Why I Hate Supplements

It’s Jimmy Moore’s fault.

Not that I hate Jimmy Moore, of course, he’s a nice guy who tirelessly promotes ‘low carb’ with sincerity, honesty, warmth, and graciousness.

I hate that he made me think about supplements again. That’s not his fault, of course – I take full responsibility for what I choose to do.

He contributed to the e-book Fat Fast Cookbook: 50 Easy Recipes to Jump Start Your Low Carb Weight Loss by Dana Carpender. I like the book, and in it Jimmy mentions that he takes 2 tablespoons of the Carlson’s Lemon-flavored Cod Liver Oil to keep his ketones high on the very high-fat ketogenic diet he was on at the time of the book’s publication. (I don’t know if he’s still doing this now.)

I gave up most supplements after reading about the history of contaminated food in the book Swindled. It talked about the ‘chain of trust’ from the source to the consumer and how often that chain of trust just needed to be broken by one unscrupulous supplier. In England in the 19th century, manufacturers used to boil pickles in copper pots to make them bright green – despite the fact that the copper that made the pickles green also made them poisonous – that why copper pots you buy today have the copper on the outside – it should never touch the food. They also used to sell brightly colored candies for children that got their color from red lead. Lead actually tastes sweet, and the Romans used to put it in their wine to correct the flavor. They didn’t know that lead was poisonous – but the 19th century English knew – and still put it in candy for children. This is just two examples from a book that details hundreds of similar frauds – both in England in the early 18th century and the US in the late 19th century.

You might think that we have better controls in place now, more than 100 years later. Well, yeah – but still you can read more current stories about how rare hoodia is and how often it isn’t even in the products labeled hoodia, and how banned prescription diet drugs are found in various and sundry ‘herbal diet remedies’.  The fact is: supplements are unregulated in the US and dishonest people can put anything in these products and turn a good buck until they get caught, but it’s ‘catch me if you can’ – it usually isn’t caught until someone complains.

If you are a sashimi lover you might have eaten ‘white tuna’ that was actually a fish called escolar. Escolar tastes pretty good, but contains a substance that will give you a bad-ass case of diarrhea if you eat too much of it.

Never go to an ‘all you can eat’ sushi bar and gobble up the all the white tuna – that’s all I’ll say.

As another example, many have discussed just how few people in the US know what real extra-virgin olive oil tastes like because some believe that 50% of the extra-virgin olive oil sold in the US is adulterated.

It wasn’t until I bought a bottle of Trader Joe’s California Estate Extra-Virgin olive oil that I realized that prior to that moment I had never tasted the real thing. This stuff was spicy and would tickle the back of your throat to the point it could make you cough. I looked this phenomenon up and found someone complaining about this in a question on a food forum. The responder explained that this is what experts look for in a good olive oil. Olives, apparently, are a stone fruit like a cherry so it it literally a ‘juice’ – and this ‘bite’ is an indication of purity and freshness.

Food fraud is big money – and there’s a lot of it.

So I wonder not only about the quality of the foods I eat but also of the ‘chain of trust’ for the ingredients in supplements thorough the necessary processing steps that turn whatever magic substance into a pill, gelcap, powder or liquid that ends up on your vitamin store shelf.

Based on this research I decided a few years ago to ditch supplements entirely, focus on getting my nutrients from high quality food close to nature as possible and investing the money I used to spend on supplements on the food instead.

So I try to the extent that I can from a standpoint of convenience and cost to buy minimally processed foods not because it ensures that I’m getting good quality, but that it merely increases the chances. If I can’t tell by eyeball, smell or taste that what I’m eating is what I expect it to be, then there might be someone along the chain of trust that mislabels the food, charges me twice the rate, and pockets the extra cash.

As my diet isn’t all that varied though, I do take a single multivitamin to prevent things like scurvy and beriberi, and that’s it. I don’t necessarily trust these all that much – but I do try to buy only major brands as I assume they have more to lose if it comes out that their products are inferior.

