Researchers Create Plant-Based Oil To Replicate Omega-3s in Fish

White woman's hands holding a dark brown bottle and a dropper of yellow-gold oil.

Isabel Pavia/Getty

Key Takeaways

  • DHA and EPA are omega-3 fatty acids important to our health, yet many Americans are not meeting the daily recommended intake.
  • Omega-3s are naturally found in oily fish. For those who avoid fish products, a newly-created genetically modified source of DHA and EPA offers similar effects on plasma levels as fish oil.
  • A non-fish alternative can help people who do not consume fish reap the health benefits of omega-3s.

According to a new study, genetically modified plants might be able to help you get omega-3 fatty acids in your diet if you do not eat fish.

People avoid fish and fish-based products for reasons such as taste, contamination concerns, cost, availability, and sustainability. However, fish—especially fatty fish like salmon and tuna—are rich in essential omega-3 fatty acids, which offer many health benefits.

Based on a study including almost 15,000 Americans, many U.S. adults are not getting enough omega-3s in their diets.

Researchers have created an oil from a transgenic (genetically modified) plant that produces the key fatty acids by genetically inserting certain enzymes into plants. The result is a product called C. sativa oil.

The researchers published an update about their novel genetically modified oil in the journal Nutrition Bulletin in December 2020.

As Good As Fish Oil?

The researchers conducted a clinical trial to evaluate whether the consumption of the C. sativa oil provides similar plasma levels of the fatty acids as consuming fish oil.

In a double-blind, cross-over trial, the researchers gave test meals to a group of healthy people. Some of the meals contained omega-3 fatty acids (450 mg EPA + DHA) from either C. sativa oil and the others used commercial blended fish oil.

“Based on the study results, the transgenic C. sativa oil is just as effective as fish oil as an omega-3 supplement in terms of bioavailability, incorporation into blood lipids, and accumulation in plasma lipids,” Colleen Woods, MS, RDN, registered dietitian and owner of tells Verywell. “It is also as well tolerated as fish oil, and may be more palatable.”

Other studies with a similar design have also yielded positive results. The new creation could be a welcomed alternative to fish and fish oil for people who would prefer to avoid these products.

Concerns About GMOs

Woods says that a potential issue with a non-fish DHA and EPA solution would be for people who are concerned about the unknown long-term effects of consuming genetically modified organisms (GMOs). 

However, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine has found no substantiated evidence that foods from genetically modified crops are less safe than foods from non-genetically modified crops.

The Health Benefits of Omega 3s

The human body can synthesize certain nutrients that we need, meaning that we don't have to get them through our diet. These nutrients are called non-essential because we do not have to consume them to meet our body's needs.

Essential nutrients, on the other hand, are nutrients that your body needs to function but cannot make on its own. That means we have to consume them to maintain our health.

DHA and EPA Omega-3 Fatty Acids

There are two omega-3 fatty acids that are key to health: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). The body can synthesize small amounts of these fatty acids, but not enough to meet the body's needs. That's why we need to consume omega-3s in our diet through food or supplements.

Omega-3s are mostly found in marine sources or fish oil supplements, but some foods like eggs are also fortified with them. Oily fish like salmon and tuna are key dietary sources of omega-3s.

The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2020-2025) recommend eating fish two to three times a week to get the benefits of these fatty acids.

DHA and EPA are not technically considered to be essential, but we need to include them in our diet because the body cannot synthesize enough to meet its needs.

Who Needs Omega 3s?

We all need omega-3 fatty acids to support our body's functioning, but some groups of people in certain health situations need them even more.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that people with coronary heart disease get approximately 1 gram of EPA plus DHA omega-3 fatty acids a day. Pregnant people need omega-3 fatty acids to support fetal brain and eye development.

Getting enough omega-3s also offers preventative health benefits. “Consumption of adequate amounts of DHA and/or EPA are also linked to reduced risk of depression, migraine relief, and reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes,” Brittany Scanniello, RD, a Colorado-based registered dietitian tells Verywell.

Limited Supply, Increased Demand

There is a need for an alternative source of these fatty acids that offer similar health benefits. Marine sources of EPA and DHA are decreasing as the demand for them increases, and some people avoid fish or fish products for other reasons.

“EPA and DHA production from seed oils is appealing as a source for fish farm feeding and direct use in humans, as most Americans are not getting enough long-chain omega-3s in their diets," Tom Brenna, PhD, professor of human nutrition a University of Texas at Austin, tells Verywell. 

A Solution for All?

If you follow a vegan lifestyle, can’t tolerate fish or fish oil supplements, or have other concerns about seafood intake, you'll benefit from having a non-fish way to meet your body's need for omega-3s. However, if you can include fish in your diet, doing so offers benefits that no pill can match.

"Seafood is not only the best dietary source of EPA and DHA; it is a whole package of essential nutrients including selenium, iron, zinc, and complete proteins that support growth, development, and maintenance of good health,” Brenna says.

What This Means For You

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA and EPA, are important for your health. Your body can synthesize some omega-3s, but not enough to meet your body's needs. You need to get them through your diet by consuming oily fish, supplements, and some fortified foods. If you avoid fish and fish products, genetically modified C.sativa oil can offer an effective way to get omega-3s.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Papanikolaou Y, Brooks J, Reider C, Fulgoni V. U.S. adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003-2008Nutr J. 2014 Apr 2;13:31. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-31

  3. West A, Miles E, Lillycrop K, Han L, Savanova O, Napier J, Calder P, Burdge G. Postprandial incorporation of EPA and DHA from transgenic Camelina sativa oil into blood lipids is equivalent to that from fish oil in healthy humansBr J Nutr2019 Jun;121(11):1235-1246. doi:10.1017/S0007114519000825

  4. West A, Miles E, Lillycrop K, Han L, Naper J, Calder P, Burdge G. Dietary supplementation with seed oil from transgenic Camelina sativa induces similar increments in plasma and erythrocyte DHA and EPA to fish oil in healthy humansBr J Nutr. 2020 Nov 14;124(9):922-930. doi:10.1017/S0007114520002044

  5. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. A Science-Based Look at Genetically Engineered Crops.  

  6. National Institutes of Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids.

  7. United States Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025

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