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When it comes to nutrition, there’s one major nutrient that every vegan knows (or should know!) they need to supplement: B12. While the attention this vitamin receives is well-deserved, there’s a lesser-known but equally essential nutrient that all vegans should be aware of called DHA.
DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid, and it’s one of the main active ingredients in fish oil supplements. It’s extremely important to get enough DHA and ALA, another vital omega-3, in your diet.
Thankfully for the fish and all their friends, ALA is readily available in plants, and DHA can be found in algae oil supplements – that’s actually where the fish get it themselves! In this article, we’re going to go straight to the source of these vital lipids and find out what makes them so important.
Then, we’ll let you in on the best vegan omega-3 supplements on the market.
So, let’s make like a fish and dive in!
What are omega-3s?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of fats that the body has trouble producing on its own. They are known as essential fats as they need to come primarily from exogenous sources and are structural components of the body’s cell membranes. The three main types of omega-3s are ALA, DHA, and EPA.
ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid, is found in plants such as walnuts and flax seeds. Consuming ALA has been linked to decreased blood sugar, reduced inflammation, and better nerve function.
DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid that’s found in fish, krill, and algae, and is a major component of the brain, skin, and retina. Unlike ALA, DHA is not found in plants, the only exception being algae.
DHA is naturally produced by the human body from ALA, but the conversion process is rather inefficient – only 0 – 4 % of ALA is converted into DHA. Most people (read: omnivores) get their daily requirement of DHA from fish or eggs, but as a vegan those items aren’t on the menu.
Since the amount of ALA converted to DHA by the body can be so inconsistent, the best way for vegans to stay full of this vital nutrient is to take a vegan omega-3 DHA supplement.
EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid, has been studied mainly in connection with DHA. Because of this, it’s hard to isolate what effects EPA has specifically, but it does appear to be particularly important in reducing inflammation.
Out of the three major omega-3s, the most important for vegans to supplement are DHA and EPA, as ALA is readily available in food. Almost all vegans should consider taking an algae oil supplement to ensure they are getting the proper amount of DHA and EPA. (1)
What’s the difference between omega-3s and omega-6s and 9s?
To really understand the difference between all the omegas, you need some degree of understanding of chemistry. For the purpose of this article we’re going to really simplify: omega-3s are healthy polyunsaturated fats, and so are omega-6s. Omega-9s are healthy monounsaturated fats.
The difference lies in what types of chemical bonds each fat has, which is beyond the scope of this article. Just know that they all are important fats that your body needs and that the hardest ones for vegans to get are DHA and EPA. (2)
What’s in an algae oil supplement?
While fish are the main source of DHA for humans, fish actually get all their DHA from algae. Thanks to modern science, we’re able to grow and extract DHA-containing oil from algae and get all our DHA that way.
This is basically the same idea as fish oil, but skipping the middleman and in turn saving the fish. Vegan omega-3 supplements go straight to the source and make great fish oil alternatives.
Some vegan omega-3 supplements also contain EPA, but not all do. Ideally you can find a supplement that has both, but if not it’s best to get two separate ones.
Although the main ingredient in fishless omega-3 supplements is algae oil, there are often other additives included just like in any other supplement. Of these, carrageenan, a seaweed-derived thickener found in many vegan and vegetarian products, appears to be particularly prominent.
While generally considered safe, there is some concern that carrageenan may cause health issues.
That said, research on the dangers of carrageenan is very unclear. We know for a fact that poligeenan, also known as degraded carrageenan, can cause gut tumors, ulcers, and potentially even colon cancer, but the two compounds are very different.
However, poligeenan forms when carrageenan is exposed to acid, and there is concern that stomach acid could be enough to convert carrageenan into its dangerous relative. There is not enough research to know whether or not this is the case yet.
All in all, the amount of carrageenan found in these supplements is so low that it likely won’t cause any issues. However, since you’ll be taking these multiple times a week, if not every day, this may still be something to keep in mind.
You’ll need to decide for yourself what your tolerance for uncertainty is as there are lots of high-quality omega-3 supplements that include this additive.
Why is DHA important?
