For a brief moment, during Wednesday last week, the phrase “Omega-3 Prostate Cancer” was at the top of the list of trending topics on Yahoo. It took the curious reader to links like this:
The publication that sparked this excitement was a report from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, published in the July 11 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, showing that there was a linear association between blood levels of three popular omega-3 fatty acids and the risk of aggressive prostate cancer. To delve deeper into the many news websites carrying this story exposed the reader to a blizzard of conflicting claims and statements. Omega-3s prevent heart attacks – no they don’t. DHA protects your brain – no, it causes Alzheimer’s. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory. All fats are bad for you. Omega-3s cause aggressive cancers – no, they are just associated with them. Within an hour, this story dropped out of the trending topics list altogether, replaced with “Anne Heche” and “Asiana Pilot names” among other tidbits. You could hear an exhausted, confused population briefly mull over omega-3 fats and sigh, “Whatever…”
If we lived in a functional democracy with a scientifically literate executive branch, the NCI-sponsored paper would have been accompanied by a bulletin on public health risks from Dr. Harold Varmus, MD, Director of NCI. Unfortunately, his boss is Kathleen Sebelius, a name now synonymous with arrogant political disregard for science. (See Lawsuit Seeks to Overturn Sebelius’ Decision, Allow Wider ‘Morning-After-Pill’ Access)
Further complicating matters, in 2004, Dr. Lester M. Crawford issued a set of Health Claim Guidelines recommending that everyone eat 3 grams of omega-3 fats per day. He did so as Acting Commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a sister agency of NCI, on the basis that this diet would reduce cardiovascular disease. When that contention was proven false in 2012 by a comprehensive study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the FDA remained silent. Public confusion would normally follow, except that the shrill of commercial advertising for omega-3 supplements overwhelms any serious precautionary debate.
The role of omega-3 fatty acids and cancer struck special chord with me personally, because I mentioned work that was done on the subject almost 20 years ago in my book, Pig Blood (2008). The swirl of confusion in today’s news seemed so familiar, I almost wanted to say, “I told you so…”