Algae Oil

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Algae oil is the name given to oil products that are extracted from various types of edible algae. We still do not know a lot about these organisms. Algae are a collection of species that are one of the most primitive forms of life. They can be single celled organisms (like micro algae) or giant algae residing in marine environments. Kelp for example grows to giant proportions in shallow sea beds and is a very nutritious seaweed. Algae are being commercially farmed for a variety of oil products. Edible Algae oil is a suitable source of DHA, a kind of omega – 3 fatty acid which provides numerous health benefits for our brain, nervous and cardiovascular system.

Algae are also grown to produce biofuels and these fuels are then substituted for crude oil derived fuels. These fuels are environment friendly. But we here are concerned with the edible oil produced by algae naturally and a thorough analysis of its health benefits vis-à-vis other natural supplements that can provide similar nutrients. We do know that algae derived oil can have sufficient amounts of chlorophyll, carotenoids, anthocyanins, polyphenol compounds, sterols that act as antioxidants and micro-nutrients.

Source

There are millions of species of algae on our planet. Most of the are viable for use in producing biodiesel, other kinds of fuel and industrial applications. However, for use as a nutritional supplement oil, only a select few certain species of algae can be used. This is because many algae species also produce compounds that can be highly toxic to humans.

When we think of algae, our mind instinctively goes to the green slimy growths that come up in ponds and shallow water bodies, and on some beaches. However, numerous species of algae have been consumed as food since ancient times. Chinese culture uses the most diverse variety of seaweeds and other types of algae in their cuisine. The Japanese cuisine, inspired by traditional Chinese customs, too makes use of many sea-based algae products in their diet. New Zealanders and Pacific island nations also use algae in their foods. One of the algae species has been turned into a health fad, spurning a massive industry around it. We all know it as spirulina and its health benefits are hotly debated.

Algae oil is extracted mostly using the Soxhlet process. Under this method, the algae species to be used, let’s say kelp, is harvested and dried either in the sun or in the shade. There are many other traditional methods of drying. Then the dried algae mass is put into the Soxhlet apparatus and the oil is extracted by passing hexane (the solvent) vapor through the dried mass and condensing the hexane back again.

Although we would like to use naturally growing algae to make oil, recently a new trend and method has emerged. Now algae are being cultivated in large artificially constructed ponds. They are grown in shallow water and fed water and nutrients. This method is believed to be better because the growers can control the assimilation of toxic compounds into the algae and thus keep toxic compounds to a minimum. But even naturally harvested algae oil is processed to remove out toxic substances, like heavy metals.

Method of production of algae oil from algae grown in an algal pond
Although algae naturally have omega – 3s, they are sent through an enrichment process to enhance the level of omega – 3. The whole production process is slightly elaborate, but these are the basic biochemical changes that take place.

  • The algae species is first allowed to grow in a controlled environment which is a biomass plant or an artificial pond.
  • The algae are then sent through a controlled fermentation process. During this process, environmental factors like temperature and UV radiation are controlled to enhance omega-3 content as well as other commercially viable products.
  • The biomass is then used for extracting oily products from the lipids generated. The oil is usually extracted by solvent extraction. As a result, most algae oils are not mechanically pressed oils, and as such, are not purely organic.
  • The oils are then refined and separated. This way, we obtain biomass residue, omega- 3 and biodiesel as end products. Some firms use supercritical fluid extraction using carbon dioxide gas.

Due to the involvement of solvents during extraction process, it is essential that people buy from reputed sellers. Few products conform to the industry and governmental standards regarding safety and are tested for harmful solvents before being sent to the market. In some countries, regulations are weakly enforced and there may be mushrooming of unscrupulous manufacturers trying to jump onto the omega-3 supplement industry bandwagon.

Properties

Algae oil possesses some therapeutic properties because of its nutritional value. Naturally, the strength of any therapeutic property would depend on the algal species used and the quality controls deployed during extraction.

