Where to Source Plant Based Omega 3

Seaspiracy on Netflix

Hands up, who watched Seaspiracy on Netflix this month and immediately vowed to give up fish? So much of the information highlighted in that film was shared with me by a friend who works in ocean conservation five years ago. My main reason for going completely veggie back then was learning about the depleted fish levels in the ocean and the worries over rising levels of plastic and mercury in our food chain. 

Up until my mid-thirties, I'd always eaten fish. In fact I loved seafood. Moules mariniere, kitch seventies style prawn cocktails in those tall, thick rimmed glasses and deep fried squid with mayo dip were always my favourites! When I learned more about the impact of food on our digestive system, I decided to cut out crustaceans. Crabs, lobster, crayfish, shrimps, prawns etc are all 'bottom feeders', that is, they eat the c**p at the bottom of the ocean! I was disappointed to find out that some species of fish weren't perhaps as healthy for my skin as I'd initially assumed, but for a few years I still continued to eat wild salmon and tuna to get my dose of Omega 3s. 

So, is fish really our best source of Omega 3? 

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids. If you're looking to make changes to your diet in order to heal your skin, omega 3 oils are incredibly important. Not only do they look after the brain and heart, they're specifically recommended to keep our skin healthy because they reduce the risk of many autoimmune diseases and lower the production of some substances released during our body’s inflammatory response.

There are three main types of omega-3 fatty acid:

  • ALA - alpha-linolenic acid
  • DHA - docosahexaenoic acid
  • EPA - eicosapentaenoic acid

Importantly, Omega 3 fish oils contain both DHA and EPA. Fatty fish are the richest source of these beneficial acids, but we can also source our Omega 3 DHA and EPA by eating algae or seaweed.

Most other plant sources, such as vegetables, nuts and seeds, are rich in ALA.

  • Chia Seeds
  • Hemp Seeds
  • Flax Seeds
  • Walnuts 
  • Edamame Beans
  • Kidney Beans

Our body has to convert ALA into longer chain fatty acids DHA and EPA, but that doesn't mean that by following a plant-based diet you're going to be deficient in these. In fact, according to findings from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study, women following vegan diets had significantly more long-chain omega-3 fats in their blood, compared with fish-eaters.

So long as you're eating a wide variety of healthy vegetables, seeds and nuts, a vegan diet will not prevent you from consuming adequate levels of omega 3. This study found that people who follow vegan diets, on average, have healthy intakes above the recommended amounts for omega 3 fats.

Other Vitamins From Fish

As well as essential omega oils, fish are a fantastic source of Vitamin D. Without adding foods specifically fortified with Vit D into our diet, there are very little plant-based alternatives. Mushrooms are our primary vegan option and of course most importantly getting a dose of daily sunshine which can significantly replenish our Vitamin D levels. Using my Vitamin D Face Cream when you're outside can help boost both your intake and metabolisation levels.

Fish is also rich in calcium and phosphorus as well as being a great source of minerals, including iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium. Many leafy green vegetables provide excellent plant-based sources of these same nutrients, some in significantly higher quantities.

Seaspiracy Fact or Fiction?

Seaspiracy is not a movie for the fainthearted. From the horrific practice of dolphin killing in Tiaji, Japan, to the finning of one hundred million sharks a year, the devastating truth is that these things are happening. Whilst some people are questioning the accuracy and bias of some of the studies referenced in the film, not even the filmmakers biggest critics could argue that there aren’t some areas of the fishing industry engaging in shocking techniques and practices which needed to be highlighted.

Will Oceans Really be Depleted by 2048?

The Marine Stewardship Council have insisted “fish stocks can recover and replenish if they are managed carefully”. According to Sustainable Fisheries, the myth that our oceans will be completely depleted by 2048 originates from a 2006 study. They claim the study has since been proven factually incorrect and state that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) estimate instead that 66% of fisheries are in fact sustainable, contributing 78.7% of consumed seafood. They argue that a further study completed in 2020 estimates that the status of fish stocks from all available scientific assessments, comprising roughly half of the world’s fish catch, shows, on average, that they're increasing.

