What the History of Fish Oil Teaches Us About Omega-3 Potency

Almost 80 years ago, English surgeon M.B. Daver observed that there was something amiss with refined cod liver oil compared to the “crude” version.

Having read about the benefits of cod liver oil for healing wounds, the surgeon began using a topical cod liver oil treatment on his patients to monitor its effects. The surgeon reported his success with crude, unrefined cod liver oil to the British Medical Journal. However, he also noted that when he had used a refined cod liver oil on his patients, the healing process slowed considerably. Was the refining process destroying or removing some of the properties that made crude cod liver oil effective?

This question is as relevant today as it was in 1937, particularly as the omega-3 industry moves toward producing even more refined oils. But to fully understand what’s at stake, we first need to look to history.

A Brief History of Cod Liver Oil

Cod liver oil has a long history in medicine. Fresh cod liver was considered a delicacy in Scotland and Norway for centuries, and was often given to people who were sick. As early as 1789, physicians began using cod liver oil in their practices to help treat patients with rheumatism. In the following decades, cod liver oil benefits became widely accepted, and the substance was used as a treatment for rickets, healing wounds, reducing joint pain and fighting colds.

For all of its well-documented health properties, endorsements from physicians and even government-sponsored supplementation programs during World War II, cod liver oil fell out of favor with the general population. Its infamous smell and taste (the result of rancidity) left consumers with a lasting negative impression. By the 1970s, most families in the United States had stopped taking it altogether.

The Trend Toward Isolating Nutrients

For the first part of the 20th century, researchers believed it was the natural vitamin content of cod liver oil that accounted for its health benefits. In fact, vitamin D was first discovered and isolated from cod liver oil. In studies from the 1940s, however, scientists also wondered what made cod liver oil so special since supplementing rats with other oils containing even more vitamin A and D wasn’t as effective. What exact components made the difference they could not say.

Then, in the early 1970s, Danish researchers discovered that consuming large quantities of fish seemed to protect against cardiovascular diseases. The researchers were at that time able to identify two new fatty acids in fish and fish oil — EPA and DHA — that they believed were the key components.

EPA and DHA represent only two members of the omega-3 fatty acid family. These are the most plentiful omega-3s found in fish and cod liver oil. 

Do High EPA and DHA Levels Mean Better Fish Oil?

As more research began exploring EPA and DHA, fish meal manufacturers and scientists postulated that the health benefits of fish oils were related to the amount of these two ingredients alone. The pharmaceutical industry saw an economic opportunity for obtaining new patents by extracting and concentrating omega-3 fatty acids into a line of pharmaceuticals. They believed that the more refined and concentrated the omega-3, the better.

Today, the fish oil supplement market is flooded with highly concentrated omega-3 oil. While these oils may contain a higher percentage of EPA or DHA exclusively, they provide few other nutrients. These oils are also more prone to rancidity problems because they are encapsulated and they do not have the protective effects of co-existing vitamins.

To make things worse, pharmaceutical giants and scientists are quarreling about which of the omega-3 molecules is most important and how to further concentrate and isolate them. There is no doubt that studying one or two molecules at a time and in isolation is easier and gives us better insight into how these nutrients work in the body. But applying this reductive lab approach to the way we eat can get us in trouble. This is the same kind of thinking that gets us to believe that taking a multivitamin is just as healthy as eating fruits and vegetables.

In reality, every cell needs a balance of nutrients to ensure proper functioning. And if history tells us anything about nutrition, it is that fresh whole foods are vastly superior to what manufacturers typically produce.

Due to excessive processing, the oil found in fish oil or cod liver oil capsules typically contains just a fraction of the nutrients found in fish.

The Rich Nutrients of Full-Spectrum Cod Liver Oil

Cod liver oil is one of nature’s richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids. It typically contains around 16 to 25% omega-3, including not just EPA and DHA, but DPA and others. The rest of the oil is made up of the same kinds of monounsaturated fats you find in extra virgin olive oil, in addition to saturated fats like you get in avocados. Raw cod liver oil also contains large amounts of vitamin A, D and E and co-factors like melatonin and CoQ10 (although the vitamin levels are significantly reduced during the necessary cleaning of the oil).

These are the kinds of active components you get in a full-spectrum cod liver oil, like Omega Cure®.

Why Omega3 Innovations Produces the Best Cod Liver Oil

For many consumers, cod liver oil in its “crude form” is associated with bad taste and smells.  And yes, the high level of toxins in the oceans do necessitate a purification process. However, with today’s technology it is possible to both remove any pollutants and keep the oil fresh while preserving its many important fatty acids and nutrient co-factors.

That is the approach we choose to take here at Omega3 Innovations. We believe that, just like extra virgin olive oil outperforms refined olive oil and whole grain bread trumps Wonder Bread, history will, in time, prove that full-spectrum cod liver oil outshines omega-3 concentrates. It is the combination of a full range of valuable nutrients that explain Omega Cure’s potent effects.

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1. Daver, M.B. Crude Cod-Liver Oil in Treatment of Wounds. British Medical Journal. 1937 Vol.1 pp. 169.

2. Guy, RA. The History of Cod Liver Oil as a Remedy. American Journal of Diseases of Children. 1923;26(2):112-116. doi:10.1001/archpedi.1923.04120140011002

3. Brandaleone H, Papper E. The Effect of the Local and Oral Administration of Cod Liver Oil on the Rate of Wound Healing in Vitamin A-Deficient and Normal Rats. Annals of Surgery. 1941;114(4):791-798.

4. Daniells, Stephen. The Omega-3 Pioneer. NutraIngredients-USA.com. November 27, 2007.

5. Terkelsen, AL et al. Topical Application of Cod Liver Oil Ointment Accelerates Wound Healing: An Experimental Study in Wounds in the Ears of Hairless Mice. Scandinavian Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and Hand Surgery. 2009; 34 (1): 15 – 20. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02844310050160123

Bo Martinsen, MD

Dr. Martinsen is an omega-3 specialist, innovator, and advocate for natural foods. As co-founder and CEO of Omega3 Innovations, he has created multiple patented technologies for medical devices designed to improve consumer compliance. He is also the creator of several medical food products that combine dose-effective ingredients of omega-3 fish oil with soluble fibers and other nutrients. Before Omega3 Innovations, Dr. Martinsen practiced medicine in Norway for 20 years. During his career, he also served as a medical consultant to large international corporations, focusing on stress management and synergistic medicine.

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