Should you take cod liver oil?

old time cod liver oil (photo: Ephemeral Scraps via Flickr)

With all the buzz about fish oil and omega-3 fats lately, it’s no wonder cod liver oil has come back into fashion.  It’s the original fish oil,  naturally high in both of the biologically active omega-3 fats – EPA and DHA — as well as vitamin D and vitamin A.  Cod liver oil was used as a folk remedy for a long time before the first documented medical use in the late 18th Century, for rheumatism.  Twenty-five years later, medical literature mentioned cod liver oil as a treatment for rickets, a bone disease that we now know is caused by vitamin D deficiency.  It took another 100 years for researchers to confirm that in fact, something in cod liver oil could prevent rickets, at which point it became a common household item, fed by the spoonful to unwilling children, who disliked the strong taste.

The taste hasn’t changed, but our appreciation for things that make us healthy has, and cod liver oil is surging in popularity.  After an acquaintance bragged that he takes a spoonful every single day, and had avoided getting any colds or flu the previous winter, my husband was determined to start taking it.  I bought him capsules, thinking he’d rather avoid the taste sensation.  But no, he demanded the real thing — straight cod liver oil out of a bottle.  Happily, our local grocery store had plenty of choices, in a huge refrigerated display, with several brands in a variety of bottle sizes, many with flavorings to make it go down easier.

Should you take cod liver oil and does it replace omega-3 supplements?  If you want a supplement that provides omega-3 fats and vitamin D and vitamin A, then cod liver oil might be a good choice.  Taking capsules means you will get a smaller dose than taking it by the teaspoon (most bottles use 1 tsp as the serving size).  The capsules would work if you only wanted a rather small amount of supplemental D and omega-3, and modest supplement of vitamin A.  If you need to take higher doses of vitamin D to maintain an adequate blood level, cod liver oil is probably not your best choice, since you’d have to take so much that you’d end up getting too much vitamin A, which is not advisable.  Likewise, if you goal is a higher dose of EPA and DHA, you might be better off taking omega-3 separately.  But if you’re just looking for a healthy boost to your already-healthy diet, then a teaspoon of cod liver oil might be sufficient.

Different cod liver oil products can have different levels of these key nutrients, so check the ingredient’s label to pick one that meets your needs best.  Whether you take the liquid straight, or as a capsule, take it with food and store in the refrigerator.  And only buy liquid if the store keeps it in a refrigerated display case.  There are several major brands to choose from.  Some of the common ones include Carlson’s, Nordic Naturals, Spectrum, Barleans and Garden of Life Oceans 3.  Most are available in the unflavored version that made kids pucker up 100 years ago, or with flavors like lemon that help it go down more easily.

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