8 Best Vegan Alternatives To Fish Oil — Get Your Omega-3 Directly From The Source!

By Jen Evansy / February 16, 2020

This list of plant-based healthy fats is perfect for anyone keen to find an excellent omega-3 source. Whether you are vegan or not, you'd be pleased to see that these plant-based omega-3 alternatives to fish oil can give you a very healthy boost.

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Vegan foods that contain omega-3

There is no doubt that meat-free and plant-based diets are gaining more and more popularity. By eliminating food groups from your diet, you may be at risk of missing out on certain micronutrients. That is why it is important to find good vegan alternatives and substitutes so that you can stay healthy and meet all your nutritional needs.

In particular, omega-3 fatty acids, which are vital for brain function, healthy eyes, and healthy skin. Non-vegans can get their fatty acids from foods like the fish, such as salmon or sardines, to name but two. However, for vegans, those sources are, of course, not an option, and they have to look elsewhere.

What Is Fish Oil?

caught fish

As the name suggests, fish oil is a product of fish tissue. Some fish have a particularly high fat content compared to others. That includes salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, trout, anchovies and shrimp.

Whiter fish, like cod, haddock or bass, have lower levels of fish oil in their tissues and are therefore not such good sources of omega-3.

While fish oil is a good source of omega-3, it is completely non-vegan.

What Is Omega-3?

omega 3

Omega-3 is what is known as an essential polyunsaturated fatty acid, crucial to health. The essential part means that we cannot produce it ourselves. Instead, we need to obtain it externally through what we eat.

It has been linked to controlling triglyceride levels and it is deemed to be good for mental health, eyesight, cardiovascular health, and joints.

There are three primary fatty acids in omega-3, and all three are hugely important to our nutritional and health needs. They are:

  • Docosahexaenoic acid
  • Eicosapentaenoic acid
  • Alpha-linolenic acid

Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one of the omega-3 fatty acids that tends to be predominantly found in fatty fish. DHA is present in every cell in your body – that is how important it is. It is especially important for the function of the brain, eyes, and skin. However, despite that intimate relationship with DHA, our bodies actually cannot manufacture it, and there it needs to be obtained externally. Other benefits of DHA include reducing triglycerides and managing bad cholesterol levels. [1]

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) also plays a pivotal role in the health of your body and again needs to be sourced through diet. Like DHA, it is rare in plants but commonplace in some fatty fish. EPA is especially beneficial for good heart and joint health, helping with weight control issues and cognitive function, especially in growing children.

Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA)

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is another vital fatty acid that is critical to human life.

Like DNA and EPA, ALA needs to be sourced externally through diet. ALA is required for neurological health and could help to prevent the likes of serious medical conditions such as stroke and high blood pressure. [2] ALA differs from DHA and EPA in that it can be found in things like nuts, seeds, and dark leafy greens.

While ALA can be commonly found in plant sources, DHA and EPA are predominantly found only in fish and marine sources. However, predominantly does not mean exclusively.

Can Vegans And Vegetarians Consume Fish Oil?

vegan written on the pavement

Veganism is defined by the Vegan Society as:

Vegan Society

vegansociety.com

“…a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”[3

By that definition, one would certainly then exclude fish oil.

Vegetarianism also excludes the consumption of animal flesh but does permit the eating of animal products such as egg and milk (unlike veganism). However, despite that difference from veganism, a vegetarian diet should also exclude the consumption of any fish products.

For those vegetarians that eat fish, pescatarians, fish oil would be fine. However, being a pescatarian and being vegetarian really are two very different things.

What Is The Difference Between Plant Omega-3 And Fatty Acids From Fish?

a woman thinking

There are a few differences. For a start, plant omega-3 is cruelty-free. Nothing has to suffer or lose its life for you to be able to consume it.

Another thing to consider is that a lot of fish, especially mass-produced "factory farmed" fish, can come with not only omega-3 but a range of unpleasant toxins, such as mercury and dioxins. [4] Needless to say, you would want to avoid those whenever possible, especially women.

In Short, Why Is Vegan Omega-3 Better Than Fish Oil?

  • Vegan omega-3 is cruelty-free.
  • It is free of dangerous toxins and chemicals.
  • It is a much better option for the environment.
  • It is plant-based and more sustainable.