DHA is incredibly important for the functioning of our brains as it is a structural component of neurons. Low levels of DHA in the blood have been correlated with lower brain-size, learning deficits, and memory problems. There are also studies that suggest DHA may trigger the production of BDNF, a compound that stimulates the growth of new neurons.
DHA is known to be an anti-inflammatory agent, and there is currently evidence that DHA may be good for cardiovascular and arterial health. Other research indicates that it may reduce symptoms of depression and ADHD, help prevent certain forms of cancer, and treat a number of eye conditions.
It is important to note, however, that research into this compound is still young and the function of DHA in the body is still not entirely understood.
Advantages and disadvantages of vegan DHA and EPA
As it turns out, there are some advantages of taking algae-based DHA and EPA over fish oil. The main benefit lies in the fact that algae oil is free of mercury, which is an extremely dangerous toxin in large doses. Mercury is found normally in fish and the body can handle it fine in low levels, but it is never ideal to be consuming it, especially on a daily basis like most fish oil users.
On the other hand, algae oil may be less bioavailable than non-vegan DHA supplements. The reason for this lies in the fact that animal sources, krill oil in particular, contain the compound in phospholipid form, which helps bypass certain biological processes and transports DHA directly to the brain.
There is one brand of algae oil that has EPA in the preferred phospholipid form, but DHA is not currently available in this form.
The other disadvantage of vegan omega-3 supplements is that many of them contain carrageenan, which as we discussed earlier can be undesirable, but it is possible to avoid this ingredient. For whatever reason, carrageenan seems to be particularly popular as an additive in these supplements, and we’ve seen it much more often than in any other type of supplement we’ve looked into.
All in all, algal DHA and EPA makes for a good vegetarian omega-3 supplement and any disadvantages are pretty minor and need to be viewed in light of the disastrous environmental and ethical impact that comes from fishing.
The advantages and disadvantages basically even out, and algae oil wins by a landslide in regards to ecological and moral concerns.
What is the recommended dosage of DHA and EPA?
There is no established recommendation for daily DHA consumption. However, for the average healthy adult, the general consensus is that 250 mg to 500 mg of DHA and EPA combined is sufficient. For certain health conditions, doses as high as 4,000 mg have been indicated.
However, as we’ve mentioned, research is still new and recommendations for specific conditions have ranges as wide as 200 to 2,000 mg. (3)
Long story short: aim for 250 – 500 mg of combined EPA and DHA and you should do swimmingly. If you want to be safe, there shouldn’t be any harmful effects from taking a bit more to account for the lower bioavailability of algal-based DHA.
What should I look for in a vegan omega-3 supplement?
The ideal DHA supplement should be derived from algae, carrageenan-free, and include a combined dose of around 250 mg to 500 mg of DHA and EPA. Of course, few products actually meet all these demands.
When it comes to picking out a supplement, you’ll likely have to compromise on certain points, but one thing you shouldn’t compromise on is safety: since supplements are not regulated by the FDA, make sure you’re purchasing from a company you can trust.
If you want a supplement that also includes ALA, a good dosage to shoot for is between 600 and 1,200 mg. However, just like DHA, no official guidelines have been established.
What are the best omega-3 supplements on the market?
Now that you know a bit about ALA, DHA, EPA, and algae oil, let’s jump into the deep end and look at some actual supplements. We’ve put together a list of 8 that should keep your brain and body nice and healthy.
Purity Products Omega 3-6-9 Vegan/Vegetarian Omega Formula
This supplement from Purity Products provides ALA, two types of omega-6s, and one type of omega-9. However, with all this variety, DHA and EPA are nowhere to be found, meaning that unless you have another source for these two, this isn’t going to be a good choice.
That said, it does do well on providing the other essential fatty acids, like ALA, so not a bad extra to consider if you’ve already got your DHA and EPA on lock.
The dosage for ALA is a little low – 500 mg instead of the better studied 600 mg, but it’s within range and there isn’t an officially established guideline anyway, so it’s not much of an issue.
