If there’s anything resembling a super-supplement for your health, it’s got to be fish oil. It’s a powerful way to boost your heart health and improve your resistance to chronic disease.
So what exactly does fish oil do and what are the best fish oil supplements? We thought you might ask.
Part 1 ranks and reviews this year’s top 10 fish oil supplements in order. Part 2 dives into the science of how it works and what it does for your body.
Starting with our #1 recommended fish oil supplement:
Would it surprise you if you found out that a fish oil supplement made by a brick-and-mortar supplement shop with wide name recognition was both inexpensive and effective? Well, it’s true!
The Vitamin Shoppe’s fish oil offering provides over 1000 mg of omega 3 per softgel, and of this, 680 mg are EPA and 260 mg are DHA. These combine to make up 76% of the fish oil in the supplement, much higher than many of its competitors.
Its mercury levels are also tremendously low, as are its levels of PCB toxins.
The one drawback of The Vitamin Shoppe’s fish oil offering is its labeling. Though the omega 3, DHA, and EPA contents are high, the listed amounts on the label don’t quite correspond to what you get in the supplement.
In this case, you actually get a little more than you’re paying for, but inaccuracies like this might be a sign that the quality control is not quite what it should be.
As for other ingredients, there are essentially none! Aside from the fish oil, the only things The Vitamin Shoppe Omega 3 Fish Oil supplement contains are gelatin, glycerin, water, and a bit of vitamin E to act as a preservative.
When it comes to value and quality, it’s very hard to beat this product.
The fish oil supplement offered by Nutrigold is one of the top-selling online brands. Fortunately, its popularity is backed up by its quality.
Each softgel contains 1250 mg of fish oil; 1060 mg of this (88%) is omega 3 fatty acids. Of these, EPA and DHA account for 750 and 250 mg each.
Nutrigold derives its fish oil only from wild-caught whitefish from American waters, which sets it apart from some of its competitors. Though the capsule does include soy products, the soy protein has been removed, so if soy protein is a no-go in your diet, you should be okay.
If you have a severe soy allergy that can’t be pinned to the protein, you may still want to avoid Nutrigold Triple Strength.
For everyone else, though, it’s a tremendous deal: some of the most concentrated omega 3 fatty acids on the market for a pretty good price.
As you’d expect from a quality product, it also has lower than average mercury and PCB concentrations. Beyond this, there’s not much to say; this is another one for the minimalist camp!
If you want a fish oil supplement that really packs a punch, look no further than Via Labs Ultra Strength. Each capsule provides a full 1000 mg of omega 3 fatty acids, and 705 mg and 245 mg of EPA and DHA, respectively. Fully 83% of the fish oil was DHA and EPA.
This very high omega 3 content does make it a bit pricier than other products, but it’s hard to match when it come to raw omega 3 content.
Unlike other products on the market, there are no add-in ingredients: Viva Labs Ultra Strength provides no vitamin D3, no other omega fatty acids, and no flavoring. If you’re okay with a bit of a fishy smell when you open the bottle, it’s a good trade-off. This offering is for the minimalist; it does one thing (deliver a lot of omega 3) and it does it very well.
Note that you might also encounter Viva Labs’ products under the moniker of “Viva Naturals”; the company recently rebranded, so if you see a similar offering with this name, don’t worry—it’s not a copycat or imitation.
The fish oil supplement by OmegaVia is best viewed as a premium product. Even its branding gives it an air of precision and pharmaceutical care. Each softgel provides 1105 mg of omega 3 fatty acids, and of these, almost all of it is EPA and DHA (780 mg and 260 mg, respectively). Of the fish oil in the supplement, EPA and DHA account for 86% of the total.
As you’d expect, the mercury and PCB levels are extremely low; mercury was only at one part per billion, and PCB was below detectable limits as determined by an independent lab.
The label takes pains to point out that the fish oil is derived from wild-caught sustainably sourced Pollock and Whiting fish from Alaskan waters. The ingredients are similarly simple and high-quality; the only non-fish oil ingredients are the softgel constituents and a little bit of vitamin E to act as a preservative.
Though the quality is top-notch, there are other supplements that offer a better deal on omega-3s from a cost perspective. Nevertheless, OmegaVia fish oil is a good choice if you are looking for a top-quality supplement.
As the top-selling fish oil supplement on Amazon.com, Dr. Tobias Optimum Omega 3 has big-time name recognition. Each softgel capsule provides 1000 mg of fish oil, including 400 mg of EPA and 300 mg of DHA.
The fish oil contained in the capsules is derived from sardines, and the softgel is made of gelatin, glycerin, and food glaze. Vitamin E and a preservative coating round out the relevant ingredients.
According to analytical testing in an independent lab, Dr. Tobias Optimum Omega 3 contains 2 parts per billion of mercury—the upper limit for safety is 100 parts per billion, for reference. Of the 1000 mg of fish oil per capsule, 845 mg of that was omega-3 fat, or 85%.
