Published on September 9th, 201671
Fermented Cod Liver Oil: Still on the Hook!
Hook, Line and Stinker: The Truth about Fermented Cod Liver Oil came out a year ago, and stirred up quite a fuss in the Weston A. Price Foundation, paleo and real food communities.
For those who have not been following the controversy, here’s a brief summary.
I wrote the report following a nearly year-long investigation of the Green Pasture brand “Fermented Cod Liver Oil” (FCLO), a product that was — and is— heavily promoted by Sally Fallon Morell, President of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF).
Prior to undertaking this investigation, I spent months trying to convince Fallon Morell and the WAPF Board of the need to examine growing evidence that the Green Pasture products were “not as advertised” and appeared to be contributing to and even causing serious health problems, hospitalizations and deaths.
That discussion did not go well, however, because Fallon Morell insisted there was no problem with her pet product. Although I was then Vice President of WAPF and had won the foundation’s 2005 Integrity in Science Award, she dismissed my concerns as “stupid” and scoffed at preliminary laboratory data showing the product to be rancid, putrid and low in the fat-soluble vitamins A and D. She dismissed the world’s leading fats and oils experts as “bought off” by the marine oils industry and insisted the only reliable source of information was David Wetzel, the owner of Green Pasture. In person and through email communications, she strongly advised me to let Wetzel “set me straight” and stated that she would not give credence to any laboratory data that was “not fair to Dave.”
On December 12, 2014, WAPF’s Board of Directors voted against testing as unnecessary based on Fallon Morell’s beliefs, Wetzel’s assurances, Geoffrey Morell’s dowsing and pendulum swinging, and scientific data procured by Fallon Morell that was of limited and questionable value. I was strongly advised to relax, leave the science to people who could be “fair to Dave,” and to toe the FCLO line.
FIRST DO NO HARM
While it was tempting to just step away, this was not a minor debate about the merits of different brands. The safety of men, women and children was at stake. People already seemed to have been gravely harmed. Because WAPF had promoted this product, and I had served WAPF faithfully for more than ten years, I felt a personal responsibility to step up and investigate. I had hoped to exonerate the product. Instead, I found damning evidence that I could not allow to be covered up.
As reported last year in Hook, Line and Stinker, data from Covance, Eurofins, SINTEF, Stirling, Nofima, and other top laboratories, showed the Green Pasture “Fermented Cod Liver Oil” product to be rancid, putrid, not fermented and offering only modest levels of Vitamin A and almost no Vitamin D. Furthermore, DNA testing revealed Green Pasture’s “cod livers” to be “pollock livers,” a fact that many people regard as “consumer fraud.” Even more shocking was data from several laboratories that showed the Green Pasture pollock liver oil to contain high levels of trans fats of a type found only in industrially processed vegetable oils.
These findings came as no surprise to fats and oils experts around the world, many of whom told me it was “the most rancid oil” they’d ever tasted or tested. Some suspected it was not from arctic cod — or even cod at all. Although the majority of my sources requested anonymity because of their academic positions, Drs. Bo Martinsen, Gjermund Vogt and Rudi Moerck have spoken up publicly and/or posted online about the obvious rancidity in the Green Pasture “fermented cod liver oil” product.
Despite substantial evidence — and growing numbers of complaints from consumers harmed by the product — Sally Fallon Morell continues to defend and promote it. Over the past year I have chosen not to engage in an ongoing debate because I had done my duty and paid a high price for it physically, emotionally and financially. I wanted to move on with my life. More importantly, I had already addressed Fallon Morell’s arguments in Hook, Line and Stinker and in a series of blogs published on this website last fall. I am clarifying a few matters now because false statements about my work and motives abound on the internet and it is apparent that many people have either not read my report or did not read it carefully.
This blog is the first in a series intended to answer Frequently Asked Questions about Green Pasture Fermented Cod Liver Oil and to provide requested updates.
Q Sally Fallon Morell assures us that she had the Green Pasture Fermented Cod Liver Oil properly tested and it was proven safe by Martin Grootveld of De Montfort University in Leicester. Why don’t you accept his findings?
A Fallon Morell claims Professor Grootveld is an expert on NMR testing and marine oils. “Highly qualified,” she writes and she lists some impressive-sounding academic positions.1 In truth, Grootveld’s long resumé is short on credentials in marine oils. His official biography2 lists no publications on this topic, and a Pub Med search reveals just one.3
Grootveld’s credibility as a “marine oils expert” is further undermined by the fact that he made two basic errors in his December 12, 2014 letter to Sally Fallon Morell.4 In that letter, published on the WAPF website and repeatedly used by Fallon Morell to prop up her case for FCLO, he misidentified EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) as a 22:5 fatty acid and DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) as a 24:6 fatty acid. The correct nomenclature for EPA is 20:5, and for DHA 22:6. (In chemistry shorthand, two numbers separated by a colon provide the chain length and number of double bonds.)