- Provides a good amount of omega-3s, 6s, and 9s
- Doesn’t provide DHA or EPA
Deva Nutrition Vegan Omega-3 DHA-EPA 300mg
Deva is a well-known and trusted supplement brand, so you can feel confident that this is a high-quality product.
Each dose of this product provides 180 – 210 mg of DHA and 90 – 120 mg of EPA, making for a total of approximately 300 mg of combined DHA and EPA. This fits smackdab in the middle of the general consensus that you should be consuming 250 – 500 mg of DHA and EPA each day, so this is a good source of these essential fats.
The only problem with this supplement is that it contains carrageenan. As we’ve mentioned, this isn’t a dealbreaker, but it is somewhat of a let down. Overall, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but it is something you should be aware of if you use this as your everyday supplement.
Each bottle contains 90 softgels, so it’ll last you about three months if you take one a day (which is what you should be doing unless you’ve discussed a higher dosage with your doctor).
- Well-known and reputable brand
- Provides the correct amount of DHA and EPA
- Uses carrageenan as an ingredient
Nested Naturals Vegan Omega-3
Nested Naturals’s DHA and EPA supplement is one of the few we’ve seen that don’t contain any carrageenan, so major props to them on that front.
However, while there’s no carrageenan, they did include 100 mg of green tea extract, which in rare cases has caused severe liver and kidney problems. It’s not really a problem per se, but green tea extract is something you need to research before taking and it really has no place in an omega-3 supplement.
Otherwise, the dosage in these softgels is good: 100 mg of EPA and 200 mg of DHA for a combined total of 300 mg. This fits well within the recommended dosage.
The brand says they do third party lab testing, but they refuse to release the name of the lab that performs the analysis, so it’s unclear how much the results should be trusted.
They also don’t release their results publicly. Instead, the process of viewing their lab results requires you to schedule a phone call, then they’ll send you the Certificate of Analysis. During the phone call someone from the R&D department will discuss the results with you to make sure they aren’t “misinterpreted”.
The whole process is a bit fishy (no pun intended).
- Good amount of DHA and EPA
- No carrageenan
- Their obtuse process surrounding viewing their lab results is a bit concerning
Testa Omega-3 Algae Oil DHA + EPA
Providing 375 mg of combined DHA and EPA (250 mg DHA and 125 mg EPA), this supplement from Testa does a great job of meeting your daily needs for both of these nutrients. Unfortunately, this product does contain carrageenan, which is a bit disappointing as it’s quite good otherwise.
We weren’t thrilled about how Testa decided to package their capsules – they come on a metal sheet with individual plastic pockets for each softgel. We found it pretty wasteful and definitely not eco-friendly. We’d have much preferred a simple bottle.
Overall, this product provides a good dosage of DHA and EPA, but falls short in its packaging and inclusion of carrageenan. It’s not a bad choice and should work well, but there’s better out there.
- 375 mg of combined DHA and EPA
- Packaging is not sustainable
- Includes carrageenan
Ovega-3 Plant-Based Omega-3 Daily Dietary Supplement
Ovega-3’s DHA and EPA supplement is one of our favorites due to its generous dose of both of these fatty acids. This product provides 405 mg of combined DHA and EPA (270 mg DHA and 135 mg EPA), which is one of the higher doses we’ve seen from an algae oil supplement.
Like so many other brands’ offerings, the main pitfall of this product is that it contains – you guessed it – carrageenan. Otherwise, it’s a good product, but you do have to be careful.
This supplement is manufactured in the US, which is definitely a plus. The company doesn’t do any third-party testing to ensure the safety of their products, but they do perform in-house testing of their own and say that all their supplements are safe to consume.
- 405 mg of combined DHA and EPA per capsule
- Made in the USA
- Includes carrageenan
- No third-party lab testing
Estora Omega-3 DHA Algae
Estora is a small supplement producer without much of a reputation to speak of. They affirm that all their products are both internally and independently tested for quality and safety, but it’s unclear where you can view the results. We liked that these are manufactured in the US.
Unfortunately, this supplement only includes a small dose of DHA – 200 mg to be precise. It’s not particularly bad, but isn’t great considering there’s no EPA included either. We’d have preferred to see a higher DHA content if that’s the only omega-3 included.
