s. He says his company has made this a priority, and that ensuring freshness entails made-to-order products that are directly delivered to retail stores. Each bottle is date stamped for a six-month timeframe to help make sure only fresh products are sold and consumed.
To begin the manufacturing process with raw materials that are high in omegas, certain procedures must be followed. “Chia is cultivated biannually, with the highest ALA concentration being found in mature plants,” says Charles. Emmett adds, “You can identify low-quality chia by its brown color or inability to float in water, meaning the farmer failed to allow the plant to mature (and therefore nutrients to develop) before harvesting.” Fully matured chia, he says, is black and white.
When it comes time to extract the oil, the most preferred method involves the use of supercritical fluids. Carbon dioxide is applied at an optimum pressure, allowing for a pure and high concentration of ALA to reach the end product, Charles says. Throughout the supply chain, Ralston believes, “There is no such thing as too much safety. The pressure on growers, cleaners, and packaging operations is increasing to provide our world with safe, edible foods without any form of contamination.”
The golden ratio. Another concern of consumers and manufacturers is how the different types of omegas stack up against each other in a given product. The amounts of each type present in the diet are thought to influence health in profound ways.
Though we’ve discussed individual omega-6s and the benefits they provide, as a group, they are often associated with being pro-inflammatory, fairly or unfairly. “It is believed that excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids in the body, without the balance of omega-3s, can be too much of a good thing,” says Emmett. Some plant-based sources naturally provide an ideal balance, such as nuts and seeds, while foods high in omega-6s include animal products like meat, egg yolks and shellfish, he says. Chica says one way of understanding the need to balance omega intake is that it is inscribed in the evolution of the human diet.
Increasing one’s intake of the proper plant oils can help in this balancing process. As far as manufacturers are concerned, when not dealing with whole foods as an end product, they often strive to deliver omegas in healthy ratios. For instance, no special process is needed to concentrate the omega-3s in chia oil, Chica says, but some supercritical CO2 methods result in an omega-3 concentration of up to 98%.
In Vuksan’s opinion, consumers should consider the benefits of plant-based omegas in whole food form or as whole food supplements, without removing any of the natural nutrition we’ve already discussed. This is because these nutrients likely act synergistically rather than individually to benefit health.
Market Share and More
The consistent consumer demand for omega-based nutrition is well-established. How many of the resulting purchases go toward plant-based products in the future is something those in the business are bullish about. The overall shift toward a healthier lifestyle for many consumers, says Charles, is a result of increases in cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and other conditions. These conditions, in turn, are partly due to the amount of food we eat that is high in saturated fat, she says. These connections have people turning not just to omegas for their established benefits, but to plant-based omegas specifically.
Plant-Based Omega Offerings
The supplements and foods below are available from companies interviewed for this feature.
Barlean’s: Organic Flaxseeds, Organic Chia seeds, Organic Flaxseed Oil, Organic Evening Primrose Oil, Borage Oil, Omega Swirls, Total Omega Swirl 3-6-9, Brevail (lignan extract).
Bluebonnet Nutrition Corp.: Natural Omega-3 Vegetarian DHA 100 and 200 mg Softgels, Early Promise Prenatal Gentle DHA 100 and 200 mg Vegetarian Softgels, Certified Organic Flax Seed Oil 1000 mg Softgels, Tonalin CLA 1000 mg Softgels, Evening Primrose Oil 500 mg Softgels, Evening Primrose Oil 1300 mg Softgels.
Essential Formulas, Inc.: CHIA OMEGA + CoQ10, CHIA OMEGA + Vitamin D3, CHIA OMEGA + Enzymes, CHIA OMEGA + EPA & DHA, Dr. Ohhira’s Essential Living Oils.
Health Warrior: Chia Bar (100-calorie supersnack), 16-oz bags of plain, Grade-A chia seeds.
Hemp Naturals, Inc.: Sport Seed, Smart Seed, Hemp Power, Hemp Power Plus, bulk hemp supplier.
Proprietary Nutritionals, Inc.: Benexia Chia, Benexia Defatted Chia, Benexia Chia Oil, Benexia ALA powder.
Salba Smart Natural Products: Salba, white variety of Salvia Hispanica L. seeds, conventional and certified organic varieties in Whole Seed and Milled Seed formats; Boosts (individual chia portions); Certified Organic Tortilla Chips; Certified Organic Salsas (with Salba chia).
Solgar: Earth Source Organic Flaxseed Oil, Flaxseed Oil 1250 mg Softgels, Evening Primrose Oil 500 mg and 1300 mg Softgels, Tonalin CLA 1300 mg Softgels, Safflower Oil with Vitamin B6 Softgels, Super GLA 300 mg Softgels, Omega-3 Vegetarian DHA 100 mg and 200 mg Vegetarian Softgels.
