Health & Nutrition
Omega-3 Facts & Sources
Healthy Mom & Baby
Omega-3 Facts & Sources
What they are, why we need them, officially recommended intakes, and the levels found in Vital Choice seafood and supplements
Omega-3s from land and sea: A key distinction
Omega-3 EPA and DHA: Key heart-health allies
How much omega-3 EPA and DHA do you need?
Safety considerations: doses and contraindications
Omega-3 levels in Vital Choice seafood and supplements
Official Omega-3 Intake Recommendations, Worldwide
Note: The U.S. FDA has not evaluated these statements. No product offered for sale at vitalchoice.com is intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
To survive and thrive, humans need to consume small amounts of two kinds of polyunsaturated fat, called omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids.
Two long-chain, highly unsaturated fatty acids – the omega-3 called DHA and the omega-6 called AA – are essential to the structure and function of our cells, and regulate critical aspects of brain function, metabolism, and immune-system health.
We cannot make omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in our bodies, so we have to get them from foods or supplements.
The average American gets too many omega-6 fatty acids, primarily from the vegetable oils used in home kitchens and in almost all restaurant, take-out, prepared, and packaged foods.
In fact, most Americans consume omega-6 fatty acids to unhealthful excess ... a subject covered in our summary, “America's Sickening Omega Imbalance” and “Using our Omega 3/6 Balance Scores”.
In contrast, most Americans don't get enough omega-3 fatty acids to enable and maintain optimal health …in part because of their over-consumption of competing omega-6 fatty acids.
Note: While wild and farmed salmon have comparable levels of omega-3s, farmed salmon is generally much higher in omega-6 fats (Megdal PA et al. 2009).
This imbalance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats in the average American's diet led us to offer a state-of-the-art home test, called The Vital Omega-3 and 6 HUFA Test™.
Read on to learn what omega-3s are, where they are found, what they do in the body, how much the experts recommend, and how many you'll get from Vital Choice seafood and supplements.
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Omega-3s from land and sea: A key distinction
Omega-3 fatty acids come in two basic forms, with distinctly different health impacts:
- Short-chain (polyunsaturated) omega-3 ALA from plant foods.
- Long-chain (highly unsaturated) omega-3s (EPA and DHA) from seafood and fish oil.
The body only needs EPA and DHA, very small amounts of which it can make from plant-source ALA.
Of the three omega-3s, DHA is by far the most important one to get from foods or supplements, for these reasons, which apply to most people (see the exceptions noted below):
- The body can make modest amounts of EPA from dietary ALA.
- Most people do not convert dietary EPA into substantial amounts of DHA.
- Less than 10 percent of the EPA made from ALA gets converted into DHA.
- Most people convert less than one half of one percent of dietary ALA into DHA.
On average, people convert about five percent of the ALA they get from plant foods or oils into long-chain omega-3s – almost entirely EPA. (Most of the ALA we consume is oxidized or “burned” for energy.)
This conversion rate ranges from one to 10 percent, and varies by your gender, genetic profile, and overall diet.
There are important exceptions to this rule:
- Pregnant and nursing women convert larger amounts of dietary ALA into EPA and DHA (about 10 percent, versus one to five percent in their peers).
- People who eat little or no fish and do not take fish or other marine oils rich in EPA and DHA (such as vegans) convert much larger amounts of dietary ALA into EPA and DHA, compared with people who routinely ingest significant amounts of EPA and DHA.
In addition, recent findings revealed genetic variations that greatly affect the conversion of short-chain, plant-source omega-3s and omega-6s into their long-chain, animal-source forms ... with large differences seen among various geographical regions ... see “Dramatic Omega-3 Discovery”.
That study's findings highlight the value of blood testing to monitor and optimize the omega-3/omega-6 balance in people's cells.
