What Is 'Algal DHA' and What Is Its Role in Food?

Last month, I once again went to the source of a food (nutrient), as part of my ongoing effort to see food production firsthand and address any questions or concerns that I have on behalf of U.S. consumers. Unlike recent trips to Australia, Brazil, Costa Rica and Alaska, this trip hardly took me off the beaten path: from DC I traveled to Columbia, Maryland -- but rather it had me traveling through time both the past and the future.

Algae are some of the oldest living organisms on the planet, yet, as I learned, they also hold promise for helping to address nutrition, ocean and energy issues today as well as into the future. One key reason: the algae I went to see are an exceptionally rich source of the essential fatty acid, DHA.

During my tour of Martek's facility in Maryland, I learned that this discovery -- of what is known as life's DHA by Martek today -- occurred as part of a now defunct space project.

My interest in algal DHA stemmed from wanting to know more about something appearing in today's food supply, but equally from my growing concern for sustainability, or survival, of the oceans as pollution and the harvesting of forage fish for the isolation of DHA and EPA threaten the viability of our oceans even for the next generation. Thus, I came with a slew of questions about algae, which is a vegetarian source of the essential fatty acid, DHA, compared to that found in wild fish (salmon, sardines, etc.). However, upon arrival at Martek's Maryland laboratory, a wall of products which contain the laboratory's algal DHA (life's DHA) greeted me and stirred all sorts of additional questions about how algal DHA makes it into some of our most common food products today.

After a tour of the facility, by Martek senior scientist, Dr. Casey Lippmeier, and a sit down question and answer period with their vice president of scientific affairs, Dr. Jim Astwood, I arrived at the following observations about algal DHA and its role in the American diet today:

1. All Americans need to consume DHA, especially women of child-bearing years and young children -- and consuming it from different dietary sources can help ensure adequate levels as well as absorption. Algal DHA is a vegetarian source that is equally well, if not a better absorbed DHA than other vegetarian sources of essential fatty acids that require additional steps to make DHA usable.

2. Fish sources of DHA also include other omega 3 fatty acids as well as other omegas (there are as many as 16 different omegas), vitamins, protein and antioxidants. Algal DHA is not meant to replace wild fish sources, but it can complement modest fish consumption (1-2 servings weekly of wild fish) in the diet to ensure sufficient DHA intake. For those who don't consume fish, algal DHA presents an opportunity to get this core, essential, nutrient into the body.

3. According to Martek, they do not remove the DHA, isolate it, but rather provide the DHA in its whole food form which also contains small amounts of other fatty acids and nutrients -- levels and types of which are strain dependent.

4. Martek works with food manufacturers, and I was able to visit their test kitchen to see how they actually do some of the food development and testing work themselves, to ensure that the DHA quality is not compromised in the production or packaging of the final product.

5. The DHA in one serving of products containing life's DHA varies and is not intended to deliver one's entire dose of DHA; that said, some products, like the organic eggs do contain an excellent serving of DHA -- eggs contain levels as high as 150 mg per egg.

Martek's DHA is not genetically modified: This was a big issue for me, and I was able to see firsthand how strains are selected to deliver the highest quantity and quality of DHA. I've seen this in farming -- where the most productive plants or seeds are the ones selected for future use so this made sense to me.

And I note my final conclusions here. I left feeling quite comfortable and excited about the opportunity for algal DHA to help rectify core nutrition today: imbalanced fatty acid consumption (for most, this means insufficient intake of omega 3 fatty acids). I believe that the addition of algal DHA to animal feed, soil, and food products can help accomplish this goal in a healthy way. That said, just because DHA is added to a food product does not mean that one can discount or minimize the importance of core nutrition principles for optimal health. I believe it healthier for babies to consume breast milk than formula, but both should be rich in DHA. As valuable as DHA is to the diet, and it is termed essential because we have to get it from our diet, I believe it as critical to reduce our intake of chemicals by consuming organic food products (and by organic that also means non-genetically modified). And as great as the need to get DHA into our diet is, it doesn't overshadow the negatives of a diet derived from high glycemic load carbohydrates (i.e., fruit drinks, refined flour products, etc.) and otherwise nutrient poor foods or food products.