Other factors that may influence the prevalence of these products in the market involve economics and agriculture. Chia seed oil, Charles says, is a major component of the Argentine economy, making up 24% of its agricultural industry. Also, because chia can grow in arid environments, it comes highly recommended to farmers in the field crop industry in certain regions. Chica notes chia is an alternative to soy crop, in that farmers in Latin America can grow soy and chia on a rotational basis.
Economics are a factor influencing the success of plant-based omegas in another sense. “The biggest reason why flaxseed oil will always remain on store shelves is its affordability. Compare a krill oil product to a flaxseed oil at half the price,” says Koch.
The demand for omega-3s may also eventually put pressure on supply in some segments of the marine oil market, Chica argues, citing rising prices for bulk fish oil as evidence of this dynamic. This may position plant-based omegas to fill in the gaps.
Vuksan reports that sales of certain plant-based products, like salvia hispanica or chia seeds, are already on the uptick. The American Botanical Council reported sales data from 2012 showing chia seeds/oil jumped 123% in sales over the previous year, more than any other herbal supplement (3).
There are, of course, obstacles to growth as well. As chia, for instance, becomes a more global crop, it is subject to more types of climatic conditions beyond farmers’ control, Ralston says. With demand increasing, buyers are competing for a crop whose growing capacity is still limited. But the presence of chia and other plant-based options will increase, and as Ralston says, people will get past the Chia Pet and start learning about the optimal nutrition these options provide. He adds, “It is here to stay, and the only real question will be how many ways are we going to figure out how to work this whole food into our diet?”
Format pros and cons. It’s important consumers choose the right plant-based omega product for them, whether it be a soft gel, liquid supplement or seeds. Since omegas from plants are fat-soluble, Sugarek MacDonald says, it is often preferable to consume them in a soft gel, regular oil or emulsified oil where it can be surrounded in a lipid matrix, allowing for more efficient delivery to the small intestine and absorption into the bloodstream.
Each format has its merits and demerits. “Liquids and liquid emulsions offer flavor, ease of administration, increased compliance and most importantly, digestibility,” she says. With soft gels, the transit time for nutrients to go from the stomach to the small intestine is minuscule, according to Sugarek MacDonald. Capsules and tablets can take between 30 and 45 minutes to break down, which is the dissolution time set by the U.S. Pharmacopeia, she explains. But, potencies in these formats are usually low, and serving sizes are therefore high.
One thing to be wary of with liquids is the potential for rancidity. Because omega-3s can become rancid with exposure to light, liquid supplements usually are packaged in tinted glass bottles, an increase in cost ultimately passed on to the consumer, Charles says. Liquids must also be refrigerated once opened, and even then shelf life is limited. Mitmesser says one benefit of liquids is the flexibility they afford. “Liquid forms are a more versatile option, allowing control over serving size and the ability to add to foods such as salad dressings and smoothies,” she says.
“Soft gel capsules are typically enteric coated, meaning they contain a coating to help prevent their premature breakdown,” Charles says. This is key, because upper digestive side effects like heartburn, burping and bad breath can occur when a supplement breaks apart too soon.
With the addition of plant-based omegas to fortified foods, there is the question of whether the dosages manufacturers have thus far been able to include are large enough to make a difference. Ralston says the answer is yes; helpful doses are being included in some fortified foods, and this is in fact a thriving segment of the market. But he cautions consumers to look at the nutritional panel to make sure the health benefits of the omegas are not being negated by the unhealthiness of the food product itself. WF
1. A.A. Welch, et al. “Dietary Intake and Status of n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in a Population of Fish-eating and Non-fish-eating Meat-eaters, Vegetarians, and Vegans and the Product-precursor Ratio [corrected] of Alpha-linolenic Acid to Long-chain n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: Results from the EPIC-Norfolk Cohort,” Am J Clin Nutr., 92(5), 1040-51 (2010).
2. H. Ho, et al., “Effect of Whole and Ground Salba Seeds (Salvia Hispanica L.) on Postprandial Glycemia in Healthy Volunteers: a Randomized Controlled, Dose-response Trial,” Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 67, 786-788 (2013).
3. A. Lindstrom, et al., “Herb Supplement Sales Increase 5.5% in 2012: Herbal Supplement Sales Rise for 9th Consecutive Year; Turmeric Sales Jump 40% in Natural Channel,” HerbalGram, http://cms.herbalgram.org/herbalgram/issue99/hg99-mktrpt.html, accessed Aug. 29, 2013.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, October 2013