Both DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) are omega-3 fatty acids that are strongly recommended for greater health, but have been principally available in fish oil preparations. These are great for omnivores, but the vegan, who consumes no animal products, can’t take DHA or EPA in this form. There are vegan DHA sources, which are increasingly available. These can also be considered partial sources of EPA because the body converts about 10% of the DHA it receives into EPA.
When looking for vegan DHA, specialists in creating supplements evaluated how fish ended up with such high levels of this fatty acid. It turns out that the fish diet on certain types of algae is what provides some fish with high DHA levels. In order to create a vegan DHA product, a number of supplement manufacturers went straight to the source, using algae to create nutritionally adequate supplements, that offer the same benefits as the DHA present in fish oil or consumable in oily fish.
To make true vegan DHA supplements, all ingredients have to conform to vegan standards. This means making sure any inactive components of the supplement aren’t derived from animal sources. Sometimes capsules are made from products like gelatin, which can be made from animal bones or marrow. Thoughtful combining of all vegan ingredients has produced a growing array of DHA supplements. Some of these feature extra benefits like enteric coating, which may avoid stomach upset or burping strong-tasting algae.
While vegan DHA supplements are comparable to the omega-3 fatty acid available in a number of fish oils, most of them don’t provide EPA in the same amounts. A very small number of vegan EPA products are available and these may not be as good as fish sources. Many EPA supplements are really a different fatty acid, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
The body will convert some ALA into EPA, but it doesn’t do this in equal amounts, just as vegan DHA only converts 10% of itself into EPA. To get adequate EPA from ALA, massive amounts of it might need to be ingested. Though ALA comes in many vegan-friendly forms like flaxseeds, walnuts and canola oil, it still might take a considerable consumption amount to obtain EPA levels comparable to those in fish oil supplements.
At present, vegan DHA and EPA supplements together are difficult to find, though there may be a few. This is an evolving field, and there continues to be rapid developments in this area. A source of the fatty acids from other than fish isn’t just appealing to vegans. Many people don’t care for fish oil because they don’t like fish and don’t enjoy the belching that may taste fishy, and which can accompany supplement use. Others are most interested in supplements containing both of these fatty acids, which are derived from more sustainable plant-based sources.