Fool’s Gold: What Fish Oil Does to Our Health & Planet

By Paracelsus Asia

Omega-3 in the form or fish or krill oil is one of the world’s most successful supplements but a recent and definitive study has found that it has little or no benefit for heart health or strokes. As a result the US$30 billion a year omega-3 industry is in a bind.

In fact, this is just the tip of the iceberg in an industry that is probably worth ten times that amount. The men and organisations behind the “reduction industry”, as it is known, have not just been robbing us blind for decades and conning us with bum science into buying fish oil, but have been behind the plunder of our oceans for several centuries. Nearly wiping out the whales and overfishing many species of fish and seafood to near extinction. Not to feed us, mind you, but as fertiliser and to feed pigs, chicken and fish farms.

It is as sad a story as any from the other great robber industries, think sugar, tobacco and pharmaceuticals, that despoil our planet to enrich themselves and take no heed for the future.

This July, the Cochrane Group, a highly regarded UK research organisation that evaluates medical research for the general public, blew the whistle, releasing a meta-analysis to determine if omega-3 pills, one of the world’s most popular dietary supplements, reduced the risk of coronary heart disease. They do not.

After comparing 79 trials involving 112,059 people, the researchers found “little or no difference to risk of cardiovascular events, coronary heart deaths, coronary heart disease events, stroke or heart irregularities”.

The finding comes as a shock to many health conscious consumers, who believe taking a daily dose of up to 3,000 mg of omega-3 fatty acids comprise DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenic acid) lessens the risk of cardiovascular disease while inhibiting LDL and inflammation factors, high blood pressure and at the same time enhancing cognition.

It should not be surprise. In the past 15 years over 20 studies have shown the same thing. What is surprising is how the benefits of fish and seafood has been successfully conflated with a fish oil capsule. Omega-3s do something in our bodies – and probably something important. But without researching the larger context of the fish that contain them, no one can say what.

The confusion arises from the historical baggage of fish oil and the $30bn industry associated with omega-3 extraction. Back in the Industrial Revolution cod-liver oil was used to cure rickets. It had nothing to do with coronary heart disease. A Norwegian pharmacist patented a chemical process for extracting cod-liver oil, launching a campaign promoting the regular use of cod-liver oil as a cure-all. The campaign caught on and a spoonful a day became common practice around the world. By the time omega-3s started to be a focus of medical research, there was already a rosy feeling around fish oil.

In the early 1970s a Danish chemist heard about the low incidence of cardiovascular disease in Inuit communities and went to Greenland found that Inuit people had a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids and blood lipid levels of omega-3s much higher than westerners. They also had much lower rates of coronary heart disease and from this concluded that omega-3s just might reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
Further laboratory studies showed that omega-3s were involved in anti-inflammatory reactions. But while correlations abound for omega-3s and heart disease, the lack of randomised control trials (RCTs), the gold standard when it comes to research, fail to show causation.

And that calls in question the basis of the $30 billion omega-3 supply industry, who up until the publication of the July 2018 Cochrane meta-analysis clearly demonstrating that there is no scientific basis to show omega-3 supplementation does anything to reduce heart disease, have managed to cloud the issue with a succession of objections and their own flawed “associative” research.

But the fact that the industry’s arguments shift with each new, damning meta-analysis gives you pause. What’s going on here? Is there an international conspiracy to discredit omega-3s and if so why? Hardly.

Or, do the Omega-3 suppliers have other interests they want to protect?

No, something else is going on. For while the fish oil is a big deal, it is microscopic compared to the bigger game. Long before omega-3 supplements became popular, an industry arose using the same omega-3-rich creatures not for medicine, but for whole slew of agricultural and industrial purposes that consumes millions of tonnes of marine wildlife every year. Today, one in every four kilograms of fish caught is reduced into oil and meal and used for agriculture, land animal husbandry and, most recently, fish farming.
The reduction industry has appeared in different forms under different ownership over centuries. In the 18th century, it nearly wiped out the whales to make lamp oil and lubricants. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it shifted to the southern hemisphere, reducing 390,000 of the 400,000 great whales to margarine, nitroglycerine and other “marine ingredients”. In the latter half of the 20th century, it was the turn of small, oily fish like anchovies, sardines and herring. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the largest reduction operation in human history took place off Peru in pursuit of the Peruvian anchoveta, amounting to 10% of the world catch that year. Obscenely, in a poor country, Peruvian law dictates that more than 95% of the catch must go to the reduction industry.

Each decade brings a different use for all those anchovies. Today, the most elite product of the reduction industry in the form of dietary supplements, which provides medical cover for this epic ecological crime. And it’s not just Peruvian anchovies that are reduced to fish meal and oil. All told, the reduction industry removes from the ocean 20m-25m tonnes annually – equivalent to the combined weight of the US population.

Inexorably, the reduction industry marches destructively on. Now, it’s targeting Antarctic krill, the keystone prey species of the entire Antarctic ecosystem.

Amid all the conflicting reports, it is clear that fish and seafood bring considerable health and environmental benefits. In addition to providing us with omega-3s, fish deliver protein with far fewer calories than meat.

Harvesting wild fish from well-managed stocks requires a fraction of the carbon as farming livestock. Fish farming puts less burden on the Earth in terms of carbon and freshwater use. You don’t need to fish some fish to extinction, to feed other fish . Fishfarming is more eco-efficient using food based on algae and food waste. And if you use “filter feeders” such as mussels, clams and oysters, the benefits are even greater. Bivalves don’t have to be fed anything, they make water cleaner and provide protein 30 times more efficiently than cattle.

We know that eating fish twice a week makes people live longer and is better for you than taking a fish oil pill. We know omega-3 is good for you too, but we don’t know why. You don’t need fish oil to increase your levels of omega-3. Just reduce your intake of omega-6.

What we do know is that the omega-3 industry and the reduction industry that bred it takes fish from the water unsustainably and in a way that doesn’t put protein on our plates – just pills in our cupboards.

Is this the way we want to continue to do business with the planet?

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