High omega-6 intakes limit conversion of ALA
into omega-3 EPA and DHA
Your intake of the short-chain omega-6 fatty acid LA – found at high levels in nuts, most seeds, and most vegetable oils – exerts a very large dietary influence on the rate of conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA.
This is because short-chain omega-6 LA competes with short-chain omega-3 ALA for the body's limited capacity to convert these short-chain fatty acids into their long-chain forms.
Short-chain omega-3s: Necessary only in diets lacking fish fat
Certain plant foods and vegetable oils contain small amounts of short-chain omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).
Your body does not need short-chain omega-3 ALA … unless your diet lacks long-chain omega-3 EPA and DHA, in which case it can make very small amounts from dietary ALA.
However, the body makes much more EPA than DHA from ALA, which means that plant foods providing ALA are very poor sources of DHA.
Only one to 10 percent of dietary ALA gets converted to EPA, and only about 0.5 percent of dietary ALA gets converted to DHA … and the body makes very little DHA from dietary EPA.
The body converts from one to 10 percent of dietary ALA into EPA and DHA, with vegans, vegetarians, and women – especially pregnant and nursing women – showing the highest conversion rates.
Vegan and vegetarian diets normally contain no EPA or DHA, because such diets lack any seafood or DHA-fortified animal foods (e.g., special DHA-rich eggs).
Accordingly, vegans and vegetarians must either consume plant foods containing omega-3 ALA – from which their bodies will produce EPA and DHA – or take supplements containing DHA from algae, some of which their bodies will use to make EPA.
These are the chief commonly available sources of ALA, listed in approximate order from most to least ALA content:
Flaxseed oil, walnuts, flaxseed, walnut oil, canola oil, soybeans, soybean oil*, hemp seed, hemp oil, leafy green vegetables (purslane, grape leaves, spinach, kale, chard, collards), cauliflower, radish sprouts, beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, seaweed, and green or yellow squash.
*Note: Most soy oil sold in the U.S. is abnormally low in omega-3 ALA. It comes from soybeans modified to reduce their ALA content so as to extend the shelf life of the oil extracted from them.
Long-chain omega-3s: Truly essential to life and health
Omega-3 EPA and DHA are essential to life itself, and a very large body of evidence indicates that diets rich in both promote optimal health.
Fish, shellfish, zooplankton (e.g., krill), algae, and certain aquatic plants (e.g., seaweed) are the only food sources of EPA and DHA. This explains why EPA and DHA are sometimes called “marine” omega-3s.
Among marine foods, fatty fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring, anchovies, and sablefish are the richest sources of EPA and DHA, by far.
Here's why long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA are essential to human life and to optimal health:
Omega-3 EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) is found in the membranes of most cells in the body.
- EPA appears to support and promote healthy mood and good mental health.
- The body uses EPA to make ephemeral, hormone-like compounds called eicosanoids (eye-koss-uh-noyds) – e.g., prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and thromboxanes – which play key roles in the regulation of inflammation.
- The body uses EPA to make critical inflammation- and oxidation-regulating chemicals called E-resolvins.
- EPA also used to regulate the creation of eicosanoids derived from omega-6 fatty acids (arachidonic acid).
Omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is also found in most cell membranes, and unlike EPA, it plays essential structural and functional roles in the brain, nervous system, and eyes.
- DHA is especially abundant in, and important to, the synapses that connect brain cells and the eye's light receptors.
- DHA is essential to the human brain and nervous system, as is omega-3 AA. Brain tissues average 50 percent fatty acids by weight, and DHA averages about 15 percent of those fatty acids, with somewhat more DHA in gray matter than in white matter.
- DHA regulates the expression of dozens of “working” genes in the brain. It also stimulates and enables growth of the branching structures (dendrites and axons) that extend from and connect brain cells (neurons).
- DHA is essential to brain development. The brain accumulates DHA rapidly in the womb and during the first year of life, from umbilical blood, breast milk (or DHA-fortified formula) and food.
- DHA is essential to eye structure and functions and to infants' eye development.