In all, Dr. Tobias Optimum Omega 3 is just what you’d expect from a top-seller: reliable, consistent, safe, and containing nothing outrageously fancy or expensive. It’s a good option if you want a simple, no-nonsense fish oil supplement, and its quality is good.
Nordic Naturals has put a lot of effort into name recognition: they take care to point out that their fish oil comes from deep sea fish (anchovies and sardines), and that each batch is tested for toxin contents. Indeed, the mercury concentration and PCB (an organic pollutant that can accumulate in fish) is quite low.
The real interesting comparison is between Nordic Naturals’ own two offerings. In addition to the “Ultimate Omega D3,” the company also offers a lower-priced product called simply “Nordic Naturals Omega-3 Purified Fish Oil.” The ingredients are largely the same, but the concentration of omega 3 fatty acids is quite different.
The Ultimate version is definitely the one you want. It contains 685 mg of omega 3 per capsule, and 58% of the total fish oil in the product is DHA and EPA.
The regular version, in contrast, contains only 325 mg of omega 3 per capsule (less than half the Ultimate version!) and the EPA and DHA content makes up only 28% of the total fish oil content. Again, the DHA and EPA contents, in absolute amounts, are less than half that of the Ultimate version.
Given that the price difference is not a factor of two, it’s an easy call to make—get the Ultimate version.
The omega 3 fish oil offering from WHC supplies a hefty amount of EPA and DHA—670 and 395 mg per capsule, respectively. These fish oils are derived from a mixture of sardine, herring, mackerel, and anchovy.
It also contains vitamin D to boost your immune system and overall well-being; most people in cold climates don’t get enough vitamin D during the winter time seeing as the only natural way our body can produce it is via exposure to direct sunlight.
WHC UnoCardio is also naturally flavored with rosemary leaf. This helps mask the fishy smell that causes many people resentment when they take fish oil supplements.
Given that its imported from Belgium, its cost per serving is higher than average, but it’s quite pure, with less than 4 parts per billion of mercury and very close to the label-claimed amount of EPA and DHA, as determined by independent lab testing.
Another interesting quirk about WHC UnoCardio is that its softgel capsule is made from fish gelatin only, making it a good choice for pescatarians.
The fish oil supplement made by Nature’s Bounty is probably a familiar sight. It’s at drug stores and big box retailers across the country. How does its quality stack up?
In terms of raw omega 3 content, it is good but not great. Each softgel provides 750 mg of omega 3 fatty acids; of these, 435 mg are EPA and 240 mg are DHA. These fatty acids account for about 60% of the total fish oil content. This can be somewhat justified, based on its fairly low cost.
The quality is, again, good but not great. While it’s still at a safe level, the mercury content (five parts per billion) is higher than many of its competitors. Its PCBs are below detectable levels, though.
From an ingredients perspective, it contains some less desirable ingredients. While some of the highest-rated fish oil supplements have only a handful of ingredients—basically the fish oil plus a capsule—Nature’s Bounty contains a number of extra stabilizers, coatings, and preservatives.
This is less attractive if your philosophy is to limit your intake of these sorts of things, but if you care more about the big picture, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker.
The fish oil offering from New Chapter is a big-time seller online, even if you don’t recognize the brand name. Each capsule contains a lot of fish oil—2000 mg—but the amount of omega 3 fatty acids is mediocre. Some 20% of the fish oil in the supplement comes from EPA and DHA.
Because of this, it ranks very low in terms of cost. Its dollar to omega 3 fatty acid ratio is one of the worst on the market; this is simply a function of the supplement being priced higher than average but delivering lower omega 3s per serving than average.
Like some of its competitors, New Chapter Wholemega supplies vitamin D to shore up your dietary intake, especially in the winter months. It also provides a battery of omega 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 fatty acids.
If you’re looking to balance out your fatty acid ratios in your diet, it might be a good choice. These other fatty acids, however, are more prevalent in foods you’d typically find in your diet.
Omega 3s, and DHA and EPA in particular, are fairly rare, occurring in only a few foods. Incidentally, they are also the most-studied among the omega fatty acids when it comes to their health benefits.
As a widely-distributed and best-selling brand, Nature Made is a common sight at your local drug store, and as you’d expect, they have a fish oil offering. This particular product derives its omega 3 fatty acids from cod liver, which is a readily available and inexpensive source for fish oil.
However, the quality of the fish oil in Nature Made Cod Liver Oil is low. Only 20 percent of the fish oil in it is actually EPA and DHA, the two essential omega three oils, and each of these only amount to 50 mg per capsule. Other products have about ten times that much EPA and DHA.
Worse, the mercury content is higher than average. Though still low enough to be at a harmless six parts per billion, it is nevertheless two to three times higher than the mercury concentration of many of its competitors.
