More About the Differences Between ALA and EPA/DHA

May 17, 2012 Print Friendly and PDF

Walnuts - a good source of ALA


You may know that eating fish is good for your health in many ways, and you may have heard this is because fish is rich in omega-3 fats.  You may have also heard that walnuts and flaxseeds are high in omega-3s.  Despite what you may have heard, while walnuts and flaxseeds are high in omega-3s, they are not high in the same healthy omega-3s that fish are.  Fish are rich in omega-3 fats called EPA and DHA, and walnuts and flaxseeds contain omega-3 fats called ALA.  While ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in fish and many animals, this conversion in adult humans is less than 1% efficient.  In other words, since so little ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA in humans, it is important to get more of these nutrients through the things we eat; or if we can’t, through supplements.

EPA and DHA are the omega-3s that make the news!  They are also the only nutrient that is available in prescription form to alleviate a health problem - high triglycerides.

Sources of good fats

Fish and fish oils- rich in EPA & DHA


From a scientific perspective, all fats are made of chemical elements that are bonded together in chains.  The chains of EPA and DHA are much longer than ALA and they are held together by more bonds. Human bodies can change ALA to EPA and DHA, but not very well and only in very small amounts.  

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.