The study didn't make it into the news, but back in November 2010 the New England Journal of Medicine published a clinical study that cast doubt on the usefulness of fish oil and flaxseed oils in the treatment of heart disease.
Studying 4837 patients aged 60 to 80, all of whom had already had a heart attack, the overwhelming majority of them men, Dutch researchers failed to find a significant and helpful role for a fatty acid enriched margarine in preventing further damage to the heart. But the study is a good example of bad research.
In this study, researchers limited participation to older men who were already sick. They gave them margarine, made by refining vegetable oil in a tower similar to what you would see at a petrochemical plant, heating the vegetable oil to 450° C/ 842° F with a nickel catalyst, then purified with a chemical called hexanol. That doesn't sound healthy to you?
Then the margarine was "fortified" with teeny, tiny amounts of omega-3 essential fatty acids, 150 mg of DHA and 226 mg of EPA per 1 oz (28 g) serving. There was also a version of the margarine fortified with 1,900 mg of ALA from flaxseed oil.
But both versions of the margarine provided 20 times as much of the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids as healing omega-3's (an appropriate ratio is about 2 to 1 down to 1 to 1), and both versions of the margarine were loaded with trans- fats.
The researchers said that since everyone in their study got trans- fats and omega-6 fats, these unhealthy additives shouldn't have had any effect on the results.
The good news is, the death rate of heart patients given the margarine didn't go up. The bad news is, it didn't go down, either.
People who ate either kind of margarine every day were neither more nor less likely to have to have a cardiac catheterization or to have a fatal, or non-fatal heart attack.
One interpretation of the findings is that it only takes a little DHA, EPA, or ALA to protect you against the chemicals used to make margarine.
But then why would you expect this foul brew of chemicals with a little bit of fish oil or flaxseed oil to do anyone any good? A minimum, effective dose of DHA, EPA, or ALA is about three times as much as was added to the margarine.
A lot of research is done this way. If you want to "debunk" the use of a natural product, run a clinical trial, but be sure to use less of the natural product than ever has done anyone any good.
In this case, the researchers put that little bit of helpful omega-3 fatty acids in a toxic sludge of a margarine. The method is scientific. But it's still dishonest. It's like trying to disprove bypass surgery by giving some patients a pinprick and seeing whether they got well.
To its credit, this month the New England Journal of Medicine has published several letters questioning this research. Experts point out that getting more omega-3's doesn't help unless you get fewer omega-6's, and they also point out that at least times as many omega-3's as were provided in the study are needed for benefits to heart health.
And to the credit of the mainstream media, perhaps because this study came out about the same time as the US midterm elections, the negative findings of the study didn't make headlines. But when you see a "scientific" study finding a natural product doesn't work, be careful to make sure the product being criticized is really something you would take.
Most readers of this blog don't intentionally add trans- fat margarine to their diets, and they know to take at least the minimums of helpful nutrients.
If you'd like to read the research for yourself, the original article is here, n-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Events after Myocardial Infarction and the rebuttals are here, Correspondence: n-3 Fatty Acids and Cardiovascular Events.