Is 'Dolphin Safe' Fish Unsafe?

Before the 1950's, fishermen used to fish for tuna using an old fashioned pole method. They'd bait the dolphins, encouraging tuna to swim up to the surface and then catch them using large poles. By the middle of the twentieth century, they realised using a net was an easier way to snare more fish in one go. Scientists estimate that more than six million dolphins have been killed by Pacific tuna fishermen through using this practice. American law now prohibits the labeling of tuna caught this way as “dolphin safe.”

The change in public perception came in the late eighties, when biologist Samuel LaBudde went undercover as a chef on a Panamanian tuna vessel. Throughout his four month voyage, he filmed hundreds of dolphins dying as they were hoisted out of the ocean, some falling back into the sea with flippers and beaks broken or ripped, only to become ensnared again moments later. In response to the public outcry that resulted as a direct response to the documentary, the big three US tuna companies agreed in 1990 that they would not purchase tuna captured in nets along with dolphins.

The problem, as highlighted by Seaspiracy, is that tinned tuna has become a global commodity with very long supply chains. This, in turn, opens up countless opportunities for fraud and deception along the way. As we saw in the documentary, companies can not one hundred percent guarantee that their tuna has been caught without causing harm to dolphins. Sadly 'dolphin safe' is not guaranteed to not cause unnecessary suffering to dolphins. 

Mercury Levels in Fish

Mercury levels in fish have become a rising concern and should be an important consideration, especially for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, since unborn babies and newborns are very sensitive to mercury. 

Methylmercury is toxic to our central nervous system, specifically our brain and spinal cord. Too much mercury can cause irreversible damage. It isn't just problematic for children though, too much mercury in adults can lead to significant stress on our kidneys, as they work hard to do the job of filtering this toxin.  

So how does mercury become a problem in the first place? Mercury occurs naturally in the earth's crust. The burning fossil fuels and environmental disasters such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions release it into the air. Eventually particles settle on the land and seep into our waterways where bacteria and other microorganisms begin the job of converting mercury into methylmercury. Then fish and shellfish in the water begin to absorb it.

The highest mercury levels in fish can typically be found in large species such as King Marlin, Tuna, Swordfish and Shark. This makes sense as these fish live longer, allowing more time for levels of mercury to build. The FDA has shared this chart which can help you make better choices to opt for fish with low levels of mercury. 

PCBs in Fish 

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are highly toxic industrial compounds. These chemicals can build up in the fatty tissues of fish and in high concentrations pose serious health risks to people who frequently consume them. Although America banned the use of PCBs in the late seventies and the UK followed suite in 1981, they take so long to breakdown they're still appearing in our food chain more than forty years later. PCBs tend to accumulate in the sediment at the bottom of waterways such as rivers, lakes and coastal areas and consumption of fish living in these environments bring them into the food chain.

What About Farmed Fish?

Farmed fish are bred in floating net pens which are located in purpose built, cold water tanks or near the ocean shore. Some manufacturers promote this sort of captive sea catch as being “ocean raised”, rather than using the word “farmed”, so it's important to read and understand food labelling carefully. Since Seaspiracy questions the sustainability and ethical issues surround wild caught fish, do farmed fish provide a kinder and more sustainable alternative?

So unhealthy they lose their colour

One part of Seaspiracy which really stuck out for me, was the food colourings added to farmed salmon. The flesh of wild salmon is naturally pink because they eat so much shrimp. However, almost 90% of the salmon sold in UK supermarkets is farmed, and there is no obligation to state on label that a food colouring called canthaxanthin has been used to dye the fish. Without the addition of this pinkish, orange colouring, farmed salmon would essentially be grey and research shows that customers do not want grey salmon.  

Antibiotics routinely fed to farmed fish

Another concern when it comes to farmed fish is the levels of bacteria in their tanks. Because farmed fish are crammed together in such a small space, the spread of infection is rife. When a small percentage of these fish become infected, the disease is likely to spread rapidly through the entire pen. To control the problem, farmed fish are routinely fed preventative antibiotics, which in turn end up in our food chain. Antibiotics can wreak havoc with our gut bacteria creating an imbalance, and this in turn can impact our skin. 