We liked the aesthetic and quality standards of this brand, but the dosage and lack of EPA let us down a bit. Not bad, but not great either.
- If estora is telling the truth, these supplements are third-party verified for safety
- Manufactured in the US
- Low dose of DHA
- No EPA
Spoonful Naturals Children’s Vegetarian DHA Algae Oil
This algae oil supplement from Spoonful Naturals is one of the only products of its kind we found that’s carrageenan-free. What’s more: there aren’t any unnecessary added ingredients like green tea extract.
What a relief! This product is simply a high-quality DHA supplement – nothing more, nothing less.
In contrast to the other products we’ve reviewed, this is the only one that isn’t a capsule; instead, it’s a liquid oil that you measure out with a dropper.
Spoonful Naturals decided to go with this delivery method because the product is aimed at babies and young children – but that doesn’t mean adults can’t take it too! In fact, this is likely why there isn’t any carrageenan included – it may be more dangerous for children and it’s not necessary in liquids.
There’s some convenience lost due to this delivery method, but it does spare you from the addition of carrageenan, so we were fine with it. There isn’t any EPA in this supplement, but we were so happy to find a good, pure DHA supplement that we don’t really mind.
The dosage of DHA is pretty good, sitting near the higher end of the recommendation at 400 mg. Overall, we highly recommend this supplement.
- No carrageenan
- Not in pill form, although this may suit some
iWi EPA and DHA
While this is actually two products and not a single one, we thought we’d be remiss if we didn’t include them. iWi currently makes the only supplement that provides vegan EPA in phospholipid form.
This form of EPA is more easily absorbed than what’s found in all other EPA supplements made from algae because it gets transported directly into the brain.
Unfortunately, the combined EPA and DHA supplement they offer has such a low dosage that it’s not worth it. If you’re interested in this form of EPA, the best thing to do is to purchase their EPA supplement and DHA supplement separately.
Their EPA supplement provides 250 mg of EPA and the DHA supplement provides 500 mg of DHA and 4 mg of EPA. This is a great amount of DHA and EPA!
Luckily, both of these supplements are also completely carrageenan free! The fact that these products are both carrageenan free and use a cutting-edge form of EPA makes them winners in our book.
- Carrageenan free
- Good levels of both EPA and DHA
- EPA is easily absorbed
- You need to buy two supplements separately to get max benefit
What’s our pick for best omega-3 supplement?
Their phospholipid form of EPA is innovative and greatly increases the absorption of EPA into the brain. The fact that they also don’t include carrageenan in any of their products really just has us over the moon – it’s much harder to find an algae oil supplement that doesn’t have this ingredient than it should be.
As a runner up, we also recommend Spoonful Natural’s formula for children as it’s one of the only other carrageenan-free DHA supplements we’ve found. It’s unlikely that the carrageenan in the other supplements is enough to really cause problems, but considering these are meant to be taken everyday, we’d rather play it safe.
Now that you’re better acquainted with these important nutrients, you’re all set to feed that DHA-hungry brain of yours. We hope that your first forays into fishless fats fare well!
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About The Author:
Phil Grossman is a lifestyle, real estate, and culture writer based out of New York.
A polyglot who speaks French, German, Spanish, a bit of Japanese, and a little Norwegian, Phil likes to put his love for language to good use both through traveling and writing in his second language: music. An experienced composer, Phil teaches and writes both electronic music and music for media.
Phil has been interviewed on the TODAY Show and featured on CBS 2 News, Anderson Cooper 360, and in the Journal News for his work as an education activist. Passionate about many different societal and institutional issues, Phil has shifted his current focus towards veganism and environmentalism.
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- Kris Gunnars, BSc | What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids? Explained in Simple Terms | https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-are-omega-3-fatty-acid
- Alyssa Pike, RD | Oh My Omega: The Difference Between Omega-3, 6, and 9 | https://foodinsight.org/oh-my-omega-the-difference-between-omega-3-6-and-9/
- NIH | Omega-3 Fatty Acids | https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/