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

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.