Home > Blog > Cod Liver Oil – 3 Reasons to Avoid It

Cod Liver Oil – 3 Reasons to Avoid It

by Vin Kutty, MS on March 8, 2011

In early 2010, an environmental group sued several fish oil manufacturers for selling polluted fish oil.

All the major TV news channels covered the stink. Every single channel re-worded the plaintiff’s press release without digging deeper. The late Paul Harvey would have dug deeper for ‘The rest of the story.

The products named in the fish oil lawsuit are:

  1. GNC Liquid Norwegian Cod Liver Oil
  2. Nature Made Cod Liver Oil
  3. Nature Made Odorless Fish Oil
  4. Now Foods Double Strength Cod Liver Oil
  5. Now Foods Salmon Oil
  6. Now Foods Shark Liver Oil
  7. Solgar 100% Pure Norwegian Shark Liver Oil Complex
  8. Solgar Norwegian Cod Liver Oil
  9. Twinlab Emulsified Norwegian Cod Liver Oil
  10. Twinlab Norwegian Cod Liver Oil

Notice a pattern?

6 of the 10 products named in the lawsuit are Cod Liver Oils.
cod liver oil
8 out of 10 are ‘liver’ oils.

None of the TV channels that talked about this endlessly pointed this out!

The other four were Shark liver oil or Salmon oil.

This cod liver oil issue was not a coincidence or a surprise to those of us in the fish oil industry.

Here’s why:

  • Cod, like Shark, are long-lived fish. As they go about living for years and years, and during that time, they accumulate environmental toxins.
  • And the toxins are most concentrated in the livers.

So when you drink Cod liver oil, you should expect environmental toxins! That just makes sense!

So that’s Reason #1 for Avoiding Cod Liver Oil: Pollution

Reason # 2: Lack of Industry Participation & Transparency

They say you can tell someone’s character by the company they keep. You can apply that to professional company as well.
cod liver oil

Reliable fish oil manufacturers are members of GOED, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3.
It is an industry group that sets standards and requires that members follow a certain code of conduct and produce products that meet quality standards. Sounds fair to me.

Oddly, Cod liver oil companies, even though they sell 7% of all Omega-3 pills, have been absent from GOED. Lots of fish oil, krill oil and algae oil companies openly belong to GOED. But you’d be hard pressed to see Cod folks. Hmm.

cod liver oil

Part of the reason is that it is a very traditional industry that’s out of the mainstream. GOED has been reaching out to Cod liver oil manufacturers to help them embrace quality standards. We’ll see if they are successful.

Reason #3: Over-fishing.

Atlantic Cod is an over-fished and threatened species.
Cod population has declined drastically
ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) coordinates the management of North Atlantic fisheries. We get most of our Cod liver oils from the North Atlantic.

There are a dozen countries that harvest cod and this makes it very hard to manage. Only 1 out of the 12 areas has sustainably managed their cod fishery – Norway. All the others have overfished to the point of not having enough mature fish to reproduce the stock back to normal.

Of course, if I have to choose between my health and the environment, I have to side with my health. Sorry!

But you don’t have to make such dramatic choices. Cod is not the only source of Omega-3 available to you!

I know many people who take cod liver oil because it contains these Vitamins A and D. That’s silly!

If you want Vitamin A, make like Bugs Bunny and bite into a carrot! And if you want Vitamin D, cod liver oil doesn’t give you enough of it anyway. You’ll still need a separate Vitamin D supplement. You need about 4000 IU per day and cod liver has less than 10% of it.

Fermented Cod Liver Oil

And there is this thing called fermented cod liver oil. It’s an old scandinavian treat and popular with folks following the ‘paleo’ or caveman diet. I fully agree with the principles and science behind the paleolithic diet, but I don’t get the fermented cod liver oil thing.

The manufacturing of this product is steeped in more voodoo and fog than a health product ought to be.

Yes, it contains more trace nutrients like Vitamins, but I’d rather you get that from your diet. Or another pill. Besides, fermented fish liver is simply too repulsive a concept for me to choke down.

Is My Cod Liver Oil-bashing Fair?

OK – you may be thinking that my Cod-bashing ways are self-serving. After all, our company sells pharmaceutical grade fish oil. I’m not trying to pump up sales of our product by bashing cod liver oil (we can barely keep up with demand!)

I expect to get a lot of hate mail for this one. So, to my naysayers, I say:

  1. Show me proof (an IFOS report or the like) that your cod liver oil is pure, clean and potent and that it passes standards that fish oil manufacturers follow
  2. Show me how it’s made and processed
  3. Show me how much Vitamin A is present in your product
  4. Show me some membership or association with some group whose rules you have to live by
  5. Show me that the cod are harvested sustainably

Most GOED members can easily do this.

If your cod liver oil can do all of the above, I will happily eat a heaping plate of crow (or fermented cod livers.) Your pick. I’m frequently wrong (just ask my wife) but I don’t think I’m wrong about this.