This is basic science. No genuine marine oils expert would ever make such an error. And no capable undergraduate student would have made that error either.
Q I just read Sally’s defense of FCLO testing in the Spring 2016 issue of Wise Traditions.5 It would appear to rest on Dr. Grootveld’s credentials. Is he, in fact, a fats and oils expert?
A In addition to the 2003 paper on marine oils noted above, Professor Grootveld published three papers on the topic of heated and reheated vegetable oils in the 1990s.6-8 He was not the lead author. Add in the fact that he hasn’t published much else, if anything, on this topic in more than twenty years, it would be a stretch to call him an expert in the field. He’s researched many different topics over the course of his career, but lately has focused on mouth rinses, dental fluoride and teeth whitening.9-12
So if you need help attaining fresh breath and white teeth, call on him. Then again, maybe not, if you accept long-standing evidence that fluoride is toxic to body and brain. Indeed this fluoride proponent states that parts of the state of Karnataka India may require “fluoridation treatment in order to mitigate for dental caries and further ailments related to fluoride deficiency.”13
Q Sally Fallon says Grootveld is a leader in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance technology and NMR is the gold standard for rancidity testing.14 Why didn’t you use it?
A I did use it! NMR stands as a stunning example of modern technology. The group that ushered in this technology — and remains the leader in the field — is SINTEF, headquartered in Trondheim, Norway. Its speciality is marine oils. Curious then, that Fallon Morell did not choose SINTEF for testing. Then again, it makes perfect sense given that the spectra image and data analysis provided by SINTEF and published in Hook, Line and Stinker provided results sharply discrepant from those Fallon Morell wished to achieve.
In contrast, Grootveld has used NMR primarily for studies on saliva and other subjects unrelated to fats and oils.15-19 Furthermore, his December 12, 2014 report sent to Fallon Morell20 did not include a spectra, which would have allowed others to evaluate the quality of his work. He did provide visuals with his Spring 2016 report but they are notably blurry, cluttered and hard to read. A spectra is a visual image showing the pattern of separated substances obtained through NMR technology or other analytical techniques. (An example of a properly done one is found on page 92 of Hook, Line and Stinker.)
SINTEF, the world’s leaders in testing fish oil using 1H NMR and 13C NMR technology, reported high levels of hydrolytic rancidity. The researchers also reported “interference from the brown pigment” of FCLO21 but Grootveld did not. Why was that? Was he more skilled? Or did he employ questionable technique?
The answer is, Grootveld used 1H NMR technology, but the gold standard is testing with both 13C NMR and 1H NMR. Similarly, his method involved only deuterated chloroform (CDCL3) when dimethyl-sulfoxide-d6 (DMSO) was also needed. In rancidity testing, peroxide peaks are most easily observed when deuteriated chloroform is used while aldehydes peaks are better seen in a mix of choloroform and DMSO. In brief, his methods were incomplete and not fully capable of revealing the peroxide and aldehyde peaks associated with the primary and secondary stages of rancidity.23 Because any bottle of FCLO tested last year would have already reached tertiary or end-stage rancidity, the peroxides and aldehydes would almost certainly have been low anyway. The point is, his technique was not up to the task.
Q Sally Fallon dismisses TBARS (Thiobarbituric Acid Reactive Substances) as an “inexpensive, inadequate and inferior” testing method compared to to NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance). She said Grootveld called it “analytical garbage.”24 She said you relied on that. Shame on you!
A Did you even read Hook, Line and Stinker? Fallon Morell is counting on the fact that most of her followers did not. The fact is, my report includes rancidity data obtained from laboratories using many analytical methods. These methods included TBARS and NMR, among others. My report furthermore discussed the pros, cons and limitations of each method in depth, and did not rely on TBARS for its final conclusions. Read the report. Technical matters are explained in clear English. The content was vetted by leading experts in the field. Do not count on Fallon Morell to give you accurate information.
Q WAPF found FCLO to be far more “stable” than other cod liver oils sold. You say it’s rancid. I don’t know what to believe.