  • Anti-inflammatory – Algal oils are generally rich in polyunsaturated fats (PUFA). Most species are rich in one crucial omega-3 fat, known as DHA. It is an essential fat that our body needs from diet and cannot synthesize on its own. DHA is acted upon by certain enzymes that create anti-inflammatory eicosanoids (signalling molecules) inside our body. Anti-inflammatory nutrients are needed to calm inflammatory conditions like acne, psoriasis, arthritis and many others that work using similar pathways. [1]
  • Antioxidant – The oil possesses some level of free radical fighting capacity due to the presence of carotenoids, polyphenols, anthocyanins and some amount of Vitamin E. DHA also acts as pro-antioxidant and antioxidant. [2] Any food rich in antioxidants lowers oxidative stress in our body which prevents our cells and their internal sub-systems (organelles like mitochondria) from damage. Antioxidants are not just good for the skin but for the entire body. Consumption of food rich in antioxidants exerts an anti-ageing effect.
  • Anti-Cancer – The DHA form of omega-3 fatty acid has anti-cancer properties.
  • Cardioprotective – Omega-3 fatty acids are potent, healthy fats. They have been known to protect the cardiovascular system and lower the risk of heart diseases.
  • Brain health – Deficiency of DHA in diet can lead to a decline in mental faculties.
  • Anti-aging – This effect, as mentioned above, is courtesy mainly of the antioxidants in the oil.

Health Benefits and Uses

Algae oil provides many powerful health benefits, mainly because of DHA form of omega-3 fatty acids and some other micro-nutrients in smaller amounts.

Cardiovascular Health

A widely cited study has shown that DHA from algae lowers blood triglyceride levels after consumption of food and also at fasting stage. Previous research done using fish liver oil (which contains both EPA and DHA) have shown that as levels of DHA in the blood rise (as part of the membranes of red blood cells), it reduces the risk of atherosclerosis. It is therefore inferred that algae-based supplement oils are beneficial for the cardiovascular system. [3]

Intake of algal oil also has a beneficial effect on blood pressure, but this is only moderate. Thus, it may only serve to be a preventive approach but may not be able to replace medication in someone who is suffering from hypertension. In another review paper that summarized the health benefits and effects of EPA and DHA, it was concluded that DHA definitely leads to a reduction in heart rate (pulse) and lowers the risk of atrial fibrillation. [4]

Algae oil has merits for consumption to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. But what remains to be understood is whether fish oil provides much greater protection than algae oil, given that it naturally contains both EPA and DHA and that these two have complementary health benefits. There could be synergies between the two omega-3 fatty acids which we might miss out on if we take only algae oil.

People who are on a vegetarian diet would benefit from algae oil as their diet may end up being deficient in both EPA and DHA. Only a handful of vegetarian sources provide omega-3, that too, in the form of Alpha-linolenic acid (abbreviated ALA). These include sources like walnuts, flaxseed, chia, perilla etc. The problem here lies in our body’s poor conversion of omega-3 in ALA form to the usable forms, EPA and DHA.

Neurological Benefits

DHA has been found to be crucial for the functioning of memory. It was therefore studied whether it could play a role in arresting the decline of memory in people suffering from Alzheimer’s. The results of different studies vary a lot. One randomized controlled study on a large sample (295 persons) did not find any notable alleviation of symptoms of Alzheimer’s if DHA supplements are taken. [5] In this study, they had used algal DHA. But this single study doesn’t erode the fact that DHA is crucial for cognitive functions. There could be a finer line here. Another study found that people who were suffering from MCI benefitted from supplementation of DHA (240 mg per day) and arachidonic acid (240 mg per day) over a long period of 12 months. MCI stands for mild cognitive impairment and signals the beginning of Alzheimer’s. The same dosage of supplements did not benefit in Alzheimer’s. [7]

However, this does not mean that DHA does not confer neurological benefits. Other studies have proven that DHA helps to mitigate normal age-related memory decline. Elderly people who consumed fatty fish once a week were able to score better on learning and memory-based tasks. [6]

The role of DHA is not just related to memory. It is in fact a crucial structural component of our brains. It is found in the cell membranes of neurons where it occurs as phospholipids. Correct functioning of the outer covering (membrane) of the neurons is vital to protect them from external threats. DHA protects our brain cells and nerves from oxidative damage. Its decline in a certain region of the brain may be responsible for the decline of the function controlled by that region. For example, hippocampus controls memory, the frontal cortex governs thinking tasks, cerebellum maintains balance and fine tasks like artwork, and so on.

Secondly, omega-3 fats play a critical role in preventing neurodegenerative diseases. In numerous studies it was found that people suffering from such diseases had lower levels of omega-3 fats in their body.