A couple of centuries ago, cod liver oil was enough to cure kids with rickets and other ailments.

Cod liver oil was your great granddaddy’s fish oil. Let it stay that way.

DISCLAIMER: The contents of this blog do not constitute medical advice. This is merely an open discussion of the science behind health and nutrition. Please consult your physician for medical advice.

Author Vin Kutty is an expert on fish oil About the Author: Vin Kutty is OmegaVia’s Scientific Advisor and Chief Blogger. He is a nutritionist, author, and Omega-3 expert with over 20 years of experience. Email him.


pharmaceutical grade fish oil

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Leslie January 21, 2012 at 10:30 am

be quiet there is nothing wrong with cod liver oil.

Reply

Heather April 5, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Leslie, you obviously didn’t get his point. There is nothing wrong with cod liver oil itself. What is wrong is the way it is harvested, and manufactured, or brought to public consumption. Instead of cod liver oil, why not eat sardines? They too have all the omega fats of cod liver oil. For all the cod liver oil you consume, your skin is very thin, and your brain can’t seem to process contrary information as a being a good thing. Why should anyone listen to you or me if you tell him to be quiet? Eh what’s the use? Slurp down your expensive cod liver oil. I’ll save money by eating cheaper sardines, and save cod from being over fished.

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Mike W. October 12, 2014 at 8:07 pm

Cod liver oil is not expensive. In fact, it is likely cheaper than sardines. A 12 fl oz. bottle of Cod liver oil costs me $10 and lasts me nearly 2 months. 2 tins of sardines a day at even $1 each would be $120. What’s the more economical and beneficial route? The cod liver oil.

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Vin Kutty, MS October 13, 2014 at 12:43 am

Hi Mike W – fish/cod liver oil is certainly the cheapest way to get the most Omega-3. But sardines are PACKED with a lot of other nutrients that you need. And each sardine you eat is (hopefully) taking the place of a slice of bread or cookie! The way I look at fish oil is that it is NOT a replacement for eating fish, but a way to get much needed Omega-3 if I happen to skip eating fish on a regular basis.

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cubanflowers January 25, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Leslie I agree with you he needs to STOP with the bull shhhhht. i’ve took cod liver oil for decades and i give it to my children and nothing has happen to us we are all still alive living on our borrowed time!!!

be blessed

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Omegavia January 25, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Leslie & Cubanflowers – If you are happy with your cod liver oil, by all means, continue taking it. My point is that there are better alternatives these days, like molecularly distilled fish oils, which have a lot less environmental toxins than cod liver oil. Large, long-lived fish like Atlantic Cod and Salmon naturally tend to accumulate toxins over time. The level of toxins are probably low enough to not cause serious harm, but then there is the issue of Atlantic cod being over-fished. It just doesn’t make sense to me if there are better alternatives. Although, I’m beginning to change my opinion on the ‘too much Vitamin A’ thing…I’m finding out that a lot of people are actually deficient in Vitamin A and could probably use a couple of ounces of liver, like our grandparents used to eat.

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AE February 16, 2013 at 11:26 pm

Livers don’t store toxins. They organize toxins and send them on their way.

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Vin Kutty February 17, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Hi AE – agreed. Liver is a processing center, not a storage unit.

– Vin Kutty

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Greg February 18, 2013 at 1:40 am

Actually, cod liver oil makes use of the livers instead of discarding them, as is customary with many other species of fish. Molecularly distilled cod liver oil, a refined food, is likely not beneficial or harmful. Fermented cod liver oil, a whole food, has a long history.

Reply

Vin Kutty February 18, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Hi Greg – molecularly distilled cod liver oil has little or no Vitamins A and D. Sometimes, these are added back…from non-fish sources – I’m not a fan of this practice, even though it is not common. There is still Omega-3 in molecular distilled cod liver oil, so there is some benefit.

Fans of fermented cod liver oil like the facts that it is a whole food, contains natural ratios of preformed Vitamin A (Vit A deficiency is becoming increasingly common) and D. In northern Europe where this practice was common, it was often the only potent source of these fat-soluble vitamins. Scandinavia doesn’t see much sun for half the year. Lately, followers of paleo diets (I’m one of them) have begun taking fermented cod liver oil. I prefer to get my Omega-3, A and D from fish/fish oil, liver, eggs, animal fats and sunshine respectively.

– Vin Kutty

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Diane April 1, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Which molecularly distilled fish oils brands do you recommend?

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Vin Kutty April 3, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Hi Diane – just about every pharmaceutical grade fish oil is molecularly distilled. There are dozens of them. I’m obviously partial to OmegaVia, but here is a list of products I like: http://www.omegavia.com/favorite-fish-oil-brands-part-2/

– Vin Kutty

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Ana May 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Haha..this is funny..but very good points..thanks. Glad I decided to read this before I purchased it.