A Fallon Morell writes, “It is interesting to speculate on why the brown fermented cod liver oil is so stable, free from any detectable breakdown products.”25
The reason it is “stable” is simple. No speculation required! FCLO is “stable” because it has completed its rancidity cycle. It has reached the end-stage and is stable enough to serve as varnish or paint. When evaluating FCLO or any other oil, product, it is crucial to understand the stages of rancidity. For a full discussion of rancidity issues, read Section II of Hook, Line and Stinker.
As natural food health experts have been advising for years, “If it won’t go bad, don’t eat it. If it will go bad, eat it before it does.” Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and other books has also advanced and popularized that concept.
“Don’t eat anything that’s not capable of rotting.”– Michael Pollan26
The bottom line is oils are supposed to go rancid. Most oil and supplement companies choose manufacturing techniques that help maintain freshness and delay that process as long as possible. An oil should start to go bad if left out on the countertop. Fish liver oils are especially vulnerability to rancidity because of high DHA, EPA and omega 3 polyunsaturated oil content. They need to be carefully protected from heat, light and air. Is Fallon Morell testing fish liver oils like that because she has a poor understanding of fats and oils? Or is she trying to rig the testing to favor FCLO?
Q Isn’t Sally Fallon a fats and oils expert?
A No. Her credibility rests entirely on books and articles co-authored with the late Mary G. Enig, PhD. Dr. Enig specialized in fats and oils and was widely respected in the scientific community for her brilliance, courage and integrity. Until her retirement in the mid 2000s, Dr. Enig carefully reviewed articles coauthored with Fallon Morell to ensure they were backed by science.
When she founded the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fallon Morell deferred to the seniority and authority of Dr. Enig. She now disparages all who disagree with her as “bought by industry” and seeks out “experts” who see things her way. A fine example of this is her choice of Professor Martin Grootveld, an academic with slim credentials in fats and oils and almost none in marine oil.
Q Did Dr. Mary Enig endorse FCLO? Did she test it?
A No. Green Pasture introduced FCLO in 2006, after Dr. Enig had mostly retired. The cod liver oil product Mary recommended was not FCLO, but an earlier product, imported by Green Pasture from Norway and privately labeled. That product was a high-quality arctic cod liver oil. It was not fermented and bore no resemblance whatsoever to FCLO.
Q We know that WAPF has paid substantial sums of money for Chris Masterjohn’s education, laboratory and advice over the years. If Sally has “bought” Dr. Masterjohn, then why didn’t his August 29, 2015 defense27 come out firmly on the side of FCLO? It runs on and on and is confusing and unfocused.
A No way he could focus, with one eye on Sally’s largesse and the other eye on his reputation. Lynne Farrow, author of The Iodine Crisis, summed it up neatly with the words: “This is what I would have written if I wanted to filibuster a not too bright professor.”28
Q Why did you drag Sally into your net? The issues are with David Wetzel and Green Pasture.
A. Because Fallon Morell has effectively served as the “marketing arm” for Green Pasture ever since the product was introduced to the public in 2006. Few would have continued to buy that brown and bad-tasting product had she not been pushing it as “the only cod liver oil we love” and “our number one superfood.”
Q Sally’s maiden name is Wetzel. Is she related to David Wetzel and Green Pasture? Is she personally profiting from his products as an early investor? Someone must have invested in the start up cost of his operation. If she’s getting a royalty on every single bottle sold, she’d be making millions, right?
A Online genealogical sites provide no evidence that Fallon Morell is related to David Wetzel. She is a daughter of the late aviation pioneer Harry Wetzel. However, she has told several people that she feels a profound “spiritual connection” with David Wetzel and that he is a deadringer for one of her ancestors. She denies any financial relationship with Wetzel — either personally or through the Weston A. Price Foundation. The extent to which she has promoted and defended this product, however, suggests otherwise. I think a full investigation is in order.
Q Should I switch to the Green Pasture Fermented Skate Liver Oil? Is that a good product?
A Because of the high costs of laboratory testing, I focused on Green Pasture’s FCLO and X-Factor Butter Oil, the two products most heavily promoted by the Weston A. Price Foundation. Given the disturbing results of that investigation, I have to ask why you would even consider buying from this company? If the product’s “fermented,” it’s most likely rancid and putrid. If the label says “skate livers,” the livers might be from skate, pollock or something else altogether. As for the promised high vitamin content, don’t count on it. Add in the fact that both the FCLO and the X-Factor Butter Oil were sold for years with misleading — some would say fraudulent — labels, and I cannot think of one good reason to support this company.
Reputable companies providing honest products at a fair price do exist. Patronize them.
