Fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, and mackerel are some of the best natural sources of omega-3 fatty acids (1).
Because of this, most people reach for fish oil supplements when they want to boost their omega-3 intakes.
But what about vegans and vegetarians? Are there good vegan supplement options available for them too?
To answer this question, let’s review the different types of omega-3 fatty acids and then discuss which vegan omega-3 supplements are best.
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What Are the Different Types of Omega-3s?
There are many different types of omega-3s fatty acids, but only a few have been well-studied for their health benefits (1).
The three main ones are ALA, EPA, and DHA.
Let’s review each one in-depth to learn more.
1) Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA)
ALA is a “short-chain” omega-3 fatty acid, because it contains only 18 carbon atoms (2).
It is also an essential fatty acid, meaning that the body cannot make it and we must get it from food.
ALA is the main vegan omega-3 fatty acid, found mostly in plant foods.
Some of the best sources include:
- Perilla Oil: 8820 mg ALA per tablespoon (3)
- Flaxseed Oil: 7196 mg ALA per tablespoon (4)
- Chia Seeds: 4915 mg ALA per ounce (5)
- Echium Seed Oil: 3745 mg ALA per tablespoon (6)
- Walnuts: 2565 mg ALA per ounce (7)
- Ground Flaxseed: 1597 mg ALA per tablespoon (8)
- Canola Oil: 1279 mg ALA per tablespoon (9)
- Soybean Oil: 917 mg ALA per tablespoon (10)
- Hemp Seeds: 868 mg ALA per tablespoon (11)
- Mustard Oil: 826 mg ALA per tablespoon (12)
- Edamame: 555 mg ALA per cup (13)
- Navy Beans: 322 mg ALA per cup, cooked (14)
- Brussels Sprouts: 270 mg ALA per cup, cooked (15)
- Cauliflower: 208 mg ALA per cup, cooked (16)
- Broccoli: 186 mg ALA per cup, cooked (17)
- Spinach: 166 mg ALA per cup, cooked (18)
As you can see, it is generally easy for vegans to get enough ALA in their diets. Just one serving of walnuts provides more than the average adult needs in a day (19).
But… eating ALA alone isn’t enough.
ALA is just one type of omega-3, but we also need the other two types, EPA & DHA.
Humans can convert ALA into EPA (which can then be converted into DHA), but not very effectively (20).
It is estimated that only 8 to 21% of ALA is converted to EPA, and 0 to 9% is converted to DHA (21, 22). Women appear to be roughly 2.5 times better at this conversion than men, perhaps due to hormonal differences (23, 24).
To get around the genetic variability and overall poor conversions between ALA, EPA, and DHA, many people choose to take EPA & DHA supplements. That way, you know exactly how much you are getting.
However, ALA still has some benefits!
While ALA does not appear to have the exact same health benefits as EPA and DHA, it is still a required nutrient in our diets (29).
Preliminary studies show that ALA may enhance heart health, protect against inflammation, and improve brain function, but more research is needed (30).
Since ALA is relatively abundant in foods, it is not commonly taken as a supplement.
2) Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)
EPA is a “long-chain” omega-3 fatty acid, because it contains 20 carbon atoms (2).
EPA is found mainly in seafood, especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and roe (fish eggs/caviar). One cooked 3-oz wild salmon filet contains about 1,500 mg of EPA + DHA combined (31, 32).
Grass-fed meats are also “good” EPA sources (containing at least 30 mg of EPA + DHA per 100 grams), which is on par with the amounts found in some white fish, but still far less than fatty fish contain (33).
Grass-fed dairy and pasture-raised eggs contain even smaller amounts, but still serve as the main sources of EPA for some vegetarians (34).
Are there any vegan sources of EPA?
Unfortunately, there aren’t many plants that contain substantial amounts of EPA.
The main source is microalgae. However, since algae is relatively low-fat, it is not a very concentrated source.
To get around this, most people take algal oil supplements, which are highly purified sources of both EPA and DHA (35).
