TV host Dr. Oz helped kicked off a gold rush in sales of Omega-3 health supplements when he used his show to endorse the alleged benefits of fish oil pills that can allegedly help prevent pretty much every malady under the sun, including Alzheimer's, cancer, and even depression. He singled out Omega-3 tablets made from krill, a tiny shrimp-like creature that is the bottom of the food chain.
You may just know krill from the movie Happy Feet 2, when Brad Pitt and Matt Damon voiced the characters Will and Bill the Krill, but these little shrimp are the engine of the whole Antarctic ecosystem. They're the basis of the food chain: without them, there would be no penguins, seals or blue whales. One blue whale alone needs to eat 40 million krill a day to survive!
However, those creatures are having a much harder time finding food because of the krill oil rush that Dr. Oz helped spark (you'd hope people would have more skepticism about Dr. Oz after this New Yorker exposé about his history of sketchy health claims). Industrial-scale factory boats are literally sucking billions of these life-sustaining creatures out of the water with giant vacuums that operate around the clock -- and then crushing them into tablets to be sold at Walgreens and other retail outlets that are trying to cash in on the supplement craze.
But health nuts running to Walgreens, Rite-Aid or the British pharmacy Boots for supplements on Dr. Oz's advice are in for a rude shock. A joint investigation by The New York Times and Frontline found that the benefits of Omega-3 fish and krill oil supplements are questionable at best. From the Times Article, "Fish Oil Claims Not Supported by Research":
Fish oil is now the third most widely used dietary supplement in the United States, after vitamins and minerals, according to a recent report from the National Institutes of Health. At least 10 percent of Americans take fish oil regularly, most believing that the omega-3 fatty acids in the supplements will protect their cardiovascular health.
But there is one big problem: The vast majority of clinical trials involving fish oil have found no evidence that it lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke.
From 2005 to 2012, at least two dozen rigorous studies of fish oil were published in leading medical journals, most of which looked at whether fish oil could prevent cardiovascular events in high-risk populations. These were people who had a history of heart disease or strong risk factors for it, like high cholesterol, hypertension or Type 2 diabetes. All but two of these studies found that compared with a placebo, fish oil showed no benefit.
In other words, consumers are plundering Antarctica's oceans for little to no measurable benefit. It's one of the world's great and most tragic wastes of resources, and it's happened at just the wrong time: rising temperatures due to climate change have exacerbated the overfishing by melting the sea ice that krill need to survive. The double whammy of fishing and climate change has devastated the krill populations -- which have declined by an alarming 80% over the last four decades.
A number of companies that sell supplements are taking action. Whole Foods and Trader Joes have taken a stand for Antarctica by deciding not to sell krill products. British supermarket giant Sainsbury's and ASDA have also responded to consumers and took krill off their shelves (for those who still want to take Omega-3 supplements, there are loads of options that use environmentally friendly sources like flax, chia, and hemp seeds, as well as mustard oil, leafy greens, cabbage and the more exotic algae -- all of which have the benefit of not being liable to turn rancid in the way that fish oil supplements can).
But Walgreens Boots Alliance, the largest drug store retailer in the U.S. and Europe is still selling these krill products despite their dubious benefits and the clear threats to penguins, seals, and whales.
Earlier this month, a coalition of a dozen leading oceans, environment and consumer advocacy organizations, representing million of people, including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and SumOfUS sent a letter to Walgreens Boots Alliance CEO Stefano Pessina with a clear message: Its time to join competitors by removing krill-based products from your shelves and be an industry leader in the protection of Antarctica.
Today is Walgreens Boots Alliance' annual meeting; let's hope that the company sides with the blue whales and science over Dr. Oz's dubious claims.