Plant-based eating has taken over the food space in a serious way, and while it's awesome you can get an Impossible Whopper at Burger King or a Beyond Meat breakfast sandwich at Dunkin', consumers are hungry for more than just beef substitutes. That's why plant-based chicken and fish alternatives (a small but growing part of the alt-meat market) aregoing to really start taking off on store shelves in 2020.
While vegan-izing meat always comes with challenges nutrition-wise, plant-based fish in particular offers its own hurdles. Fish is one of the best sources of brain- and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids—a nutrient that can be difficult to obtain from non-animal sources. But vegan fish is potentially closer than ever to mimicking its seafood counterpart both in taste and nutrition...by sourcing omega-3s from algae.
How omega-3s from algae compare to omega-3s in fish
AlgaPrime DHA is one company that sources omega-3s from algae in order to provide a sustainable food source to aquaculture and livestock companies. "Fish get their omega-3s by eating smaller fish, and smaller fish eat algae. Algae is the original source of the omega-3s," says Jill Kauffman Johnson, AlgaPrime DHA's head of global market development.
"Certain [types of] algae are the original form of the omega-3s EPA and DHA," agrees registered dietitian Amy Gorin, RD. "So when a fish eats that algae, this is one of the main ways the fish gets omega-3s in its system."
Gorin says that it is possible to get the same omega-3 benefits from algae instead of from fish, so long as you're eating algae with both EPA and DHA, the two most bioavailable forms of omega-3 fatty acids. Both benefit the body, but Gorin says DHA is the one you really want to make sure you get enough of, as it's crucial for brain health. "There are thousands of different types of algae, so the sourcing really does matter," Johnson says. (Her company uses a type of algae called schizochytrium.)
Gorin is into the fact that more plant-based seafood companies and vegan omega-3 supplement brands (like a just-launched one from Simris) are using algae, but emphasizes that if you really want to make sure you're reaping the same benefits as fish, it's important to see how much EPA and DHA is in the product. A serving of salmon, for example, typically has 1.8 grams of EPA and DHA. "When you’re shopping for supplements, you should look to choose one providing at least 250 milligrams of EPA and DHA," Gorin says. Supplements should list how much is used on the label, but with plant-based seafood brands, you may have to do some digging on their company website.
She's into algae omega-3s more than ahiflower, another vegan omega-3 source supplements often use. Gorin explains that ahiflower doesn't naturally contain DHA, the component important for brain health. "It has the omega-3s SDA and ALA, but only some of that is converted to EPA and DHA," she says. "Estimates show that 5 to 21 percent of ALA converts to EPA and less than 1 to 9 percent convert to DHA. So I recommend algae-based omega-3s over ahiflower."
How vegan omega-3s from algae is sourced and used
To source the omega-3s from algae, Johnson says AlgaPrime DHA grows microalgae in fermentation tanks. "The microalgae come straight from the ocean and they are a tenth of the width of a strain of hair, very small," she says. "We put them in the fermentation tanks and feed them sugar and some other nutrients. Then, they divide, growing plump with oil. They look like little balloons." The algae is then taken out of the fermentation tanks and dried, and the oil can be extracted.
Chad Sarno, the founder and senior vice president of culinary innovation of plant-based seafood company Good Catch says he was drawn to omega-3s sourced from algae because it provides the nutritional benefits of seafood without sacrifice. "Our oceans and sea life need attention," he says. "United by love of good food, plant-based eating, and animal welfare, we are on a mission to raise consciousness, reduce harm, and preserve environmental resources." Another benefit of using algae: it has a fishy taste, making plant-based seafood even more realistic.
Every 3.3 ounce serving of Good Catch's plant-based tuna has 350 milligrams of DHA, which Sarno says is sourced from algae oil (similar to what AlgaPrime DHA makes, although they use a different supplier). "The tuna has has all the main nutritional benefits of conventional seafood, minus the mercury, microplastics, and other toxins that come with consuming fish," Sarno says. He adds that the protein profile is also comparable to fish thanks to a combo of plant-based protein sourced from peas, chickpeas, lentils, fava beans, soy, and navy beans.
No one is saying fish isn't a phenomenal way to get your omega-3s. But it's not the only way, intel that's becoming increasingly important as plant-based eating continues to rise in popularity. As with any food product, it's important to do your homework and label reading to see how much EPA and DHA is in the product to ensure you're truly getting a comparable serving to fish. But with a little research—and a lot of innovation by brands—it's a trend within a trend to watch.
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