- DHA is the dominant fatty acid in sperm, and is critical to sperm functioning and male reproductive health.
- The body uses DHA to make critical inflammation- and oxidation-regulating chemicals called D-resolvins and protectins.
- Neuroprotectin D-1 produced in the body from DHA protects brain and retina cells. NP-D1 prevents formation of the amyloid-beta proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease, and the damaging inflammation induced by amyloid-beta proteins. As yet, there is no clinical evidence that diets rich in fish or supplemental DHA can prevent or cure any form of dementia. However, preliminary clinical evidence suggests that such diets may delay the onset and/or reduce the severity of mild-to-moderate cognitive impairment. NP D-1 plays similar roles with regard to retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells.
- DHA moderates the creation of pro-inflammatory eicosanoids derived from omega-6 fatty acids (arachidonic acid).
Note: A third, little-known long-chain omega-3 fatty acid called DPA (docosapentaenoic acid) appears to enhance cardiovascular function and other aspects of health, and is the subject of growing research.
Small amounts of DPA occur in fish, shellfish, and other ocean species. The body can make DPA from EPA, and vice versa. Confusingly, there is also an omega-6 fatty acid called docosapentaenoic acid (DPA).
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Omega-3 EPA and DHA: Key heart-health allies
The U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) is the lead Federal agency charged with supporting research designed to improve the quality of health care, reduce its cost, address patient safety and medical errors, and broaden access to essential services.
In 2003, AHRQ commissioned a group of leading academic researchers to examine the available evidence concerning the impacts of omega-3s from fish (EPA and DHA) and plant foods (ALA) on cardiovascular disease (CVD).
The resulting 2004 AHRQ report – "Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Cardiovascular Disease" – found ample high-quality evidence for the cardiovascular-health and death-prevention benefits of fish and fish oil, but much less evidence concerning omega-3 ALA in plant foods:
"Overall, a number of studies offer evidence to support the hypothesis that fish, fish oil, or ALA supplement consumption reduces all-cause mortality and various CVD outcomes, although the evidence is strongest for fish or fish oil."
This finding was echoed in a 2004 ruling by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in which the agency approved the following qualified health claim for fish and fish oil supplements:
"Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease."
The American Heart Association (AHA) agrees with these Federal findings, and says that the long-chain omega-3s from fish fat (EPA and DHA) reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, thanks to the following effects:
- Moderate blood pressure.
- Promote healthy artery function.
- Lower triglyceride (blood fat) levels.
- Reduce blood stickiness (platelet aggregation).
- Optimize the ratio of HDL to non-HDL cholesterol.
- Help stabilize arterial plaque and inhibit its accumulation.
- Reduce the risk of arrhythmias that can lead to sudden cardiac death.
Omega-3s do not lower total or LDL cholesterol levels, and can in fact raise LDL levels slightly.
However, omega-3s also reduce the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and improve the ratio of HDL ("good") cholesterol to non-HDL cholesterol. These two measures are considered more accurate predictors of cardiovascular health risk, compared with total or LDL cholesterol levels.
The AHA makes these recommendations with regard to omega-3s, fish and heart health:
- People without documented coronary heart disease: Enjoy two servings of fish per week.
- Patients with diagnosed coronary heart disease: Consume 1,000 mg (1 gm) of omega-3s daily, preferably from fatty fish or fish oil supplements.
- Patients who need to lower triglycerides: Take 2 to 4 grams (2000 to 4000mg) of omega-3s daily.
- Patients taking more than 3 grams (3000mg) of omega-3s per day from fish oil capsules should do so only under a physician's guidance.
We would add this caution: Persons diagnosed with heart disease – especially those using implanted cardiac defibrillators or taking blood thinning drugs – should consult a physician before taking supplemental omega-3s or any other dietary supplement. For more information, see "Safety considerations: doses and contraindications", below.
