Dietary Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

As for saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, the omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are chemically linked to fat structures known as triglycerides in the various foods and oils that are consumed. The natural triglyceride or fat structure consists of a 3-carbon glycerol backbone onto which 3 long-chain fatty acids of varying types and structures are linked or 'esterified'. These are hydrolyzed by enzymes and digested in the small intestine thereby providing for their absorption, transport in the blood, and assimilation into cells and body tissues. Table 1 lists some common food sources of both the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids as found in a typical North American diet.

Table 1: Dietary Sources of Omega-3 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Fatty Acid Food Sources
(i) Omega-6 Types
LA, linoleic acid
(18:2 n-6)
Vegetable oils (corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean), animal meats
AA, arachidonic acid
(20:4 n-6)

Animal sources only (meat, eggs)

(ii) Omega-3 Types
ALA , (LNA) alpha-linolenic acid
(18:3 n-3)
Flaxseed, canola oil, English walnuts, specialty eggs
EPA, eicosapentaenoic acid
(20:5 n-3)
Fish, fish oils, marine sources
DHA, docosahexaenoic acid
(22:6 n-3)
Fish, fish oils, specialty egg/dairy products

In view of the high intake of vegetable oils containing n-6 PUFA directly and via various processed food products including meats, a typical diet contains 8-15 g/day of LA (omega-6) but much lower intakes of the omega-3 types. ALA consumption ranges from approximately 1.3-2.0 g/day or approximately 0.6% of total energy intake. In contrast to the considerable intake of ALA from plant sources, the intake of fish/fish oil-derived DHA/EPA (combined) represents approximately 0.13-0.15 g/day (130-150 mg/day) which is 0.05% of total energy intake or about 1/10 of the intake of ALA. The vast majority of the DHA plus EPA as consumed in the North American diet is from fish/fish oils with much smaller amounts from selected animal sources (e.g., eggs, some meat sources) and none from plant food/oils regardless of their ALA levels. The overall ratio of omega-6:omega-3 fatty acids in the current North American diet ranges from 6:1 to approximately 10:1.

Selected food sources of a-linolenic acid (ALA) are given in Table 2. Some of the common plant oils have significant levels of ALA - e.g., 7% by weight in soybean oil, 10% in canola oil, and approximately 20% in hemp oil. Much higher amounts are found in the oils from flax, perilla (Japan and elsewhere), and chia (Argentina and elsewhere) with approximately 50-60% of the fatty acids being in the form of ALA.

Table 2: Alpha-Linolenic Acid Content of Various Foods and Oils
(100 g raw edible portion)
ALA (g) Source
(100 g raw edible portion)
ALA (g)
Nuts and Seeds Legumes
Almonds 0.4 Beans, common (dry) 0.6
Beechnuts (dried) 1.7 Chickpeas (dry) 0.1
Butternuts (dried) 8.7 Cowpeas (dry) 0.3
Chia seeds (dried) 3.9 Lentils (dry) 0.1
Flaxseed 22.8 Lima beans (dry) 0.2
Hickory nuts (dried) 1.0 Peas, garden (dry) 0.2
Mixed nuts 0.2 Soybeans (dry) 1.6
Peanuts 0.003  
Pecans 0.7 Grains
Soybean kernels 1.5 Barley, bran 0.3
Walnuts, black 3.3 Corn, germ 0.3
Walnuts, English and Persian 6.8 Oats, germ 1.4
  Rice, bran 0.2
Vegetables Wheat, bran 0.2
Beans, navy, sprouted (cooked) 0.3 Wheat, germ 0.7
Beans, pinto, sprouted (cooked) 0.3 Wheat, hard red Winter 0.1
Broccoli (raw) 0.1  
Cauliflower (raw) 0.1 Fruit
Kale (raw) 0.2 Avocados, California (raw) 0.1
Leeks (freeze-dried) 0.7 Raspberries (raw) 0.1
Lettuce, butterhead 0.1 Strawberries (raw) 0.1
Lettuce, red leaf 0.1
Mustard 0.1
Purslane 0.4
Radish seeds, sprouted (raw) 0.7
Seaweed, Spirulina (dried) 0.8
Soybeans, green (raw) 3.2
Soybeans, mature seeds, sprouted (cooked) 2.1
Spinach (raw) 0.1
Data from Kris-Etherton et al. (2000)

Recently, strains of flaxseed oils have become available which contain approximately 70% by weight of the oil as ALA which is significantly higher than the 50-55% found in conventional flax oil varieties. Table 3 gives the levels of EPA plus DHA in a few selected fish and seafood.

Table 3: Fish and Seafood Sources of DHA plus EPA
(100 g portion)
Anchovy, European, raw 1.449
Carp, cooked, dry heat 0.451
Catfish, channel, farmed, cooked, dry heat 0.177
Cod, Atlantic , cooked, dry heat 0.158
Eel, mixed species, cooked, dry heat 0.189
Flatfish (flounder and sole), cooked, dry heat 0.501
Haddock, cooked, dry heat 0.238
Halibut, Atlantic and Pacific, cooked, dry heat 0.465
Herring, Atlantic , cooked, dry heat 2.014
Mackerel, Pacific and jack, mixed species, cooked, dry heat 1.848
Mullet, striped, cooked, dry heat 0.328
Perch, mixed species, cooked, dry heat 0.324
Pike, northern, cooked, dry heat 0.137
Pollock, Atlantic , cooked, dry heat 0.542
Salmon, Atlantic , farmed, cooked, dry heat 2.147
Sardine, Atlantic , canned in oil, drained solids with bone 0.982
Sea bass, mixed species, cooked, dry heat 0.762
Shark, mixed species, raw 0.843
Snapper, mixed species, cooked, dry heat 0.321
Swordfish, cooked, dry heat 0.819
Trout, mixed species, cooked, dry heat 0.936
Tuna, skipjack, fresh, cooked, dry heat 0.328
Whiting, mixed species, cooked, dry heat 0.518
Crab, Alaska king, cooked, moist heat 0.413
Shrimp, mixed species, cooked, moist heat 0.315
Spiny lobster, mixed species, cooked, moist heat 0.480
Clam, mixed species, cooked, moist heat 0.284
Conch, baked or broiled 0.120
Mussel, blue, cooked, moist heat 0.782
Octopus, common, cooked, moist heat 0.314
Oyster, eastern, farmed, cooked, dry heat 0.440
Scallop, mixed species, cooked, breaded and fried 0.180

It should be noted that algal oils have recently become available as a source of DHA (free of EPA) for infant formulas and other functional food fortification. There has been a marked increase in the use of high quality liquid fish oils containing DHA plus EPA as ingredients in a wide variety of functional foods (e.g., liquid eggs). Furthermore, stable and microencapsulated forms of DHA plus EPA (with varying amounts and ratios of DHA:EPA) have been utilized in a whole plethora of processed food formulations (breads, yogurts, snack foods, etc). In view of the resistance of the North American and other populations to increase fish consumption as a source of DHA plus EPA for health despite recommendations by health care agencies and professionals, it is apparent that functional foods will became an ever-increasing source of these important nutrients in the omega-3 family.


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