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You’ve probably already heard about all the benefits of fish oil. You might have even heard about cod liver oil, though the last time anyone mentioned it was likely as an old-fashioned remedy foisted upon children. But now it seems that talking about fermented cod liver oil benefits is all the rage in health and wellness circles, and we want to know if they really stack up.
Fermented cod liver oil is one step removed from cod liver oil, a historical supplement that Carina Parikh, MScN, MSiMR, a holistic nutritionist at Kate Naumes, ND Holistic Wellness, explains has long been used for heart, bone, skin, tooth and hair health, thanks to the high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and D.
“The inclusion of vitamins A and D is the main factor separating regular fish oil from cod liver oil,” she says. “Vitamin D is concentrated in livers of fish, so cod liver oil has higher amounts. Cod liver oil also has vitamins E and K, which tend to be scarce in modern human diets. Cod liver oil also contains CoQ10, an enzyme vital for cell growth and energy.”
She explains that cod liver oil has also been linked to symptom reduction for inflammatory bowel diseases and arthritis, to improved heart health and lowered triglycerides, as well as to better cognitive health, even for people with degenerative neural disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Lori Kenyon Farley, a certified nutrition consultant specializing in wellness, fitness, and anti-aging and one of the experts behind Project Juice, adds a few more benefits to the list, including regulating blood sugar, prevention and healing of acne, and prevention of hair loss. She also notes that, “Although there are other ways to obtain vitamin A, and vitamin D (unless you live in a climate without much sunlight), there are fewer sources of Omega 3 fatty acids.”
Sounding great so far, right? And while cod liver oil isn’t all that pleasant, it’s not nearly as funky-tasting as the fermented stuff. Dylan Stein, MS, LAc. of Dylan Stein Acupuncture notes, “The taste is unpleasant, which means the likelihood that people will take it daily goes way down. It only works if you take it.”
But Parikh explains that there’s a reason people are fermenting the oil — it’s more natural. In fact, the lacto-fermented processing is the original means of production of the oil… a process that takes a very, very long time. “It is for this reason that most manufacturers started doing heat and chemical processing to speed up the process,” explains Parikh, a process that requires that synthetic vitamins be added back to the heat-processed oil.
But synthetic vitamins aren’t the only worry. Christina Major, a MS holistic nutritionist and herbalist and the health recovery expert of Crystal Holistic Health, says that the vitamins A and D that remain in the heat-processed oil have been linked to heart disease. “The levels of vitamin A are far too excessive and can actually block the vitamin D and can block the expression of vitamin D dependent genes in our DNA,” she explains. “In vitamin D deficient people, cod liver oil can provide a toxic overdose of vitamin A, something that is impossible when you use food for your vitamin A source.”
Scary stuff, right? It’s no wonder that some experts began advocating for the naturally fermented version of the product, including Parikh. “Our bodies can process it much more efficiently than regular cod liver oil because the nutrient content is much richer.”
But the natural side of fermented cod liver oil isn’t the only benefit. Claire [name changed for anonymity], a journalist suffering from Hashimoto’s Disease, was advised to take fermented cod liver oil instead of regular fish oil supplements by French naturopath Béatrice Levinson, who had studied under thyroid and auto-immune expert Dr. K. The fermented cod liver oil is attributed to boosting the immune systems of people with auto-immune diseases, and these benefits stem directly from the fact that the oil is fermented.
“A lot of disorders of the immune system come from having the wrong kind of bacteria in your intestine, so what this does is it displaces the bad bacteria and replaces the good bacteria,” says Claire, who explains that she was advised to pair the fermented oil with a probiotic. This information is backed up by Andrea Nakayama, the expert behind the Girl’s Guide to Hashimoto’s, who cites the importance of fermented foods in managing the disease.
But it’s not all good news when it comes to fermented cod liver oil, and not all of the downsides are linked to the funky taste.
Stein is one of many people who remain unconvinced of fermented cod liver oil benefits, especially given recent news stories linked to the product. Today, only one company produces fermented cod liver oil — Green Pastures. Stein raises the important question of managing of the transparency of this lone producer; this summer, the cod liver oil was independently tested due to initiatives from nutritionist Kaayla Daniel, and the results were shocking.
“The cod liver oil failed DNA tests, meaning the oil didn’t actually come from cod,” Stein says. In addition, it seems that the oil’s pH was too basic for it to be a truly fermented product, that it was frequently and significantly rancid and that it contained much lower amounts of vitamins D, K, and A than the company claimed.
Stein also challenges the “most natural” claim that many lovers of fermented cod liver oil ascribe to, preferring extra-virgin cod oil to the fermented product.
Stein is not the only one to express doubts about supplementing with fermented cod liver oil. In fact, Major highlights some possible dangers of using it. “In areas where fresh fruits and vegetables are available, cod liver oil can provide an unhealthy imbalance between many other vitamins,” she says.
Instead, she suggests using krill oil for the omega-3 fatty acids and adding a vitamin D3 supplement if you live in a darker area of the world, and also eating a varied diet filled with different fruits and vegetables.
“The body requires anywhere from 5 to 12 different vitamins to be present for a nutrient to be absorbed,” Major says. “A multivitamin does not provide this, only a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Simply by switching to a diet that is 70 percent vegetables and 30 percent local, naturally raised meats will increase your levels of vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids without the risk of toxicity.” This diet will also bring about many of the benefits attributed to the oil including clearer skin, diminished disease risk, improved energy and clear thinking, according to Major.
And if you feel the need to supplement to take advantage of some of these benefits, Farley has some alternative suggestions.
“Zinc monomethionine may be even more potent in healing acne since it is a potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune booster,” she says. In the same vein, she suggests that ginko biloba would be a better option for improving dementia symptoms than cod liver oil, and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids may be better for hair loss.
“Chances of heart disease can be reduced by following an overall diet high in fiber and plants and low in processed food and fat, and exercising daily,” she says. “Although a cod liver oil supplement will be beneficial, healthy diet and active lifestyle will contribute more.”
If you still want to try the powers of fermented cod liver oil on your own, Farley has a few suggestions on how to use it. “Since the smell and taste can be challenging, its best to chase your oil with a shot of water followed by something with a stronger flavor, like raisins or a slice of orange,” she says.
And while Green Pasture is still facing concerns after the testing of its product, Farley still claims it’s better than typical high-temperature processed oil. “Although it is more expensive, I highly recommend finding a fermented brand, as the difference in vitamin content is significant.”
At the end of the day, the question seems to boil down to whether you ascribe to supplementing in general or not. If so, fermented cod liver oil is a much better choice than regular heat-processed cod liver oil, but our experts agree, you might be better off getting your vitamins and minerals elsewhere.
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Fermented cod liver oil image via Shutterstock
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