Another neurological condition in which DHA can play a pivotal role is in the prevention and alleviation of a major depressive episode. We know that supplementation with omega-3 rich foods or as supplements definitely helps with depression. But the extent to which DHA alone is responsible, and of the effects of various ratios of EPA and DHA on the alleviation of symptoms, are not clearly known. Harvard is conducting a large-scale study to address these questions definitively. [8] They are also exploring synergies between omega-3 and vitamin D. It is categorically proven that low vitamin D levels can lead to depression. It happens to many people during the winter months.

People who follow a strict vegetarian diet should make sure to include sources of omega-3 in their diet. Apart from some nuts and seeds, there are not that many sources of omega-3s in vegetarian spectrum of foods. Algae and oils extracted from them are therefore very useful. Although most algae oil is only rich in DHA, a few of them have been found to be rich in EPA also. We have mentioned one such source below.

New research is indicating that the mechanisms by which omega-3 fats, like DHA and EPA, help to protect the nerves are manifold. One of the ways is by reducing inflammation of the nervous tissues.

Anti-Inflammatory

Algal oil, like salmon oil is potent at reducing systemic inflammation. It is known that this kind of inflammation can lead to genesis and aggravation of inflammatory conditions like acne or arthritis. Omega-3 fats are renowned for their inflammation calming actions. Inflammation is not something negative, per se. It is a natural response of our immune system to stressful events, like a bruise or a cut, an infection, exposure to harsh sunlight and so on. However, only in some people does the inflammation process go out of bounds. And the mechanism that control the extent and severity of inflammation, the anti-inflammatory processes as we call them, become deficient and weak.

Omega-3 fat rich foods, like salmon or cod, bolster up the anti-inflammatory response. Our body’s digestion process acts upon the fatty fish, algae or krill, and the digestive enzymes acting on EPA and DHA lead to the formation of numerous compounds that exert anti-inflammatory action. Let’s talk about DHA specifically. DHA causes to form the notably anti-inflammatory hydroxy fatty acids. DHA also generates the pro-resolving mediators which includes Resolvins, Protectins and Maresins. Now, these have been discovered recently. They come into play when the stressor that caused the inflammation has died out, so now the inflammatory response must shut down. They help with the resolution phase, that is the last phases of inflammation.

Consumption of algae rich in DHA can aid in reducing the symptoms of a wide range of inflammation-based conditions. This includes, but is not limited to – rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, adult asthma, allergies, psoriasis, lupus, type-1 form of diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, age related decline in memory, balance and cognitive function. [9], [10]

People who sustain on a vegetarian diet may be able to obtain only minor amounts of EPA and DHA (100 to 200 mg per day) unless they are consciously eating foods like flax or chia seeds. Medical studies point out that surprisingly enough, even non-vegetarians might not be getting adequate amounts of omega-3 fats. One should take at least 1 fatty fish per week, or its equivalent in terms of omega-3 fats. The minimum that we should be getting per day is around 350 mg. And we can easily go higher for obtaining more visible, concrete results that show. In fact, those who are suffering from a chronic inflammatory condition, like rheumatoid arthritis, may be needing higher than normal amounts of EPA and DHA.

Algae oil for Skin

Algae oil can be applied on the skin. It is especially helpful in reducing the appearance of wrinkles. Algae oil usually comes in enteric coated capsules. As a home remedy, one can prick open these capsules to release the oil. Apply a small amount on the skin after removing the make-up. This oil may feel dense and greasy. Many varieties of algae oil have a fishy odor, although much less intense than fish oil.
Certain species of algae oil may be rich in carotenoids, like beta carotene. This carotene is a form of Vitamin A and is found in many orange colored foods. High amounts of Vitamin A increase the skin cell turnover rate. This is helpful in acne. The skin sheds much faster, leaving behind a dry skin. When the skin has less oiliness, bacteria that aggravates acne starts to diminish. This eventually leads to a reduction of acne on the skin.

When an oil containing DHA is applied topically, our skin begins to act on it. Lipoxygenase enzymes acting on DHA releases strongly anti-inflammatory eicosanoids known as 17-HoDHE. These are signalling molecules that inform the immune system to tone down the inflammatory response. It can play a role in reducing swelling, pain, redness and itching on the skin. [1]

Consumption of DHA rich foods reduces the risk of damage to the skin caused by long exposure to harsh ultraviolet radiation. It improves the innate sun protection of our skin. People who regularly consume omega-3 rich foods can stay longer in the sun without a sun burn. [1]

Omega-3 fats, including DHA, bolster our body’s wound healing capacity. [1] As mentioned before, algae oils when processed with care, contain significant amounts of micro-nutrients that exert powerful antioxidant effects whether applied on the skin, or consumed internally. These are the polyphenols, phytosterols and chlorophyll as well.

