Fish oil, one of the most popular supplements in America, came under scrutiny recently after a University of Pennsylvania team released two papers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that give us a better idea of how omega-3s in fish improve cardiovascular health. The team led by Toshinori Hoshi, a professor of physiology, took a closer look at how one of the fatty acids in fish oil, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), actually works.
According to their experiments, which were performed on mice, the DHA found in natural fish reduced the blood pressure in wild rodents. However, the form of fish oil found in most supplements, DHA ethyl ester, didn’t work to reduce blood pressure. Worse, it seemed to interfere with the action of any natural fish oil consumed.
That’s disappointing news, especially to the millions of Americans who have spent a lot of money on the sometimes-pricey fish oil supplements. In 2011, Mary Forgione for the Los Angeles Times revealed that fish oil pills had become the single most popular supplement in the entire country — even more popular than good old-fashioned multivitamins.
Dr. Heather Hawthorne for ABC tried to track down some precise numbers. She found a report from the Nutrition Business Journal stating that there were $739 million in fish oil sales just in 2009. And, in 2010, Americans spent almost four billion dollars on omega-3 fortified products — mostly from fish oil. It adds up, when a single bottle can cost $40 or even more.
Dr. Steven Nissen, professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner School of Medicine, gave Hawthorne a disappointing summary of the medical research to date on these expensive supplements. Despite the much-ballyhooed benefits of omega-3 oils, he noted that, “there’s never been any compelling evidence of a clinical benefit” from the pills.
But now Hoshi’s team can pinpoint the problem. If you take fish oil supplements instead of eating natural fish oil, you’re almost certainly getting the wrong form of DHA. If you want to reduce your blood pressure, forget the pills and go for the fish.