Can fish oil pills improve your health, effective against ailments like heart disease?
The National Institutes of Health’s website says yes.
One page on the site claims they’re helpful in various aspects of health, thanks to the ‘beneficial’ fatty acids – omega-3s. Oddly, another page on the site goes on to suggest the fish oil pills are useless: “Omega-3s in supplement form have not been shown to protect against heart disease.”
While there’s been no evidence of clear health advantages in using fish oil supplements, it’s become a billion ($1.2B) dollar industry. The American Medical Association journal accrued ‘high-level evidence’, finding “that the supplements lack efficacy across a range of health outcomes.”
So why do fish oil pills continue to sell in the U.S.?
The popularity of fish oil pills reflect human weakness for ‘miracle’ elixirs, and how scientists’ diet notions can persist even when overwhelming evidence suggests they’re wrong. They’re reluctant to let go of ideas.
“Unfortunately, it’s a common situation,” said John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor at Stanford University who has critiqued the methods and findings in nutritional research.
Ioannidis and his colleagues find once a food or supplement is known to have a certain health ‘benefit’, it’s hard for the stigma to disappear, even with contradicting, exact research. For example, vitamin E, estrogen and beta-carotene continue to intrigue scientists, despite trouncing claims against their worth in health and science.
“What we have found is that the original papers continue to be cited well after they have been refuted,” Ioannidis said. “These claims do not easily die away.”
And it’s happening with fish oil pills.
In 2002, the American Heart Association issued a ‘scientific statement’, that “omega-3 fatty acids have been shown in epidemiological and clinical trials to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease.”
The statement was based on mixed evidence, but no one questioned it, as there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with fish or fish oil supplements. So why not?
A year later, there was a follow-up study in a British medical journal, Lancet, where 3000 Irish men with angina were examined, with some advised to eat oily fish or fish oil pills. They found the fish eaters were more likely to die, while it was even worse for those who took fish oil pills.
“The excess risk [of cardiac death] was largely located among the subgroup given fish oil capsules,” they reported.
That didn’t deter fish oil sales, while academic journals continued to fill with proof that the pills are useless.
Andrew Grey and Mark Bolland, researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, reviewed fish oil research in published journals between 2005-12. Of the 24 studies they assessed, 22 found fish oil to have zero benefits, according to their work published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
With the confusion and ambiguity amongst doctors, scientists, and their research, consumers are faced with the word of advertisers.
“The omega-3s [EPA and DHA] in fish oil help support a healthy heart,” says Nature Made, one company that sells the supplements.
“Their benefits go far beyond the heart,” claims Nordic Naturals, creators of the “#1 selling fish oil in the U.S.”
Until clear-cut, substantial evidence – that all scientists agree on – surfaces refuting the ‘benefits’ of fish oil, expect the billion-dollar industry to continue to flourish.