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More than three decades of research into the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids have gone a long way to establish the myriad benefits of this lipid group. Yet, in light of more comprehensive research into differences between the two major marketed forms of omega 3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, growing evidence suggests that the latter might just be the more bioactive form.

In fact, this evidence is so strong that it almost begs the question: Have we been looking at the wrong omega oil?

Speaking at Supply Side West, Isaac Berzin, Ph.D., founder and chief technical officer for Qualitas Health Ltd., raised this question as just one of the compelling factors in making the case for omega 3s derived from microalgae. Qualitas provides the Almega-PI brand of microalgal omega 3 fatty acids.

For centuries, omega 3 fatty acids have been known to confer health benefits. They are essential fatty acids, meaning they must be taken as the body cannot spontaneously make them. Modern science established that omega fatty acids can ameliorate or protect against such a wide range of symptoms and conditions that the oil could be considered one of the rare nutraceutical ingredients that live up to their hype.

Research supports omega 3s for use to improve and protect in cases of: neural development and function in fetuses, babies and children; cognitive function and memory (including in adults and seniors); cardiovascular health; mood and depression; arthritis; childhood asthma; ADHD; blood pressure; diabetes; lupus; cystic fibrosis; xeropthalmia and other eye conditions; certain cancers and autoimmune diseases.

While the DHA and EPA forms of omega 3 fatty acids have attained something of an equal footing for their health benefits, new research suggests EPA could be the omega 3 power hitter. Berzin has noted that EPA has positive health benefits foradults, especially related to cardiovascular health and triglyceride reduction. But there also is evidence of more effective anti-inflammatory capability and mood and depression regulation.

“Unopposed EPA is the key to efficacy,” says Berzin. “DHA might counteract the positive effects of EPA. EPA has highly bioavailable polar-lipids.” He notes that the distribution of EPA and DHA is dependent upon the algae species in the diet, making development of a high-EPA algae strain preferential.

Almega’s Almega PL is a polar lipid-rich algal oil, incorporating a polar lipid component. Specifically it is a phospholipid-glycolipid structure, where phospholipids and glycolipids are conjugated to the omega-3 EPA. Not all EPA has this structure, nor is it inherent in all algal sources. Its special molecular structure—hydrophilic head and similar to the structure present in krill oil—leads to unique benefits, such as improved bioavailability and enhanced incorporation into cell membranes. In a recently published bioavailability study comparing algal EPA+phospholipids to krill oil in clinical trials, absorption of omega 3 from krill versus algae was compared based on total omega-3 in blood plasma. Results showed that the polar-lipid structure (phospholipids and glycolipids) of each had equivalent bioperformance.

Deriving omega 3s from algae, although a comparatively recent technical achievement, is a highly important “next leap forward.” Algal omega 3s provide tangible advantages on three core levels: ecological, economical and biophysiological.

As Berzin has noted, from an evolutionary standpoint, algae could be considered “the building block of life.” Photosynthesis—CO2 (carbon dioxide) fixing and O2 (oxygen) release by plants in the presence of water and sunlight—is the basic chemical reaction from which life on Earth was created. Less known, perhaps, is that more than 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere is from algae, simple unicellular and colonial multi-cellular life forms (think kelp and seaweeds) that, while resembling plants don’t always conform to that kingdom—and sometimes demonstrating traits of the animal kingdom.

Algae are a primary source of nourishment at the base of the food chain. Algae also are the source of marine omega-3s that traditionally have been derived for consumers from fish and seafood. Algae also are natural synthesizers of important molecules and compounds in addition to omega-3 fatty acids, including proteins and hydrocarbons (being developed as alternative fuel sources) plus powerful antioxidants.

That’s not the only ecological advantage of algae as a source for functional ingredients. These biological marvels are highly renewable and they love brackish water and harsh sunlight. Unlike a fruit or a seed, they have a fast growth profile and are incredibly efficient oil producers—each cell is a tiny treasure house of product and wholly utilized. And, of course, the impact on the marine ecosystem is nonexistent with pond-raised microalgae. On an industrial scale, methods for growing and processing algae have proven to be modular and readily scalable, with low utilization of resources the open ponds themselves are completely sustainable. Their main energy source is sunlight, plus algae ponds act as efficient CO2 capturers, keeping that greenhouse gas from being released into the atmosphere.

Since omega-3s are concentrated in animal flesh as they move up the food-chain, there are other environmental advantages to sourcing algae from controlled ponds. Contaminants such as dioxins, PCBs and heavy metals also are concentrated as they move up the food chain. And the greatest ecological and economic advantages have to do with overall pressure on resources as the planet reaches 9 billion souls.

“Algae provide a source of omega-3 LC-PUFAs that does not exploit natural marine resources,” noted Berzin. “[There is] no disruption of the complex marine environment and food chain. Market demand is expected to outstrip the sustainable [marine] oil supply in 2014-15, so there’s a need for alternate source of omega-3s.”