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Marine Phytoplankton vs. Fish Oil

By Keri Gardner

The oceans of Earth contain billions of fish and phytoplankton, both good sources of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, dietary omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce your risk of heart disease. Usually, oil extracted from fatty ocean fish is used to make omega-3 fatty acid supplements, but with the discovery of the same compound in phytoplankton, a new source of this essential nutrient is now available.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Your body cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, but they are essential to your health. These fatty acids can be consumed in foods or as supplements. Your brain needs omega-3 fatty acids to function properly and your body needs them for growth and development. The American Heart Association suggests consuming 0.5 to 1.8 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day as fish oil, or 1.5 to 3.0 grams per day from a plant source. Currently, it has no recommendations for phytoplankton sources.

Fish Oil Omega-3

Fish and fish oil contain eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, which is called DHA. These two types of omega-3 fatty acids have shown cardio-protective properties. The National Institutes of Health state that fatty fish provides about 1 gram of omega-3 fatty acids in 3.5 ounces of fish. It is recommended that you broil or bake your fish. Frying fish in other oils will cancel its protective properties.

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Phytoplankton Omega-3

Marine microbes called phytoplankton live in cooler, nitrogen-rich parts of the ocean, such as the north Atlantic and Pacific areas. These single-celled creatures live in the upper levels of the ocean, where they use solar energy to create molecules important to life. Omega-3 fatty acids make up half the body weight of phytoplankton called thraustochytrids. Analysis by Enviro-Health Research Laboratories determined total EPA and DHA levels to be 14.4 milligrams per gram of powdered phytoplankton.


Both fish oil and marine phytoplankton have essential omega-3 fatty acids, although phytoplankton has more omega-3 per weight. The lifespan of fish allows them to accumulate environmental contaminants, whereas phytoplankton have a short lifespan, sensitive to environmental change. An alternative source for omega-3 fatty acid supplements may assist an already-taxed fishing industry. Natural phytoplankton has seasonal variations in omega-3 fatty acid content, whereas fish oil is usually a standardized concentration.

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