Farmed fish are non sustainable

We might think we're solving the global sustainability problem by purchasing fish specifically bred for that purpose, but unfortunately that's not the case. Fish kept in tanks are fed on a cheap diet of pellets, made from anchovies, sardines, and other small fish. For every pound of farmed salmon, it takes two to three pounds of small fish pellets to feed them, so sustainability-wise this doesn't compute. 

Mercury and PCB levels are equally high

Whilst you might think levels of PCB would be lower in farmed fish, research shows that is not the case. In fact in 2004, this study found the levels of PCBs to be ten times higher in farmed fish than in wild-caught fish. Mercury concentrations in farmed fish (and in wild fish) is directly related to their diet, and only indirectly to their environment. The small positive of farmed fishing seems to be overall lower levels of mercury, possibly because diet can be better controlled. According to this 2017 Italian study, fish from intensive farming showed lower than average levels of total mercury.  That said, farmed fish can also contain higher levels of inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids, which can contribute to inflammation in the body. These acids have the potential to worsen symptoms of autoimmune disorders.

Conclusion

When it comes to skin health, eating fish specifically is non-essential. It's important to ensure you're getting plenty of omega 3's, but as has been proven, this is perfectly possible through a plant-based diet rich in vegetables, nuts, seeds and seaweed. 

Furthermore, certain species of fish can be particularly problematic, especially for pregnant women or breastfeeding mums, due to their high mercury content. And consumption of farmed fish in a gut-friendly diet is not recommended due to uncertain levels of antibiotics and PCBs. 

Including Fish

If you would like to include fish in your diet, opt for wild-caught, low mercury varieties. Salmon, mullet, herring and anchovies are your best bet for lower mercury levels. Buying from a local fishmonger can give you a clearer insight into where the fish has been caught. Fishmongers are usually knowledgeable about fishing practices and know exactly where the catch has come from. 

Going Plant-Based

If you would prefer to source your omega 3 vitamins and minerals through plant-based foods, ensure you're including plenty of nuts, seeds and vegetables in your diet. You might even like to try adding seaweed or spirulina for a wider variety of omega 3 acids. 

If you're not sure where to begin with seaweed as a food source, going for something like a seaweed spaghetti or a regular sushi pack could be a great starting point. Spirulina can be bought as a powder, it's a strong taste on its own, but fantastic added to smoothies. 

Missing Fish?

Banana Blossom are the tear shaped flowers found at the end of a banana cluster. When they're battered and fried, the colour, shape and texture bear a striking resemblance to fish. Try using alongside seaweed to create a delicious alternative recipe to fish and chips. 

There are also lots of new fish substitutes available on the market! I should add, I have not personally tried and tested any of these. Meat substitutes always intrigue me, although I generally don't miss meat or fish enough to ever bother buying any. But here are a few options now available in the UK. 

Vegan Fish Replacements

Fishless Fingers Made from soya protein wrapped in breadcrumbs, these fish fingers are suitable for vegans but not gluten free. Available from Waitrose at £3.60

Sashimi Vegan Fancy sushi vegan style? Sure, you could just use avocado, carrots and cucumber, but why not give this vegan sashimi a try? Mixed reviews and pricey at £9.29 it's available here

Smoked Non-Salmon Eat it straight out of the packet, pan-fry it, or used as a garnish for your fave meal, this vegan salmon claims to be the closest thing you'll get to the real smoked stuff! At £9.99 for 120g

More Vegan Smoked Non-Salmon Made from seaweed and microalgae, so you know you're getting your omega 3's! This unique, vegan salmon tastes amazingly authentic due to the beechwood smoking process. Buy at Planet Organic for £8.50

Plant-Based Tuna Receiving incredibly mixed reviews from customers, but guaranteed dolphin friendly! This tinned tuna substitute from Tesco is available here at £1.50 a tin

 

Have you tried any plant-based alternatives to fish? Do share any thoughts, questions or experiences in the comments below. 

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