Fish oil supplements are one of the most popular supplement categories worldwide. As more research has proven the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, more consumers have looked for a pill they can take regularly to optimize their intake.
But are fish oil supplements better than just eating whole fish? Which is a more cost-effective option? These two questions are what we’ll explore in this article.
Health Benefits of Omega-3
First it makes sense to summarize some of the health benefits of Omega-3 consumption, since these fatty acids are responsible for most of the health benefits of both fish oil and whole fish.
Chronic inflammation is a major source of health complications for modern humans. We eat worse, exercise less and stress more than our ancestors, and these factors combined have turned a useful inflammatory short-term response to a long-term risk factor. Inflammatory biochemical processes aren’t supposed to be a constant, but they are for many people.
Fish oil has been proven in medical research to reduce inflammation and lead to improved health outcomes.
Another powerful natural anti-inflammatory is Ceylon cinnamon, which is the healthiest of the five types of cinnamon.
Fish oil supplementation can reduce triglyceride levels, which are the fatty compounds associated with increased risk of cardiovascular events.
One study found that 4 grams/day of DHA + EPA (types of omega-3 fatty acids naturally present in fish oil) combined led to significant decreases in triglyceride levels.
One of the beneficial effects of fish oil which is the least discussed is its proven effects as an antidepressant. Since prescription antidepressants tend to have more severe side effects than prescription pills for the conditions listed above, this may arguably be its most powerful health benefit.
An Examine review of fish oil summarized 28 individual studies on fish oil to treat depression and found that it "seems to notably reduce the symptoms of depression". Here’s an example study which found that omega-3 supplementation decreased depression in patients with depression.
Fish Oil Supplements Vs. Fish Consumption - Cost
Fish oil supplementation dosage varies wildly based on health goals. Someone taking fish oil for depression will likely be taking a different dose than someone taking it for general maintenance.
To compare costs of fish oil vs. whole fish consumption, we’ll use the 1 gram/day combined EPA & DHA recommendation from the American Heart Association, referenced in the Examine review above.
Costco is generally one of the cheapest supplement providers and sells a 400 capsule fish oil supplement for $14.99. Each capsule contains 300 mg of EPA & DHA combined, so a consumer would need to take around 3 capsules to achieve the recommended dosage.
Even at 3 caps a month, the bottle will last 133 days, so that’s only $0.11/day for an effective dose of fish oil from a supplement.
To keep the comparison fair, we’ll analyze the cost of Costco sardines, which are one of their cheapest fish products and are very high in Omega-3s.
Costco sells a 6 pack of sardines for $11.49. Each product contains roughly 3 g DHA & EPA, or 3 days worth of fish oil.
Since the 6 pack of sardines only lasts 18 days based on the 1 g/day dosage, that makes them $0.64/day for an effective dose of fish oil from whole fish.
Based on cost alone, getting your omega-3s from a supplement is clearly superior to getting them from a whole food. It's nearly 6 times cheaper.
Fish Oil Supplements Vs. Fish Consumption - Quality
Fish oil, like nearly all unprocessed oils, is subject to degradation over time. It’s especially susceptible to oxidation based on medical research.
This means that fish oil degrades relatively quickly and can form harmful byproducts like hydroperoxides.
Fish oil is healthy, but to get the most benefit and limit risk you need to ensure you’re getting a high quality product with as little oxidation as possible.
Consumerlab, which is the most reputable online supplement testing website, has tested various fish oil brands for oxidation and many of them passed, including the Costco fish oil we mentioned above.
They also tested canned fish, and the canned sardines product we referenced above sold at Costco also passed the oxidation test.
What these test results reveal is that you can find high quality fish oil from either supplements or whole fish, and we have no reason to believe one category has generally better quality than another.