The broad term “omega 3 fatty acid” encompasses a number of fats that, unlike saturated fatty acids, the body does not produce on its own. As a result, the body and your health depend on you to supply these fats from external sources. Learn more about what these fats do in the body here.
Distinction between different omega 3 fatty acids
A differentiation is made between vegetable and marine acids. The most important and best-known vegetable acid is called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA for short). It is contained in high amounts in various seeds (chia, flax) or nuts (especially walnuts). In addition, ALA is contained in relatively high proportions in products made from such seeds and nuts – for example, rapeseed and linseed oil.
Marine fatty acids are the second group, their best-known representatives are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA for short) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA for short). Due to the designation as “marine” fatty acid it is already obvious where you find these acids: namely in the sea. Fish contains abundant marine acids, as do algae oil and crustaceans. There are, of course, other distinctions between fish oil and algae oil in terms of concentration; for example, it is specifically cold-water fish that have high levels of DHA and EPA.
Sometimes the distinction is made between short-chain (plant) and long-chain (marine/animal) acids.
Why is it important to distinguish between marine and plant acids?
Several scientific results/studies prove how valuable the external supply of marine/animal acids can be for humans, while vegetable fats (ALA) are primarily considered as a supplement, but by no means as a substitute for the animal acids. This is due to the poorer conversion rate of these fatty acids. The conversion rate of the vegetable acids is with only about 5% so low that deficiencies cannot be treated effectively, the supposed positive effect for the metabolism and your health is missing.
How Omega 3 acids affect your health
These are essential acids, which makes it clear that our body is dependent on them for various reasons – primarily because it cannot produce them itself. With regard to the effects of algae oil, fatty acids from fish and vegetable acids, a differentiated scientific picture emerges.
Effect on heart function and cell membrane
Omega-3 acids interact with metabolism and many different processes in the body – including cell structure and the cell membrane. Older studies attested to a very positive effect of the fatty acid towards heart attack patients. In the meantime, these have been partially revised, and the European regulatory authority EMA also points out that 1 g of DHA as well as EPA per day does not prevent heart attack patients from further cardiovascular diseases, as was previously assumed. DHA and EPA therefore no longer have an indication for prophylactic treatment after myocardial infarction.
The European Food Safety Authority assumes that EPA and DHA have a positive effect on the metabolism and the cell membrane if deficiency states can be avoided by taking them. The statement applies to marine acids from algae oil and fish and is limited to 250 mg – i.e. a quarter of the dosage previously indicated for cardiovascular diseases. It should be noted that deficiencies in metabolism, cell structure and cell membranes are used as a comparative value – if you consume too few omega-3 acids, this can be detrimental to your health. If you are already taking enough, however, further intake does not have to improve your health.
Omega 3, eyes and the effect during and after pregnancy
Algae oil and fish may have a positive effect on vision and normal development of the eyes, as the Consumer Center also states with regard to infants. If infants are not supplied with sufficient fatty acids, their vision may suffer. A positive effect is indicated by the EFSA if at least 250 mg of DHA is taken per day.
The value increases during pregnancy. The 250 mg DHA recommended by the EFSA is then supplemented by at least another 200 mg DHA. Marine fatty acids are also important for the metabolism of infants, but external intake is not necessary unless medically certified and advised. Baby food is designed in its composition to comprehensively cover the complete fatty acid requirements of infants.
Interaction with the brain
Fatty acids could have a positive effect not only on your general health, metabolism and cell membrane, but also on the brain, which consists, to a considerable extent, of fatty acids.
A deficiency state can therefore have a negative effect. An overdose, however, promises no health benefits. It is therefore important that you consume as much fatty acids as your body (in this case the brain) needs.
Advice from the consumer advice center on omega-3 acids and products
The consumer advice center specifically warns against expecting too much. Statements such as “to protect against heart attacks and strokes” are not legitimate in the opinion of the consumer center. In a specially prepared report, it emphasizes that omega-3 is a foodstuff and not a medicine, and that the fatty acid is therefore not suitable for treating diseases.
Furthermore, the consumer center points to proven positive effects of DHA:
– contributes to the normal development of vision in infants
– contributes to the normal development of the brain and eyes during breastfeeding by the mother.
In addition, products may list that linoleic acid is essential for healthy growth of the cell membrane and body. The Consumer Center links its own findings to the recent Stiftung Warentest test. The test positively highlighted that the products generally do not make false or overstated benefit claims.
Which omega-3 rich foods can quickly cover your needs?
Algae oil and fish have already been mentioned here several times, and they should not be missed here either. Sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and herring have a high content of this fatty acid, as well as algae in general.
Usually, a fish only contains such high levels of the fatty acid because it has eaten a lot of algae and thus consumed algae oil. For this reason, farmed fish are not a suitable source, because their feed consists of cereals. Shrimp and smaller crabs also bring a relatively high proportion of the fatty acid. Waste, both from fish and other marine life, is not suitable. The processing process usually destroys the fatty acid.
ALA as a vegetable fatty acid is found in various oils, chia, walnut, or linseed oil for example. Keep in mind, however, that ALA is difficult and inefficient for the body to convert. Therefore, marine products are always a better alternative to meet your daily needs.
How much omega 3 fatty acid does your health need per day?
The Consumer Center states that a balanced, healthy diet, cooking with the oils mentioned or eating fish sporadically, will cover the daily requirement. Other sources recommend an increase of 2,000 mg a day to avoid a deficiency. Thus, negative effects on the cell membrane, metabolism, and health in general are avoided as well. These 2,000 mg would be contained in 100 g of herring or 250 g of salmon, for example. Apart from a balanced diet, omega-3 capsules and supplements come into question to avoid a deficiency.