Algae oil may also prove to be helpful in psoriasis. With more research on this condition, we should be able to find out how effective algae oil turns out for psoriasis.

Chemical Composition

The relative proportions of fatty acids vary widely in algae oils. Different species of algae within the broader classification of micro-algae vs macro-algae, and based on color (red, blue and green and more) produce fats and micro-nutrients as per their personal needs. But we can get a representative idea and that helps us to understand the basic organic chemistry that it exerts inside and outside our body.

A sample of algae oil extracted from micro-algae species named Schizochytrium aggregatum contains the following major fatty acids.

Fatty acid Carbon notation and type Percentage
Palmitic acid C 16:0 Saturated 38.3%
DHA (Docosahexanoic acid) C 22:6 n-3 (omega-3) 34.5%

Source: 11

We have extolled the virtues of DHA already. Palmitic acid is a saturated fat which is also a cleanser and emollient for the skin. But there is another powerful nutrient in many algae species that we have not yet listed. It is the Arachidonic acid. It is a long chain saturated fatty acid and belongs to the omega-6 category. Along with DHA, it is also a major constituent of the phospholipid-based membranes of brain tissue, muscle tissue and the liver. It plays a prominent role in modulating the inflammation response of our immune system. Because it is a structural component of the muscles, it is required for healthy, strong muscles.

Our body obtains arachidonic acid mainly from consumption of meat. People who are vegetarian do not generally fall deficient of it because our body converts linoleic acid (from vegetable oils) to arachidonic acid. However, with age, or due to some metabolic disorder, if the body cannot synthesize it from linoleic acid, then we begin to see a deterioration of cognitive function and muscular strength. Due to this risk, it is widely regarded by nutritionists as conditionally essential for the body. [12]

Now that we know that algae are a good source of arachidonic acid, they would form a suitable supplement for people who are strictly vegetarian and are also on a low-fat diet (under which they limit the usage of edible vegetable oils). People suffering from high cholesterol and advised to tone down the consumption of fats in diet.

A study published in the journal Lipids in Health and Disease tried to find out a link between algae from tropical or arctic waters and the richness in essential fats. Their findings are of immense benefit to use.

Nutrient Algae species and color Common name Source
EPA Palmaria palmata (red) Dulse, creathnach Ireland coast
DHA Sargassum natans (brown) Tropical Atlantic
Arachidonic acid Laminaria hyperborean (brown) Tangle, Cuvie North Atlantic
Chondrus crispus (red) Irish moss North Atlantic

Source: 13

This comes as good news for vegans. There do exist some algae species whose oil is rich in EPA. Case in point is the Palmaria palmata which is known in Iceland as SÖL. Its brownish red leaves have been eaten in islands in the north Atlantic for over a millennium.

Algae oil does contain polyphenols and flavonoids. Many of the health benefits of berries are due to polyphenols. Flavonoids and anthocyanins belong to the broader class of polyphenols. For decades, we have known about the presence of these compounds, and they are found only in very minute amounts. Despite all our modern, ultra-precision laboratories, we still do not know about the exact mechanisms through which this broad class of compounds benefits us. There is still a myriad of processes that mother nature has kept from us. What this means is that we know that consumption of foods rich in polyphenols – the berries, citrus fruits, grape and grape seed, tea, coffee, pomegranates and so on, reduce the risk of developing almost any kind of disease. They were thought to be working as antioxidants, but that has not yet been proven. Well that is something for the budding researchers to work on. As for now, it is best strategy to maximize our consumption of these micronutrients. [14]

Side Effects, Safe Dosage and Toxicity Issue

A short-term study was carried out to evaluate toxicity issues related to consumption of algal oil in rats. The study did not report any negative effects due to the supplementation. [15]

But that is not the complete picture. A comprehensive review paper on algae has noted that many algae may be contaminated with dangerous toxins. One of them is kainic acid, which can be found in some dwarf varieties of Palmaria palmata but not in the regular variety. It interferes with the transmission of information by our nerves. Another problem is the accumulation of heavy metals in algae. There are instances of copper, chromium, cobalt, arsenic and cadmium being found in algae. This can actually be common in algae growing naturally off the coast from cities that are, or were, industrial townships. Mercury pollution near the shores of Japan is known world over. As human populations have grown, extent of pollution has almost decimated major portions of the oceans, including coral reefs, deltas, coastal marshes, mangroves and littoral regions. Since many seaweeds grow in the shallow seas, they naturally uptake the heavy metals dumped by us. [16]

Another set of toxins can be cyanobacteria clinging onto algae. These can create deadly poisons. The issue of risk of algae oil causing allergies has not been studied deeply. [16]

Does that mean we should stay away from algae foods or algae oil? Well not in entirety. There are still some oceanic locations where macroalgae grow in pristine, oxygenated, nutrient rich waters. These can be incredibly healthy.