Microalgae is actually the original source of omega-3s in the marine food chain, which is why seafood is one of the best food sources of EPA and DHA (36).
You might also see krill oil available on the market, but krill are actually small marine animals and are not vegan.
Many omega-3 fortified food products are also available, but it is important to read the label to make sure they contain EPA and/or DHA, and not just ALA.
Reading the ingredients list will tell you whether a vegan source like algal oil was used.
What are the health benefits of EPA?
This is why people talk about the importance of having a good balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. More omega-3s = more anti-inflammatory eicosanoids, while too many omega-6 fatty acids can spur inflammation.
Large doses of EPA (and DHA) also help lower triglyceride levels by simultaneously reducing triglyceride production and increasing triglyceride clearance (40).
This is why high doses of fish oil are often recommended for people with dyslipidemia (41).
3) Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
DHA is also a “long-chain” omega-3 fatty acid, with 22 carbon atoms (2).
It can be made from EPA, but humans are not very good at this conversion. Because of this, most people consume DHA through food and/or take supplements.
What are the food sources of DHA?
Food sources of DHA are generally the same as EPA. The highest amounts of DHA are found in fatty fish, but microalgae is a good vegan source as well (46).
What are the benefits of DHA?
DHA is excellent for vision and the nervous system.
Like EPA, high doses of DHA can help lower triglyceride levels and reduce inflammation.
How Much Omega-3 Is Needed?
Recommendations vary based depending on why you're interested in taking omega-3s.
For General Health
Of the three most common omega-3 fatty acids, only ALA has an official “Adequate Intake” of 1.1 grams per day for women and 1.6 grams per day for men (19).
An “Adequate Intake” (AI) is basically the amount of a nutrient that is ASSUMED to be adequate for overall health. This type of recommendation is made when there isn’t enough evidence to establish a “Recommended Daily Intake” (RDA).
In contrast, there are no official intake recommendations for EPA and DHA at this time.
For reference, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics officially recommends the higher dose of 500 mg EPA + DHA daily (57).
Instead of recommending a specific amount, some organizations simply suggest consuming fatty fish two times per week, since it is a natural source of these nutrients (58).
Unfortunately, most Americans are not meeting these recommendations and only get about 100 mg of EPA + DHA per day (59).
For Vegans and Vegetarians
However, it’s important to note that there is currently no evidence that vegetarians and vegans consuming low amounts of DHA have any additional adverse health effects (60).
During Pregnancy & Breastfeeding
For Health Conditions
People with inflammatory conditions may benefit from even higher intakes of omega-3s.
The American Heart Association recommends 1,000 mg of EPA + DHA (combined) per day for people with a history of heart disease, taken under the guidance of a physician (65).
However, there is some concern that using high-dose EPA or DHA as an anti-inflammatory may be more of a nutraceutical approach, simply blunting the inflammatory response without actually getting to the root cause of the inflammation (39).
The Importance of Vitamin E?
Vitamin E is a major fat-soluble antioxidant within the body that helps prevent this oxidation.
Some researchers believe that people taking supplemental omega-3s may need additional vitamin E to prevent excessive oxidation, but there has been no real consensus in the literature (73, 74, 75, 76, 77).
Possible Downsides of High-Dose Supplementation
Studies suggest that using omega-3’s to reduce inflammation may not always be a good thing if that inflammation was acting in a protective manner (78).
For example, one study in mice found that giving high doses of omega-3’s reduced intestinal inflammation, but actually increased the risk of sepsis, because the inflammation was protecting against bacteria crossing into the bloodstream (79).
As always, you should speak with your doctor before beginning any new supplement regimen.
Do Vegan Omega-3 Supplements Work as Well as Fish Oil?
To boost absorption, omega-3 supplements should be taken with meals, and preferably ones that contain fat (84).
How to Choose a Good Vegan Omega-3 Supplement
Here are some quick tips for choosing a good omega-3 supplement:
- Look at EPA & DHA levels: A high-quality omega-3 supplement will indicate exactly how much EPA & DHA it contains per serving. If it does not specify, pick another option.