Part of this may be because of where the oil is derived from. Fish contain some mercury to begin with, but within a fish, the liver has more mercury than the rest of the body, since the liver’s job is to remove toxins, like mercury, from the body.
For these reasons, Nature Made Cod Liver Oil finds itself at the bottom of these rankings.
Part 2: Who should take a fish oil supplement, and what can it do for you?
In the world of supplements, fish oil is one of the most widely known; as its name suggests, it is the concentrated and purified form of the fats that come in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring.
Its health benefits are widely known; some research suggests it can improve heart health and possibly also decrease your likelihood of getting cancer or neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
Benefits of fish oil
Fish oil, and its main constituent, omega-3 fatty acids, first entered the public eye after health researchers and nutritionists noted the powerful health benefits of a Mediterranean diet.
For example, a 1998 scientific study by Michel de Lorgeril, Patricia Salen, and Jean-Louis Martin in France compared the long-term health of people with coronary heart disease based on their typical diet (1).
After controlling for possible confounding factors, like smoking and age, the researchers found that the patients eating a Mediterranean type diet—one rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and fish—was associated with a substantially lower risk of cancer and an increased survival rate from cardiovascular disease.
Remember, these subjects were people who already had heart problems!
One of the main constituents of the Mediterranean dietary pattern is “healthy” fat, as contained in olive oil and especially in fish. The fats contained in fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a particular type of polyunsaturated fat that is thought to have special benefits.
In the lab, under a microscope and in a Petri dish, omega 3 fatty acids demonstrate potent health-prompting effects. For example, a 1996 study by researchers at the University of Michigan demonstrated that omega 3 fatty acids have an anti-cancer effect on prostate cancer cells (2).
Naturally, scientists and doctors wanted to see if they could replicate these effects in real living human beings instead of just in microscopic cells in the lab.
Clinical trials were undertaken; these ranged from small, poorly controlled trials to large multi-center interventions.
The best way to gauge the success of a major health intervention like this is not to look at just one study (even if it’s a big one)—it’s to look at meta-analyses, a type of study which pools the results from many different studies and tries to detect an underlying trend.
A 2006 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by researchers at a number of Boston-based medical centers looked at the results of 46 studies on omega 3 fatty acids (3).
After pooling the results, the authors concluded that increased consumption of omega 3 fatty acids, whether from actual fish or from a fish oil supplement, reduces the risk of overall death, heart attacks and other “sudden death” occurrences, and may also exert a protective effect against stroke (the evidence was not definitive on this point).
One of the main mechanisms of action appears to be the ability of omega 3 fatty acids to reduce blood triglycerides, a known risk factor for heart disease. Though it seems counter-intuitive—how can consuming more fat reduce fat levels in your blood?—this hypothesis is backed up by good evidence.
A systematic review of fish oil supplements published by Guy D. Eslick and other researchers at the University of Western Sydney in Australia concluded that fish oil supplements produce a statistically significant decrease in blood triglycerides, with no apparent effect on cholesterol (4).
The benefits of fish oil may extend beyond heart health, too. A 1996 study by researchers in the UK found a negative correlation between the amount of fish oil in your diet and your risk of colorectal or breast cancer.
Additionally, emerging evidence indicates that fish oil may help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease too—a review by the Cochrane Collaboration published in 2009 found that, while there are no high-quality clinical trials on fish oil and cognitive decline, circumstantial evidence from observational and epidemiological studies indicates that fish oil and omega 3 fatty acids in particular might have a beneficial effect when it comes to preserving cognitive function (5).
Most studies on the clinical and health benefits of fish oil use between one and three grams of fish oil per day. The American Heart Association recommends people with cardiovascular disease consume one gram (1000 mg) of omega 3 fatty acids per day (7). For people who need to lower their blood triglycerides, larger doses of two to four grams (2000 to 4000 mg) per day can be used.
No recommendation is given for healthy people; they are simply encouraged to eat a diet rich in fish and healthy vegetable oils like flaxseed oil, canola oil, and soybean oil. Regardless, if you are looking for a number to use as a guideline if you are healthy, one gram or 1000 mg per day is probably a good place to start.
Side effects of fish oil
Fortunately, for such a powerful supplement, the side effects of fish oil are trivial. According to a study by Chenchen Wang and other researchers, the most common side effect is mild gastrointestinal symptoms: bloating, gas, etc (6).
These typically only occur at high doses (over three grams per day of EPA and DHA). Fortunately, this is lower than the typical dosage. In fact, half of the three hundred-plus studies reviewed in that Wang et al.’s article reported no adverse effects at all.
If you want a relatively painless way to improve your long-term health and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and possibly other health problems as well, fish oil is a great choice.
You may not need to take a fish oil supplement if you are healthy and you already eat oily fish on a regular basis. If not, start with one gram of omega 3 fatty acids per day. Make sure you check the label on your supplement; sometimes the omega 3 fatty acid content is far lower than the fish oil content.