To learn more, visit these American Heart Association pages:
Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Frequently Asked Questions about Fish
AHA Scientific Statement: Fish Consumption, Fish Oil,
Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and Cardiovascular Disease
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How much omega-3 EPA and DHA do you need?
Most researchers and official bodies recommend consuming these combined amounts of EPA and DHA daily in order to enable optimal health:
- Infants* – 200mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day
- Pregnant/nursing women – 500mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day
- Children aged 12 or younger* – 300mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day.
- Healthy adolescents and adults – 250mg to 500mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day.
And the research indicates that it makes sense to consume EPA and DHA in roughly equal proportions … one to two parts EPA to one part DHA.
Conveniently, most fish, shellfish, and fish oils contain roughly equal amounts of EPA and DHA, though most provide more EPA than DHA.
Unfortunately, the average American consumes only 28-40mg of EPA (average 34mg) and 39-75mg of DHA daily (average 57mg).
In fact, only 25 percent of the U.S. population consumes any amount of EPA or DHA, according to the best available, collected by the Continuing Food Survey of Intakes by Individuals 1994-98 (CSFII) and National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHANES III) 1988-94.
Below, we've listed the official intake guidelines issued by the scientific bodies with the greatest expertise in this area: the UN World Health Organization (WHO), the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL), the American Heart Association (AHA), the U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM), The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada (ADA/DOC), and The American Psychiatric Association (APA).
You could satisfy these recommended intakes for healthy adults by consuming seafood, supplements, or some combination of the two:
- WHO recommends 250-500mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day.
- EFSA recommends 250mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day.
- ISSFAL recommends 500mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day (at least 220mg of DHA and 220mg of EPA).
- IOM recommends 130-260mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day.
- AHA makes no specific EPA+DHA intake recommendation for healthy people, but advises them to eat at least two servings of fatty seafood per week (e.g., salmon, tuna, sablefish, mackerel, or sardines).
- AHA advises heart patients to take 1000mg (1 gram) of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day, and notes that heart patients can lower triglyceride levels as needed under a physician's guidance by taking 2000mg to 4000mg grams of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day.
- ADA/DOC recommends 500mg of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day, or two servings of fatty fish (nine ounces) per week.
- APA recommends two servings of fatty fish per week, and advises 1000mg (1 gram) of omega-3 EPA+DHA per day for patients with mood, impulse-control, or psychotic disorders. The APA says that people with mood disorders may benefit from taking one to 9 grams per day, adding that doses over 3 grams per day should be prescribed by a physician.
We should note the recommendation of 650mg EPA+DHA per day, issued in 1999 by an expert panel convened at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the "Workshop on the Essentiality of and Recommended Dietary Intakes for (RDI) for Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids" (Simopoulos AP et al. 1999).
To see intake recommendations made by other world health authorities, see the chart, "Omega-3 Intake Recommendations Worldwide", compiled in 2010 by the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids.
Daily intakes of EPA+DHA that fall under 3000mg but exceed the minimum intakes recommended by the AHA and others (250-500mg) … may confer additional health benefits, especially in the context of diets high in competing omega-6 fatty acids.
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Safety considerations: doses and contraindications
Many clinical trials have used doses of 1000mg to 3000mg of EPA+DHA per day, with no adverse effects other than fishy burps or slight stomach upset in some people.
The U.S. FDA has said that it sees no risk from intakes up to 3000mg (3 grams) of EPA+DHA per day, while the American Heart Association recommends doses up to 4000mg per day under a physician's supervision.
In 2012, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that it is safe for adults to consume up to 5 grams (5,000mg) of supplemental omega-3 EPA+DHA per day. The agency did not set an upper intake limit for children.
Specifically, the European experts found that omega-3 intakes of up to 5 grams a day do not increase the risk of bleeding, impaired regulation of glucose levels, or impaired immune function.
