How Do Sardines Compare to Fish Oil Supplements?

tin can of sardine
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Key Takeaways

  • Sardines are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and essential nutrients like calcium, iron, and potassium.
  • A new review suggests that sardines may be a good, affordable alternative to fish oil supplements.
  • But canned sardines are sometimes contaminated with microplastics and toxic metals, and they can be high in sodium.

Tinned fish is the latest “hot girl” food trend to take off on TikTok this year, potentially driving shortages at grocery stores. The influencers might be onto something affordable and nutritious, as canned fish and seafood are rich in healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids.

A new review says that sardines, in particular, are an inexpensive source of omega-3s and other heart-healthy nutrients like calcium, potassium, and magnesium. This type of fish might even make a better alternative to fish oil supplements, according to the researchers, although more studies are needed to confirm the benefits.

While fish oil supplements are popular among U.S. consumers, there’s not much evidence to show that these supplements benefit heart health, said Deepak L. Bhatt, MD, MPH, director of Mount Sinai Heart in New York.

“In fact, it’s quite the opposite. There is data from large trials showing that they don’t provide any cardiovascular benefit,” Bhatt told Verywell.

If anything, he added, fish oil supplements have been shown to increase the risk of developing atrial fibrillation—the most common type of irregular heart rhythm.

Bhatt said that omega-3 fats are typically better consumed as part of a healthy diet, rather than “isolating one component and taking it at a large dose” with a supplement.

Should You Start Eating More Sardines?

Sardines and other types of fatty fish are heart-healthy if they’re consumed along with a dietary pattern that’s also rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, according to Maya Vadiveloo, PhD, RD, an associate professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Rhode Island.

“Regular consumption of fish and seafood, which sardines would fall into, align with a heart-healthy diet,” Vadiveloo told Verywell. “When people are consuming more fish, ideally they’re replacing less healthy sources of protein, like red meat, with that fish.”

Sardines could also be a more accessible and affordable alternative to salmon, especially since canned sardines are readily available and have a long shelf life.

However, you might need to pay attention to what other ingredients are added to the canned sardines, which are sometimes packed in olive oil, water, or tomato sauce and might be high in sodium, according to Emma Laing, PhD, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics based in Athens, Georgia.

“Individuals who must monitor their sodium intake for health, such as those who have high blood pressure, should be mindful of the ingredient labels,” Laing told Verywell in an email.

You should also avoid canned sardines that have a damaged, rusted, or swollen container, she added.

Are There Any Health Risks to Sardines?

Sardines may be a nutrient-dense fish, but they’re also increasingly contaminated with microplastics and heavy metals like arsenic.

Laing also cautioned that sardines contain purines, which may cause a buildup of uric acid and worsen symptoms like joint pain and swelling for people with gout.

Even if you don’t eat seafood, she added, you should still be able to get enough omega-3s from other dietary sources without needing to take a supplement.

For example, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and certain fortified foods are also rich sources of omega-3s.

What This Means For You

It's best to consult with your healthcare provider before starting any supplements. Dietary supplements, like fish oil, are not regulated by the FDA and have the potential to cause harmful interactions with prescription medications.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Santos HO, May TL, Bueno AA. Eating more sardines instead of fish oil supplementation: Beyond omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, a matrix of nutrients with cardiovascular benefits. Front Nutr. 2023;10:1107475. doi:10.3389/fnut.2023.1107475

  2. Curfman G. Omega-3 fatty acids and atrial fibrillationJAMA. 2021;325(11):1063-1063. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.2909

  3. Ribeiro F, Okoffo ED, O’Brien JW, et al. Quantitative analysis of selected plastics in high-commercial-value Australian seafood by pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometryEnviron Sci Technol. 2020;54(15):9408-9417. doi:10.1021/acs.est.0c02337

  4. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Omega-3 fatty acids.