- Check for quality: Omega-3s can oxidize and go rancid, so look for products stored in the refrigerated section or ones that contain natural antioxidants like rosemary to extend their shelf-life.
- Toss it if it smells: If your supplement smells strongly fishy or gives you yucky-tasting burps, it may have gone rancid and should not be taken anymore.
- Choose a triglyceride form: Omega-3’s naturally exist in triglyceride form in food, and most over the counter supplements are also in this form (although technically they have been purified and then re-formed into triglycerides to increase the proportion of EPA/DHA). Some high-dose prescription supplements come in ethyl ester form (similar to a monoglyceride, but with an ethanol backbone) or as free fatty acids, but some studies show that these are not as well absorbed or utilized by the body (84, 85, 86, 87).
If you are not sure whether you would benefit from an omega-3 supplement, you could consider testing your EPA & DHA levels first.
If you do plan on starting an omega-3 supplement, be aware that it can take up to 2 weeks to see differences in EPA levels and up to 1 month to see differences in DHA levels on this test (93).
The Best Vegan Omega-3 Supplement
There are hundreds of vegan omega-3 supplements to choose from, so we’ve narrowed it down to two of the best algae based omega 3 products from our favorite brand.
Both varieties contain a combined total of at least 500 mg EPA + DHA per serving, at least 200 mg of DHA, and are lab-verified to be high-quality.
Please note that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
A soft gel form of algal omega-3 is also available from Nordic Naturals. It contains 390 mg DHA and 195 mg EPA per serving (which is 2 softgels).
Labdoor did an independent analysis on this supplement and rated it a 97.9/100 for overall quality.
When tested, it actually contained slightly more EPA & DHA than claimed on the label and was within the California Prop 65 limits for heavy metal contamination and had not gone rancid.
This is an especially good option because it is affordable and easily found in grocery stores or bought online here.
This lemon-flavored liquid omega-3 supplement from Nordic Naturals contains 350 mg DHA and 200 mg EPA per serving (1.5 mL).
This supplement is a great choice for anyone who cannot tolerate swallowing softgels or who would prefer to mix the oil into smoothies or shakes.
Like Nordic Natural softgels, this product is generally easy to find in stores and can be bought online here.
Safety & Side Effects
Safety of Omega-3 Supplementation
Omega-3 supplementation is generally considered to be low risk, especially at doses below 5 grams per day (94).
However, you should always consult with your physician before taking a new supplement.
This is especially true for people taking blood thinning medications, because some studies (but not all) have shown an increased risk of bleeding in people taking high doses of omega-3 supplements (95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100).
Your doctor can help you decide whether the benefits outweigh the risks and periodically monitor your bloodwork.
Possible Side Effects
Spacing out your supplements into smaller doses throughout the day may help reduce these effects.
Supplementing with DHA may also increase LDL cholesterol levels, but this increase appears to be relatively small (only about 3%) for doses around 2,000 mg per day (94).
This does not appear to happen with high dose EPA-only supplements, but more research is needed (103).
All three types of omega-3s are important, but evidence shows that EPA and DHA may have unique benefits, especially for reducing inflammation and boosting brain and retinal health.
Vegan foods, such as nuts and vegetable oils, contain large amounts of ALA, but EPA and DHA are mainly found in animal foods (fish and meat).
Because there are not many adequate vegan food sources of EPA and DHA, those who follow a vegan diet often have lower levels of these fatty acids in their blood. Though, it’s unclear whether these lower levels are harmful.
Algal oil supplements are often recommended as a low-risk option to increase vegan EPA and DHA intake.
There are no official recommendations for dosing, but most organizations suggest around 500 mg of EPA + DHA per day for general health.
Our preferred brand of vegan omega-3 supplements is Nordic Naturals, which can be found in most stores or online.
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This article was a joint-venture, written by both Erica Julson, MS, RDN, CLT (owner/founder) and Amy Richter, MS, RDN, LD, CLT (lead writer). You can learn more about Erica at www.theunconventionalrd.com and check out Amy's website at www.amyrichternutrition.com