To be safe, we suggest that you consult with a physician before taking more than 4,000mg of supplemental omega-3 EPA+DHA per day, especially if you have been diagnosed with a cardiac or immune disorder.
(In order to achieve an intake of 4,000mg of EPA+DHA, you would need to take 26 of our 1,000mg Wild Sockeye Salmon Oil capsules, 52 of our 500mg Wild Sockeye Salmon Oil capsules, or 19 of our 1000mg Vital Red Krill Oil capsules.)
The omega-3s in fish oil possess properties associated with "blood thinning", but when taken at recommended doses do not normally pose a risk to persons taking blood-thinning drugs (e.g., coumadin, warfarin, aspirin) or expected to undergo surgery: see "Can Fish Oil Cause Bleeding Risks?", "Omega-3s May Enhance Post-Surgery Outcomes", and "Omega-3s Cut Heart Risks for Patients with Stents".
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Omega-3s in Vital Choice seafood and supplements
The following tables provide an overview of the omega-3 (EPA+DHA) content of Vital Choice seafood products and supplements.
See our chart, "Omega-3s and Selected Nutrients in Vital Choice Seafood" to view the nutrient data for additional products, and more nutrient details – including the amounts of EPA, DHA, and other nutrients (calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, vitamin D, and protein).
*Omega-3 levels in seafood products vary according to their style (e.g., skin-on vs. skinless; water-pack vs. oil-pack, ). These figures represent the low and high range. For the levels of omega-3s and other nutrients in individual products, see our chart, Omega-3s and Selected Nutrients in Vital Choice Seafood.
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|Omega-3 Intake Recommendations Worldwide
Compiled 2010 by the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL).
Accessed at http://www.issfal.org/statements/pufa-recommendations/recommendations-by-others
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- Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment: Number 94. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Cardiovascular Disease. Accessed at http://www.ahrq.gov/downloads/pub/evidence/pdf/o3cardio/o3cardio.pdf
- Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Evidence Report/Technology Assessment: Number 94. Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Cardiovascular Disease – Summary. Accessed at http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/epcsums/o3cardsum.htm
- Bazan NG. Cellular and molecular events mediated by docosahexaenoic acid-derived neuroprotectin D1 signaling in photoreceptor cell survival and brain protection. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Aug-Sep;81(2-3):205-11. Epub 2009 Jun 11. Review.
- Bazan NG. Neuroprotectin D1 (NPD1): a DHA-derived mediator that protects brain and retina against cell injury-induced oxidative stress. Brain Pathol. 2005 Apr;15(2):159-66. Review.
- Bouwstra H, Dijck-Brouwer DJ, Decsi T, Boehm G, Boersma ER, Muskiet FA, Hadders-Algra M. Relationship between umbilical cord essential fatty acid content and the quality of general movements of healthy term infants at 3 months. Pediatr Res. 2006 May;59(5):717-22.
- Bouwstra H, Dijck-Brouwer J, Decsi T, Boehm G, Boersma ER, Muskiet FA, Hadders-Algra M. Neurologic condition of healthy term infants at 18 months: positive association with venous umbilical DHA status and negative association with umbilical trans-fatty acids. Pediatr Res. 2006 Sep;60(3):334-9. Epub 2006 Jul 20.
- Bradbury J. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): an ancient nutrient for the modern human brain. Nutrients. 2011 May;3(5):529-54. doi: 10.3390/nu3050529. Epub 2011 May 10. Review.
- Brenna JT, Salem N Jr, Sinclair AJ, Cunnane SC; International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids, ISSFAL. alpha-Linolenic acid supplementation and conversion to n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in humans. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Feb-Mar;80(2-3):85-91. Epub 2009 Mar 9. Review.
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- Kaur G, Cameron-Smith D, Garg M, Sinclair AJ. Docosapentaenoic acid (22:5n-3): a review of its biological effects. Prog Lipid Res. 2011 Jan;50(1):28-34. Epub 2010 Jul 23. Review.
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