Many of you might be knowing that algae derived DHA is now being used in food products for infants and lactating mothers. We need to tread with utmost caution as algae products, if not harvested and processed in a scientifically rigorous method, can be dangerous.

Some algae oil firms are marketing it as a cooking oil with a mild, almost undetectable flavor. However, there have not been extensive studies that quantify long terms risks or benefits to health from using algae oil as cooking oil. Its credentials look good on paper though. It has a high smoke point and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is favorable. However, we need more information about how fast it gets rancid, any degradation of antioxidants and nutrients over time, how heat affects the oil and how does it get absorbed and assimilated in our body.

Buying and Storage

Buying an algae oil supplement is even more complex and confusing. The market does not have much choices and there are some sellers who maybe just trying to sell off cheap product for big bucks. As we have seen, selecting the right species of algae from the right location, cleansing and drying process, oil extraction and packaging, are all scientific process. Detection of toxins and heavy metals, especially in minute amounts, require sophisticated labs. It is only natural that firms employing such precise level of quality control would mark up their product at a higher than average price.

One should buy algae oil from firms that transparently display chemical composition, algae species and its location, refining processes used and shelf life. We are optimistic that as more research emerges on algae oil, there would be more reputed manufacturers entering the market, which is a big win for all of us because competition drives the prices down. Despite the presence of antioxidants, algae oil is prone to getting rancid fast. It should therefore be purchased in smaller bottles and kept away from direct sunlight. Cold water algae prefer colder temperatures. Shelf life is poor mainly because of the heavy dominance of PUFA fats which get oxidized quickly.

References

  1. Essential fatty acids and skin health. Linus Pauling institute at the Oregon State University.
  2. Pro- and antioxidant activities of docosahexaenoic acid on human blood platelets. Vericel E. et al, J Thromb Haemost. 2003 Mar;1(3):566-72.
  3. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and cardiovascular disease risk factors. Holub B.J., Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Aug-Sep;81(2-3):199-204
  4. (n-3) Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Health: Are Effects of EPA and DHA Shared or Complementary? Dariush Mozaffarian and Jason H.Y. Wu, J Nutr. 2012 Mar; 142(3): 614S–625S.
  5. Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation and Cognitive Decline in Alzheimer Disease. Joseph F. Quinn et al, JAMA. 2010 Nov 3; 304(17): 1903–1911.
  6. DHA Supports Brain Development and Protects Neurological Function. Lifeextension.com
  7. Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Early Prevention of Inflammatory Neurodegenerative Disease: A Focus on Alzheimer’s Disease. J. Thomas et al, Biomed Res Int. 2015; 2015: 172801.
  8. Omega-3 fatty acids for mood disorders. David Michoulson, MD, PhD, Harvard Health Blog.
  9. Essential Fatty Acids – Oregon State University.
  10. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Inflammatory Processes. Philip C. Calder, Nutrients. 2010 Mar
  11. The oxidative stability of microalgae oil (Schizochytrium aggregatum) and its antioxidant activity after simulated gastrointestinal digestion: Relationship with constituents. Junwei L.V. et al, European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology.
  12. A review on algae and plants as potential source of arachidonic acid. Sanaa M.M. Shanab, Journal of Advanced Research.
  13. Polyunsaturated fatty acids in various macroalgal species from north Atlantic and tropical seas. Vincent JT von Ginneken et al, Lipids Health Dis. 2011; 10: 104.
  14. The role of polyphenols in modern nutrition. G. Williamson, Nutr Bull. 2017 Sep; 42(3): 226–235
  15. Safety evaluation of Algal Oil from Schizochytrium sp. Fedorova Dahms I., Food Chem Toxicol. 2011 Jan;49(1):70-7
  16. Algae as nutritional and functional food sources: revisiting our understanding. Mark L. Wells, J Appl Phycol. 2017; 29(2): 949–982.

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