Fish oil production is, in contrast, is massively unsustainable as humans are ruthlessly pillaging the oceans with industrial scale fishing. Also, not everyone likes the taste of fish, including non-vegans! Having other tastier alternatives is becoming more and more popular!

Best Plant-Based Omega-3 Sources For Vegans

plant omega-3 oil in the bottle

1. Algae Oil

Algae are simple plants that live in water and can range from the microscopic to large seaweeds such as giant kelp.

Algae is considered one of the most efficient groups of organisms on Earth and are not only an excellent source of omega-3, but they are also a good source of biofuel, aquafeeds for the aquaculture and agriculture industries, and high-protein sources for human consumption.

Made from algae, this oil supplement is a good (albeit often expensive) source of omega-3 for vegan and vegetarians. In fact, all fishwhether farmed or wild, receive their omega-3 content from eating algae (Microalgae).

Although algae are eaten only by smaller fish, those, in turn, are eaten by slightly larger fish and so on. So the docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) gets passed along all the way up to the biggest fish. So, you don't need to eat fish to get your omega-3, why not get it directly from the source?

As it comes from a marine source, the great news for vegans is that algal oil also comes with good amounts of DHA and EPA. [5] Therefore, it can be taken along with other vegan oils below that only have ALA to gain the full trio of omega-3 fatty acids. Unlike fish, algal has no fishy odor and it has no cholesterol and it lacks of potential contaminants. 

This is the best substitute for fish oil. 

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2. Flaxseed Oil

Flaxseed oil comes from ripened flaxseeds which have cold pressed to extract the oil. It is also know as linseed oil. It has gained real attention in recent years as a viable vegan alternative to fish oil. It is available in both capsule and liquid form and contains generous amount of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). It is also one of the most popular alternatives to fish oil.

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3. Hemp Seed Oil

Hemp is increasingly becoming better known for its range of health benefits in general. The hemp seed oil also offers vegans a good source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). [6] However, hemp seeds do lack both DHA and EPA.

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4. Echium Seed Oil

Echium seed oil (from, unsurprisingly, the Echium plant) has, for a long time, been relatively unknown in the western world. However, in recent years its profile has been on the rise – and for a good reason. "A recent study found that echium seeds contained the highest amount of total omega-3 fatty acids in an analysis of 30 types of seeds investigated by a team of researchers." [7

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5. Chia Seed Oil

Chia seeds are another great source of omega-3 for vegans – but once again only in respect of ALA. Still, chia seeds are composed of a remarkable 60% alpha-linolenic acids – better than the omega-3 content of salmon (less the DHA and EPA).

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6. Walnut Oil

Walnut oil is wonderfully healthy for us and especially so when it comes to its rich alpha-linolenic acid content (ALA). A 2005 study of English walnut oil found that 100 grams of it contained a whopping 12 grams of alpha-linolenic acid.

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7. Perilla Oil

Coming from Asia, the Perilla plant provides an oil from its pressed seeds that have a very high alpha-linolenic acid content - more than 50% fatty acid content compared to other plant oils. [9] Despite that, there still remains that same issue – perilla lacks DHA and EPA, making it a non-complete source of omega-3 for vegans.

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8. Olive Oil

Is Olive Oil a Good Source of Omega-3?

To a degree. Olive oil has long been held to be excellent for our health in general and is a reasonable source of omega-3, but ALA only. It is especially notable for the fact that olive oil is easily digestible by a majority of people. The omega-3 in olive oil has been particularly identified with protecting the heart and helping to reduce the risk of developing gall-stones. It is also an excellent source of vitamin D3.

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Check out these nutritious plant-based protein sources that don't need combing.

Is Sunflower Oil A Good Source Of Omega-3?

No! While sunflower oil has a range of health properties and benefits, such as vitamin E and lecithin, omega-3 is not one of them. [4] Vegans would then need to look elsewhere for their omega-3 needs. It has no DHA, EPA, and only trace ALA. Sunflower seed oil is also very high in omega-6 fatty acids. In some cases, the omega-6 content could be as high as 70 percent, which is not good at all. 

If you are currently using in your diet, I would recommend choosing one of the healthier options above.

Is Coconut Oil A Good Source Of Omega-3?

