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Natural Foods Merchandiser

NFM Secret Shopper: How efficacious are plant-based omega-3s?

NFM Secret Shopper: How efficacious are plant-based omega-3s?
Each month, NFM's secret shopper heads incognito into a natural products store with a question. The employee's answer—and our expert's evaluation of the response—is reported here. Our aim: to help you improve your store's customer service.

Natural Foods Merchandiser: Are plant-based omega-3s the same as those from fish?

Store (Small natural foods store in the West): Yes, they are. I really think plant-based omega-3s can be just as effective as fish oil when they are concentrated in a product. Plant-based omega-3s are good alternatives for vegetarians because you can get the same essentials as from fish-based products. 

NFM: Is there a certain plant-based omega-3 that’s the best?

Store: There’s a variety of plant-based products to choose from; they’re all pretty good. Flax-based omega-3s are definitely a great choice, as are algae products.

How did this retailer do?

Our expert educator: Adam Ismail, executive director of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3 

The retailer made a valiant effort but understandably confused a few points. The omega-3 story is increasingly complex, and there are many sources. However, long-chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) are typically known as the fish-based omega-3s, while ALA is a short-chain omega-3 from flax, chia and other plants. Long- and short-chain omega-3s are different and serve different biological purposes, but both are important and we probably need more of each in our diets.

There is some conversion from ALA to EPA and DHA in the body, but the rate of conversion is generally very low and depends on a variety of factors, including individual genetics and diet. The typical fish oil supplement will deliver about 120 mg of DHA per 1-gram softgel.

According to the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids, the conversion from ALA to DHA is less than 1 percent in adults, so you would need more than 12,000 mg of ALA to convert to the same DHA benefit that a basic fish oil softgel provides. This could equate to more than 20 softgels of plant-based ALA products.

The retailer also suggests a concentrated plant oil is just as good as fish oil. To my knowledge, there are no ALA concentrates available on the market like there are fish oil concentrates—just natural plant oils.

So this statement is not really accurate. But again, conversion is not the reason to consume ALA—we need more of it in our diets.

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