Yet Another Study Casts Doubt On The Heart Benefits Of Fish Oil

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A large study analyzing data from 14 clinical trials and 20,000 patients did not see any difference in cardiovascular related mortality between people who took omega-3 supplements and those who did not.

A new study adds to a growing body of evidence that fish oil does not protect against heart disease. Rather than conduct their own research, the scientists gathered all the data they could find from previous studies and analyzed them together. In the end, fish oil had no effect on whether or not a person would develop any major cardiovascular disease.

The whopping amount of data in the study was pooled from 20 separate clinical trials and included nearly 70,000 patients. The team, led by Dr. Moses Elisaf at the University Hospital of Ioannina in Greece, determined whether or not patients who took omega-3, the polyunsaturated fatty acid thought to give fish oil its beneficial effects, experienced better cardiovascular health than patients not taking omega-3. They looked specifically at cardiac death, sudden death, myocardial infarction and stroke. There was no statistical difference in the outcomes of the two groups, and the team concluded that taking omega-3 supplements was not associated with a lower risk for any of these conditions.

Interestingly, they saw that protective effects against cardiovascular disease were indeed seen when only parts of the data were analyzed. But as they added more data from other studies, these benefits shrank and were eventually nonexistent. The beneficial effects seen with the limited data could help explain the inconsistent findings from omega-3 trials performed in the past.

The study was published Sept. 12 in the Journal of American Medical Association.

The results don’t surprise Dr. Steven Nissen, professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner School of Medicine, who told ABC News, “There’s never been any compelling evidence of a clinical benefit.”

I don’t know if it helps my heart or my brain, all I know is it tastes good!

Two large studies published recently, in fact, support the opposite and add further doubt to the beneficial effects of omega-3. In April, an analysis conducted in South Korea was published that included data from 14 clinical trials and 20,000 patients concluded that taking omega-3 fatty acids for one year did not lower the risk of heart attack, congestive heart failure, stroke, or any other type of cardiovascular disease. This past June an assessment of three separate studies involving over 3,500 participants showed that omega-3 fatty acids showed that the supplement failed to slow cognitive decline and prevent dementia.

And if people take time to actually read the bottles for many supplements, not just fish oil, it might occur to them that the supplement makers themselves don’t put much stock in their products: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” If a supplement like fish oil were to lower the risk of heart disease it would certainly be worth it for the makers to get FDA approval and re-classify their supplement – which needs only to be proven safe, not effective – as a drug – both safe and effective. The heart medicine Lipitor, which rakes in about $11 billion annually, is the highest selling drug made.

But trying to follow Lipitor’s lead would almost certainly sink the fish oil. Referencing the Nutrition Business Journal, Forbes reports that sales for over-the-counter fish oil reached $735 million in 2009. Americans alone fork over $11 billion each year to get products “fortified” with omega-3 fatty acids. Trying to prove to the FDA that their products actually work would be financial suicide for fish oil. Better to make hundreds of millions of dollars with a quack product than nothing at all.

[images: The Medifast Plan and Cooking Light]
images: The Medifast Plan and Cooking Light

Discussion — 16 Responses

  • Sergio Navarro October 8, 2012 on 12:45 pm

    I think big pharma is very concern of halving CV events in a last decade. Probably most of it because of statins usage, but… Again, passing FDA costs half a billion, nobody is so crazy to spend money on something that is unpatentable. Indeed there are many good drug-candidates that will never become a pill because it has been published is some science magazine, so no patents can be made. No money – no pill and nobody care whether it works or no. I do no criminalize drug-makers – they are businesses and while they are working within a low good for them, but saying that something that is not approved by FDA is not working is the same as to say that something that was never patented could not work.

  • David Appell October 9, 2012 on 1:22 pm

    This “study” (it was actually a study of a small handful of studies) was another example of an uncritical media rush to judgment without the full facts over a development that is far from the final and authoritative word on the subject. Science is by its nature a process of aggregation, coming at problems and issues repeatedly from different angles and building a consensus over many years. Some results can prove inconsistent, but what’s important is what the long-term preponderance of evidence shows. And the positive benefits of fish-oil supplements to human health have been definitively proven by hundreds of credible independent studies since the 1950’s, not the 20 studies over 23 years cited in this survey; that’s why most respected medical authorities and institutions, including Harvard Medical School, the Mayo Clinic, and the American Heart Association, to mention just three, have unequivocally endorsed omega-3 supplements. Even leaving that aside, it must be noted that the studies covered by the survey had numerous flaws – including insufficient duration, administered less than the standard recommended dosages of omega-3 supplements, and involved patients who were already sick (meaning that they didn’t address the benefits of fish-oil supplements to people taking them as a preventive measure). For those interested in these and other issues, we’ve amassed a wealth of independently researched information on our web site, http://www.expertomega3.com.

  • Michael Merrill October 10, 2012 on 9:50 am

    The confidence intervals for the relative risks in the study suggest that there may be a true benefit that the meta-analysis was not powered enough to observe. Furthermore, the meta-analysis adjusted for multiple comparisons, and so used a P value of 0.006, which is quite low. I think the study was designed from a nihilistic viewpoint, and at least was interpreted with one.

  • turtles_allthewaydown October 12, 2012 on 3:33 pm

    The label on the side doesn’t mean a thing. All supplements have a label like that, because the FDA doesn’t allow them to make claims without FDA approval, and the FDA won’t review claims from natural supplements, only for drugs. So they’re pretty much stuck with that.

    • turtles_allthewaydown turtles_allthewaydown October 12, 2012 on 3:41 pm

      Hmm, wish there was a way to delete or edit a comment. Based on Sergio’s statement, it seems that the reason all natural supplements have that wording is not that the FDA flat-out won’t look at it, but that the cost of the FDA submission won’t be recovered when the product you’re making is not patentable (like Omega 3, or vitamin C).

      Which leads to the obvious question – what safe, cheap methods exist for improving our health and/or treating disease? We know about the expensive drugs, but we know much less about supplements (both good and bad). It seems our health care costs might be dramatically reduced if we had a concerted effort looking at that. Perhaps have big pharma pay 5% of their R&D (or patented drug profits, whatever) into a non-profit organization that looked into these areas specifically.

  • John Mayer November 3, 2012 on 10:39 pm

    Thanks, Mr. Murray, for calling these studies to our attention. I’ve been trying to convince people I know for many years that they were—probably—wasting their money on fish oil. How would such a need, after all, have evolved? You don’t seem many of our closest relative, the chimpanzee, fishing in the wild. Predictably, responses to your article are the anguished wails of cognitive dissonance, people unable to face the reality of having wasted a great deal of money on a useless product. There is absolutely no reason for the quack supplement business to change a thing, let alone submit their products to rigorous studies. They are doing fine, thank you, and will continue to do so thanks to True Believers such as are posting here in outrage.

  • Melissa Angela November 14, 2012 on 12:34 am

    It’s important to see how much Omega3 is in the fish oil capsule. It varies a lot. Flax oil and nuts, especially English walnuts (those that you cook with) are also great sources of Omega3 and they don’t further deplete the seas of fish if you are into green.
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