It is easy to forget that science works through a constant process by which researchers replicate and revisit older studies. The assumptions and conclusions are discussed, the experiment is replicated, sometimes in a different population, sometimes using a slightly different dosage or research methods, and our knowledge grows, step by step. This may seem cumbersome, but it is necessary (the inevitable mistakes get corrected over time), and is actually one of the greatest strengths of the scientific process.
This, however, can also produce studies whose results and conclusions can contradict each other. In the omega-3 world examples can be found in the ongoing research on the related questions of:
- Do EPA and DHA reduce the risk of chronic diseases and health events, like cardiovascular disease and strokes?
- How big is this protective effect, and who benefits more and who less from it?
- What is the best way to achieve this protection?
The study last week in JAMA Oncology and its subsequent media coverage once again underlines the issues with the media — and its misrepresentation of the facts — all too clearly. This particular study examined whether or not one platinum-induced fatty acid (PIFA), a rare polyunsaturated fatty acid called hexadecatetraenoic acid (C16:4 n-3), is present in fish oils and if it is absorbed in humans when consumed, not whether it has an effect on chemotherapy. Yet media headlines implied that fish oil consumption can make cancer patients resistant to chemotherapy.
Over the years there has been substantial interest in researching omega-3s and their health benefits for soldiers and veterans in a variety of scenarios. GOED recently talked to one organization, Samueli Institute, that is intimately involved in this work.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, recently wrote a column about a zombie idea, which he defines as “an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.” I would argue that we have zombie ideas in the omega-3 space as well. The most prevalent is the recent deluge of studies from cardiologists and doctors that purport to show omega-3s are not beneficial for cardiovascular disease. Perhaps EPA and DHA are maligned because of their association with the broader dietary supplement industry, which is not trusted by doctors or consumers, but that should not blind researchers from examining the evidence objectively.