Cod Liver Oil: Myths and Truths of an Ancient Superfood| Updated: May 15, 2019
Cod liver oil is perhaps the world’s most misunderstood superfood. First recorded by Hippocrates for medicinal use in Ancient Greece around 400 BC, cod liver oil has enjoyed a storied history since.
Ancestral cultures as diverse as the Eskimos and the South Seas Islanders both revered the use of fish liver oils for their health-giving properties, especially with regard to fertility and producing sturdy children.
British physician Dr. John Hughes Bennett noted in 1848 that cod liver oil had been utilized since the beginning of recorded history by the fishing communities of Scotland, Sweden, and Norway for its strengthening properties as well as for medicine.
Doctors prescribed cod liver oil to treat rickets, a vitamin D deficiency disease, starting about 1800, perhaps even earlier. A couple of decades later in 1820, the practice of using cod liver oil to prevent and treat rickets was widespread in the countries of Germany, Holland and the Netherlands.
The anti-infective nature of cod liver oil due to the natural vitamin A content made it an indispensable remedy for all manner of illnesses prior to the advent of antibiotics including tuberculosis, measles, and diseases of the eyes.
According to the book Ultraviolet Light and Vitamin D in Nutrition, the United States imported about 1.8 million gallons of cod oil and cod liver oil in 1922. Cod oil is used for tanning while cod liver oil is taken as a supplement but the two were not separated in the data kept by the US Department of Commerce at the time. Five short years later in 1927, the amount nearly tripled to 5 million gallons with most of the increase in edible cod liver oil due to research showing its benefits in preventing rickets.
A little over 70 years later, America imported less than a half a million gallons in the year 2000, a steep and shocking decline in use no doubt due to the rapid transition and reliance of the medical profession since the middle of the last century on synthetic vitamins, antibiotics and other pharmaceutical drugs to prevent and treat disease symptoms.
Cod Liver Oil Enjoys a Resurgence in Popularity
Since the turn of the millenium, cod liver oil has been enjoying a significant resurgence in popularity as interest in natural remedies and whole food supplements for maintaining health and wellness grows. The worrisome problem of antibiotic resistance and the growing body of evidence that antibiotics can do significant harm and perhaps even irreparable damage to the gut has motivated forward thinking individuals to look to the past for effective and safe alternatives.
Unfortunately, this interest has not been without controversy as confusion regarding this ancient superfood abounds.
The predominant myths about cod liver oil are discussed in the commentary below:
Myth #1: All Cod Liver Oil is Basically the Same
The truth is that almost all cod liver oil on the market today is heavily industrialized with processing taking place in Iceland or Norway. This destructive manufacturing process which includes alkali refining, bleaching, and deodorization (oil kept at 482 F/ 250 C for up to 6 hours) destroys the natural vitamins A and D and damages fragile omega-3 fatty acids. Synthetic vitamins are typically added back in to meet desired labeling requirements.
Cod liver oil as used traditionally was not widely manufactured using this violent, denaturing process and certainly no synthetic vitamins were ever added in. As a result, if one desires the ancient benefits of cod liver oil, it is important to seek a manufacturer who produces this supplement using old fashioned processing techniques which render and purify the oil at low temperatures to preserve nutrients (sources).
Myth #2: Cod Liver Oil Contains Dangerous Amounts of Vitamin A
It is very important that intake of vitamin A be balanced with its synergistic companion vitamin D. Unfortunately, some cod liver oils on the market contain very little vitamin D and even when included in larger amounts, the vitamin D is commonly synthetic in origin. Prolonged intake of cod liver oil that contains vitamin A with little vitamin D could lead to symptoms of osteoporosis and other health challenges if the diet is also lacking in vitamin D according to research performed in Europe.
If cod liver oil is consumed that has been manufactured in a traditional manner with the natural vitamins A and D preserved in their correct ratios, however, these problems are avoided and the benefits of this ancient supplement optimally enjoyed.
Myth #3: Cod Liver Oil Contains Toxins Such as Mercury, PCBs and Dioxins
All modern cod liver oil processing techniques such as molecular distillation remove heavy metals and other toxins. Cod liver oil manufactured using traditional, low heat rendering methods is purified using a proprietary filtering method with every batch tested for purity (sources).
Myth #4: Plain Fish Oil is Better Than Cod Liver Oil
The truth is that most fish oil on the market comes from farmed fish that are treated with antibiotics. It is a little know fact that farmed salmon are fed more antibiotics per pound than any other livestock in North America!
In addition, noncarnivorous species of fish such as salmon, which are omnivores, eat almost anything, and are a popular source for commercial fish oil, are commonly fed an unnatural diet which includes GMO soy and corn.
The final nail in the coffin for the myth that plain fish oil is somehow better than cod liver oil is that the vast majority of fish oils on the market contain little to no vitamins A and D and the caustic chemical and high temperature processing damages the delicate omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA).
Myth #5: Cod Liver Oil is a Good Source of Vitamin D
Most cod liver oil on the market is purified using the process of molecular distillation which removes most of the natural vitamin D. Some manufacturers add it back in, but it is usually synthetic and in smaller amounts than would naturally occur in the oil.
Therefore, if a primary reason for taking cod liver oil is for the natural vitamin D, it is imperative to seek out a brand that preserves the natural vitamin D by employing old fashioned processing methods and does not add any synthetic vitamin D.
If cod liver oil is a whole food supplement you would like to start taking in your home, click here for a quality source employing optimal processing and purification techniques so you can enjoy all the benefits and none of the downside of this ancient superfood.
More Information about Cod Liver Oil
Since 2002, Sarah has been a Health and Nutrition Educator dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household.
Sarah was awarded Activist of the Year at the International Wise Traditions Conference in 2010.
Sarah received a Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in Economics from Furman University and a Master of Government Administration from the University of Pennsylvania.
Mother to three healthy children, blogger, and best-selling author, her work has been covered by USA Today, The New York Times, National Review, ABC, NBC, and many others.