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Valerie September 24, 2013 at 1:38 am

I have no problem with “pharmaceutical grade fish oil” but when it comes to cleaning it so much you remove all natural nutrient from it, and then “fortify” it with synthetic versions of vitamin a or d you are adding to the cancer rates, and making people ill, because the synthetic versions of those are toxic.

PS: livers are to clear toxins out… does not mean they are full of toxins if they’re functioning well at their job. But they are more concentrated in the nutrients they store, such as iron and vitamin d etc naturally.

fermentation processes do not involve cooking or filtering all the nutrients out of something. nuff said.

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Vin Kutty September 24, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Hi Valerie – you say you don’t have a problem with pharmaceutical grade fish oil, yet you seem fairly convinced that we are adding Vitamins A and D to our products and that is giving people cancer. I don’t intend to convince you otherwise.

Cod liver oils have gained in popularity due to it being an ancient food and appearing more natural, with Vit A and D. All true. When the Vikings ate cod liver oil centuries ago, they didnt have to deal with the polluted environment we do now. I’ve tested enough cod liver oil in my career to know that they are consistently higher in environmental pollutants than regular fish oil. Fermentation process does not clean this up. I pass. The reason we purify and concentrate our oil to pharmaceutical grade level is to get rid of any smidgen of environmental toxins present and to concentrate the Omega-3 present.

I’ve said it before on this website several times and I’ll say it again – if you want Omega-3s, eat more fish. If you want Vitamin A, eat more animal fats and liver from grass-fed ruminants. If you want Vitamin D, get it from the sun – Vitamin D from pills only help with calcium transport – they are not the sulfate form. You need the sulfate form for several health benefits.

ALWAYS go with the real food – supplements are for people who are unable, unwilling or just cant stand the real thing.

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mac November 18, 2013 at 8:21 pm

hi Vin Kutty
please read your comments below, they are contradictory.
“Cod, like Shark, are long-lived fish. As they go about living for years and years, and during that time, they accumulate environmental toxins.
And the toxins are most concentrated in the livers.”

Vin Kutty February 17, 2013 at 10:33 pm
Hi AE – agreed. Liver is a processing center, not a storage unit.

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Vin Kutty November 18, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Hi Mac – I should revise that. As is, it is contradictory. The truth is, liver is largely a processing center and not a long-term storage unit. But at any given time, liver still tends to house a lot of both the good and the bad. Products marketed as ‘cod liver oil’ are consistently the most polluted Omega-3 oils around. This may have less to do with liver as much as it does with Atlantic Cod, the species used to make these products. My stance on cod liver oil remains the same.

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Terri December 21, 2013 at 4:42 am

I’m interested in finding a source for shark liver oil, however, I do NOT want anything to do with any products from the Pacific Ocean (RADIATION). So I’m thinking Atlantic Ocean sources for the shark liver oil is a much safer option.

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Vin Kutty December 21, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Hi Terri – I would strongly caution you against consuming shark liver oil or shark products of any kind. They are long-lived apex predators, which means it accumulates a whole bunch of environmental toxins. Radiation from the pacific would be the least of your concerns if you end up taking shark liver oil.

Just curious – is there a reason why you are looking for this product?

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Ronk December 25, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Thank you for your commentary Vin. I have been taking Cod Liver Oil for a few years. I worry about the overfishing of cod though so I have decided to stop taking the oil. Sustainable cod fishing is a myth.

Your comment about cod being long lived creatures and therefore major accumulators of toxic materials might have been true a hundred years ago. Due to decades of overfishing, cod don’t live very long now. The big ones are long gone and the cod in these times are lucky to live long enough to spawn once and are quite small when they are trapped in the net of a cod trawler.

Consuming cod, in any form, is unethical in my opinion and I will no longer do so.

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Vin Kutty December 26, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Hi Ronk – you may be right that there is no such thing as sustainable cod fishery. If you can overlook the environmental impact and potential issues with toxins, the only reason to consume cod liver oil is that it has pre-formed Vitamin A, a nutrient lacking in our diet because we no longer eat liver and organ meats from cattle like we used to.

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Stella June 28, 2014 at 8:34 pm

Thank you very much for this information. Greatly appreciated.

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Suresh Mehta October 11, 2014 at 6:59 pm

When I was young I used toSharkoferrol with milk in my breakfast. Now I
am taking shark liver regularly. Believe it or not, shark liver oil is the best
supplement you can take. Regards.

Reply

Vin Kutty, MS October 11, 2014 at 11:46 pm

Hi Suresh – shark liver oil is a phenomenally bad idea. Sharks are long-lived apex predators. This gives them plenty of time and opportunity to accumulate environmental toxins like PCBs, Dioxins, arsenic and mercury. I would much, much rather you get a high quality cod liver oil.

Reply

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