Fish oil is now the third most widely used dietary supplement in the United States, after vitamins and minerals, according to a recent report from the National Institutes of Health.
At least 10 percent of Americans take fish oil regularly, most believing that the omega-3 fatty acids in the supplements will protect their cardiovascular health.
But there is one big problem: The vast majority of clinical trials involving fish oil have found no evidence that it lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke.
From 2005 to 2012, at least two dozen rigorous studies of fish oil were published in leading medical journals, most of which looked at whether fish oil could prevent cardiovascular events in high-risk populations. These were people who had a history of heart disease or strong risk factors for it, like high cholesterol, hypertension or Type 2 diabetes. All but two of these studies found that compared with a placebo, fish oil showed no benefit.
And yet during this time, sales of fish oil more than doubled, not just in the United States but worldwide, said Andrew Grey, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and the author of a 2014 study on fish oil in JAMA Internal Medicine. “There’s a major disconnect,” Dr. Grey said. “The sales are going up despite the progressive accumulation of trials that show no effect.”
In theory at least, there are good reasons that fish oil should improve cardiovascular health. Most fish oil supplements are rich in two omega-3 fatty acids — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — that can have a blood-thinning effect, much like aspirin, that may reduce the likelihood of clots. Omega-3s can also reduce inflammation, which plays a role in atherosclerosis. And the Food and Drug Administration has approved at least three prescription types of fish oil — Vascepa, Lovaza and a generic form — for the treatment of very high triglycerides, a risk factor for heart disease.