Omega-3 supplements, long touted as the key to improved cardiovascular health, improved cognition, and other benefits, are increasingly being scrutinized to see if they work as advertised. If the most recent critical investigation is correct, you can endure fish burping for little to no benefit.
Irineo Cabreros reviews Paul Greenberg’s new book The Omega Principle in Slate, breaking the dilemma of the $ 15 billion omega-3 supplement industry. A recent meta-analysis that examined 79 studies involving more than 100,000 subjects found that omega-3 consumption had virtually no effect on common heart disease. An earlier review of the 2012 studies also found that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation had no effect on whether a person died as a result of a heart event. The consumption also had no effect on all-cause mortality. Studies looking at the benefits of fish oil for psychiatric conditions like depression have also been inconclusive.
So why do we think omega-3s are synonymous with better health? The idea originally came from research on an Inuit population in Greenland in the 1970s. The Inuit had few heart problems and ate a lot of fatty fish. The conclusion was that their fatty fish-based diet had a protective effect on the heart. Since then, supplement companies and consumers have linked fish oil in liquid or capsule form to a variety of cardiovascular benefits. However, recent research shows that the Inuit may simply metabolize their fish-heavy diet differently, resulting in effects that may not necessarily be reproducible in a general population.
While fish oil may not improve heart health, it likely cannot harm you. Unfortunately, this may not apply to the environment. According to Greenberg’s book, supplement companies usually get the raw material for their products from large quantities of forage fish, which are obtained as fertilizer and animal feed due to their oil and agricultural value – up to 27 tons per year. Food types such as anchovies and krill play a key role in the aquatic ecosystem: As prey, they transfer solar energy from the plankton to larger carnivorous fish. As companies continue to shrink their populations, it is possible that their absence could have unintended and unpredictable effects on food chains. Greenberg argues that if we continue to depress fish populations for supplements of dubious value, it will be something we will regret.
In the meantime, experts can agree that eating real fish is good for your body. The American Heart Association recommends eating two 3.5-ounce servings of fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and tuna weekly.