Q The Weston A. Price Foundation says it took your allegations seriously and tested several brands of cod liver oil after your report was published. Didn’t their test results prove that FCLO is truly a “high vitamin” cod liver oil? Didn’t that article vindicate FCLO?
A Sally Fallon Morell reported the results of testing several brands of cod liver oil, including FCLO, in the Spring issue of Wise Traditions.29 Although she continues to claim it to be a “high vitamin cod liver oil,” a careful look at her data shows FCLO has an extremely low level of Vitamin D at only 59 IUs of Vitamin D per teaspoon. Fallon Morell also reported Vitamin A levels at 3,125 IUs per teaspoon, which is an appreciable amount, but significantly lower than what she lists on the foundation’s cod liver oil recommendations page. On that page — which has yet to be updated — Sally Fallon Morell continues to praise FCLO for its alleged 9,500 IU per teaspoon of vitamin A and alleged 1,950 IU per teaspoon of vitamin D. Indeed, it would be impossible to find such high numbers in a natural, unsupplemented fish liver oil. And that’s a good thing, given the very real dangers of Vitamin A and D toxicity. That’s not been problem for people taking FCLO. Rather many have shown clinically low levels of Vitamin D, contributing to a host of health problems. FCLO’s modest levels of Vitamin A are the likeliest reason some people claim to have benefited from the product despite its rancidity and other dangers.
The bottom line is, Fallon Morell’s test results did not vindicate FCLO and her opinions. Rather the data closely matched my findings of low levels of vitamin D and modest levels of Vitamin A. It vindicated me and the need for my investigation.
Q Are there high levels of phenols in FCLO? Is that why it’s brown? Would phenols keep it from going rancid?
A Sally Fallon Morell would like you to think so. She speculates that FCLO might be high in phenols similar to those found in extra virgin olive oil. Thanks to the magic of these putative phenols, Fallon Morell says,“the dark translucent color of fermented cod liver oil should not be taken as an indication of rancidity, but as a sign that the oil is stable and safe.”30
It’s understandable that Fallon Morell would like to find phenols in Green Pasture Cod Liver Oil. The phenols found in fresh extra virgin olive oil serve as antioxidants and also contribute to the peppery “burn” characteristic of a true olive oil. Phenols — if anyone could actually find them in a natural fish liver oil— could thus explain two major problems associated with the FCLO: its rancid brown color and the fact that so many consumers have reported a burning in their throats. However, the likelihood that phenols similar to those found in extra virgin olive oil would naturally appear in Green Pasture, or any other fish liver oil, products is remote.
With few exceptions, phenols are found in plant foods. Yes, polyphenols such as the secoiridoids and phlorotannins appear in fish that eat large quantities of algae.31 But the problem is this: cod do not eat algae. Nor do pollock, an important point given that DNA testing in 2015 showed Green Pasture’s arctic cod livers to be Alaskan pollock. Although the feeding patterns of cod and pollock differ somewhat, both are “generalist predators” that feed on a wide variety of fish, invertebrates . . . and even their own young. (Yes, they are cannibals.)32
Phenols have also been found in fish that live downstream from oil refineries.33 The researchers found the toxic phenols in fish flesh. Whether they also appear in the fish livers is uncertain. In any case, David Wetzel claims his fish livers come from pristine waters.
The bottom line? If future laboratory testing reveals phenols in FCLO, the likeliest reason is Green Pasture added them. The reason he would do that is some types of phenols are more effective at preventing oxidation in fish oil than the synthetic antioxidants, BHQ, BTA, TBHQ.34,35 Over the years, Wetzel has repeatedly disparaged antioxidants as overrated and unnecessary for the preservation of his unique product. To use standard antioxidants now — whether natural or synthetic — would be to admit both the need and the error of his ways. Neither he nor Fallon Morell is about to do that. But adding brown and burning phenols to the product could be the answer to their prayers. If so, it’s hardly coincidental that Fallon Morell has already spun phenols into the official FCLO myth.
3. Siddiqui N, Sim J, Silwood CJ, Toms H, Iles Ra, Grootveld M. Multicomponent analysis of encapsulated marine oil supplements using high-resolution 1H and 13C NMR techniques. J Lipid Res. 2003 Dec;44(12):2406-27.
6. Sheerin AN, Silwood C, Lynch E, Grootveld M. Production of lipid peroxidation products in culinary oils and facts during episodes of thermal stressing: a high field 1H NMR investigation. Biochem Soc Trans. 1997 Aug;25(3):495S.