Coconut oil can be excellent for your health but, contrary to some of the information currently out there on the internet, it is not actually a source of omega-3. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids, but coconut oil is mostly saturated. So, unfortunately you cannot count on coconut for omega-3 fatty acids. As a result, unsurprisingly, coconut is then also devoid of DHA, EPA, and ALA.

What About Almond Oil?

Almond oil is a good source of unsaturated fats and the antioxidant vitamin E. Despite a range of many other health benefits, when it comes to omega-3 of any sort, almonds rather fall down. Not only do they have zero DHA and EPA, but they also offer up a near negligible amount of ALA too.

Is Avocado Oil Good For You?

Avocado oil is pressed from the pulp of an avocado. It is often used for cooking. It is also used for lubrication and even in cosmetics because of its moisturizing and regenerative properties.

Though maybe not as well known as, say, olive oil, avocado oil is a delicious alternative to other cooking fats, and I am seeing its popularity steadily grow. However, despite a raft of healthy nutrients and minerals, avocado oil is quite low in omega-3 and quite high in omega-6 instead, with a ratio of 1:13. Although all the fatty acids can coexist quite well together, the important thing is to get the balance right.

Also, avocados are rich in monounsaturated oleic acid, which is believed to have many beneficial effects on your body.

While avocado oil makes an excellent choice for the healthier cooking, it is not the best option as an omega-3 supplement.

Why Canola Oil May Not Be Good For You?

Aside from flaxseed oil, canola oil is actually the richest oil out there in terms of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) content. It is also much lower in saturated fats in comparison to some other cooking oils. [8]

Unfortunately, canola oil has high omega-6 fat content that our average modern diet tends to be very high already anyway.

Also, canola crops are genetically modified (GMO). While GMO foods have been approved for human consumption, there is not much data to show what the potential health risks could be in the future. So I would recommend avoiding or limiting the use of this one.

What Is The Daily Recommended Dose Of Omega-3?

a woman taking omega 3 capsule

The recommended amount that you should consume is determined by your health, age, and own personal circumstances.

So, for example, according to the US National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements, while both males and females under the age of six months should ingest 0.5 grams per day. However, as we get older, that increases, more so for men than women. [10]

By the age of 9 to 13, the recommended omega-3 intake changes to 1.2 grams daily for men and 1.0 grams for women.

By 14 to 18 years and onwards, that increases again to 1.6grams daily for men and 1.1 grams daily for women.

Summary

The fishing industry would have us believe that the only way to meet your daily omega-3 requirements is by eating oily fish. In particular, in recent years, fish oil has been especially highlighted as a near miracle-food, without consequences. However, that really is not the case.

Vegan sources of omega-3 are readily available and just as good for you, if not better. The only thing, of course, that you need to keep in mind is that many plant sources of omega-3 are ALA only. That said, mixing algal oil with other oils can give you the full spread of ALA, EPA, and DHA. In addition, the body is able to convert some, albeit limited, amounts of ALA into EPA and DHA. Add to that how some vegan milk and juices are also fortified with EPA and DHA too. Keep in mind marine vegetation as good comprehensive omega-3 sources too.

That means that just because one chooses to go vegan, there is absolutely no reason as to why one should then compromise their health by falling short on omega-3. More and more plant-based healthy fats are making their way onto the market and becoming better known. It just needs a little research, planning, and implementation – which as most vegans already know, is already part of their plant-based lifestyle, to begin with!

As we have seen:

  • Vegan omega-3 sources allow you to look after your health in a consistently ethical fashion.
  • Vegan omega-3 does not come with the risks of the sorts of toxins found in fish.
  • Mercury and dioxins are a real problem when consuming fish, especially mass-produced, factory-farmed fish.
  • Despite what the fishing industry has been trying to push now for many years, fatty fish-oil is not the only option out there. There are, as we have seen, many other alternatives to choose from.
  • For vegans and vegetarians, fish should most certainly be off the menu and out of the kitchen! Even for non-vegans, the idea/taste of fish oil can sometimes be a big no-no!
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About the author

Jen Evansy

Nutritionists, researchers, and writers, interested in everything healthy-living related. Helping you identify the best diets, learn about food and nutrition, to help you live happier, longer and stronger.


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