7. Atherton M1, Silwood C, Lynch E, Grootveld M. In vivo absorption and metabolism of alpha,beta-unsaturated aldehydes generated in polyunsaturate-rich culinary oils during episodes of thermal stressing. Biochem Soc Trans. 1997 Aug;25(3):494S.
8. Indart A1, Viana M, Grootveld MC, Silwood CJ, Sanchez-Vera I, Bonet B. Teratogenic actions of thermally-stressed culinary oils in rats. Free Radic Res. 2002 Oct;36(10):1051-8.
9. Chang H, Silwood CJ, Lynch E, Grootveld M. High-resolution 1H NMR investigations of the oxidative consumption of salivary biomolecules by oral rinse peroxides. Acta Odontol Scand. 2013 Jan;71(1):223-35.
10. Chan W, Lynch E, Grootveld M. Tooth-whitening activity of a novel home-bleaching system utilising thermal diffusion: a multifactorial simultaneous evaluation of efficacy at cervical, body and incisal tooth sites. Br Dent J. 2012 Feb 17;212(4):E8
11. Goldberg M, Grootveld M, Lynch E. Undesirable and adverse effects of tooth-whitening products: a review. Clin Oral Investig. 2010 Feb;14(1):1-10.
12. Grootveld M, Silwood CJ, Lynch E. High resolution 1H NMR investigations of the oxidative consumption of salivary biomolecules by ozone: relevance to the therapeutic applications of this agent in clinical dentistry. Biofactors. 2006;27(1-4):5-18.
13. Chowdhury CR1, Shahnawaz K2, Kumari D2, Chowdhury A3, Bedi R4, Lynch E5, Harding S6, Grootveld M7. Spatial distribution mapping of drinking water fluoride levels in Karnataka, India: fluoride-related health effects. Perspect Public Health. 2016 Feb 3. pii: 1757913915626744.
15. Chang H1, Silwood CJ, Lynch E, Grootveld M. High-resolution 1H NMR investigations of the oxidative consumption of salivary biomolecules by oral rinse peroxides. Acta Odontol Scand. 2013 Jan;71(1):223-35.
16. Chang H, Tomoda S, Silwood CJ, Lynch E, Grootveld M. Arch Biochem Biophys. 2012 Apr 1;520(1):51-65.
17. Grootveld M, Silwood CJ, Winter WT. High-resolution (1)H NMR investigations of the capacity of dentifrices containing a “smart” bioactive glass to influence the metabolic profile of and deliver calcium ions to human saliva. J Biomed Mater Res B Appl Biomater. 2009 Oct;91(1):88-101.
18. Grootveld M, Silwood CJ, Lynch E. High resolution 1H NMR investigations of the oxidative consumption of salivary biomolecules by ozone: relevance to the therapeutic applications of this agent in clinical dentistry. Biofactors. 2006;27(1-4):5-18.
19. Grootveld M, Silwood CJ. 1H NMR analysis as a diagnostic probe for human saliva. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2005 Apr 1;329(1):1-5.
21. Daniel K. Hook, Line and Stinker: The Truth about Fermented Cod Liver Oil, p. 20.
23. Skiera C1, Steliopoulos P2, Kuballa T2, Diehl B3, Holzgrabe U4.Determination of free fatty acids in pharmaceutical lipids by ¹H NMR and comparison with the classical acid value.J Pharm Biomed Anal. 2014 May;93:43-50.
26. Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (Penguin, 2009). p. 131.
28. Comment by Lynne Farrow on the Facebook page of Cheeseslave (Ann Marie Michaels). https://www.facebook.com/cheeseslave/posts/10153151047756304?comment_id=10153153460161304.
29. http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/cod-liver-oil/report-cod-liver-oil-2/ and http://www.westonaprice.org/wp-content/uploads/CovanceBlueIceCodLiverOil.pdf
31. Clayton PR, Ladi S. From alga to omega; have we reached peak (fish) oil? J R Soc Med, 2015, Vol 109(9) 351-357.
32. Urban, Daniel. Food habits of Pacific cod and walleye pollock in the northern Gulf of Alaska. National Marine Fisheries Service, Marine Ecology Progress Series, Vol. 469: 215–222, 2012.
33. Zhou, Yong. Waste Discharge into the Marine Environment (Pergamon Press,2015) p.77.
34. Maqsood S, Benakul S, Abushelaibi A, Alam A. Phenolic compuonds and plant phenolic extracts as natural antioxidants in prevention of lipid oxidation in seafood: a detailed review. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Vol 13 (6), November 2014. 1125–1140.
35. Maqsood S, Benakul S,Shahidi S. Emerging Roles of phenolic compounds as natural food additives in fish and fish products.