But then Jimmy Moore wrote about his use of Carlson’s lemony Cod Liver Oil as part of the fast fast cookbook mentioned above. He mentioned how it helped him maintain a high level of ketosis and as I wanted to get into ketosis I thought I’d give it a try.

Jimmy said the stuff tasted pretty good – and it does. The oil itself is essentially flavorless, with a hint of lemon to it. It goes down quite easily, and even my wife and kids like it.

Reading the reviews on Amazon makes it sound like the stuff is manna from heaven and cures everything. I must admit that I feel better since taking it – but I have also stopped smoking and drinking and got back on my diet – maybe I would have felt better regardless?

But then I began to get curious about how, exactly, a cod goes from a fish swimming around minding his or her business to a slightly lemony flavorless oil in a bottle I bought in the vitamin store. I wrote Carlson’s about this a week or two ago but they never answered – perhaps they overlooked my message?

So, without their guidance I was left to do my own research.

I started out searching about the nutritional benefits of the stuff and – holy shit – there is a truckload of information – and controversy – about the stuff. Have a few hours to spare? Check out this blog and you will learn more about cod liver oil than you probably want. The Weston Price Foundation thinks cod liver oil is great – but they don’t recommend Carlson’s. The prefer fermented cod liver oil. Sites that tout the fermented kind also contain articles on how to choke this stuff down, so I suspect that the fermented type is not flavorless and lemony but fantastically disgusting. If you’ve ever been exposed to some fermented Asian products, these things can have odors that – to put it mildly – do not encourage westerners to go ‘yum!’

Then there’s the vitamin A issue. Vitamin A apparently has a relatively low toxicity level – and there’s a lot of vitamin A in the stuff. The particular vitamin A in cod liver oil can reach toxic levels with only 4 or 5 tablespoons – much less in children, and even if you don’t take that much, other foods as well as other supplements might bring that level above what’s safe.

Or is it one tablespoon? The above article about Vitamin A toxicity says, based on 850 IU per teaspoon, that someone taking a tablespoon – three teaspoons is getting 2,550 IU while the upper limit is for an adult is 10,000 IU.

But the Wikipedia article on cod liver oil states a tablespoon contains 136% of the tolerable upper limit.

So I have yet to figure out if my daily tablespoon of the stuff is a reasonable dose or an overdose.

I going to put *that* issue aside for the moment – I’ve provided you with all the links to the cod liver controversy above. Kelly the Kitchen Kop has apparently done more research on this topic than I will even be wont to do. I have yet to read it all.

Instead I want to explore how a cod’s liver ends up as oil in my green bottle.

It starts with a fish of course. A cod, just minding its business, no doubt has a sudden tragic event which renders him or her deceased somewhere in Norway in the spring. Whatever plans that cod had – probably no more complicated than finding a meal and maybe hooking up with another cod for a quickie – were put permanently put on hold.

It’s the end of the cod, but not our story. I would imagine that the cod corpse is at this point efficiently dismantled into the makings of fish sticks and other products made from their yummy white meat. Fish guts, the head, tail and scales probably end up as fertilizer or animal feed. I don’t really know, nor is it the point of this post – we’re interested in that liver in particular, which I imagine being tossed in a bin labeled ‘livers’ in Norwegian by an assembly line of expert fish disassemblers.

It’s here that what happens to this bin of fish livers be ones somewhat murky. I’m no expert on cod livers but I imagine them to be much like calves livers – brownish, with a kind of jiggly consistency somewhat like firm jello – except covered in a film of fish guts.

I’d like to think the first thing the sad old man who carries away the bucket of cod livers (I can only imagine a sad old man doing this) they are probably rinsed – perhaps in an old washing machine. After a washing and a gentle spin cycle , they are ready for the next step.

What is that next step? I don’t know. Are they placed in a huge wooden press where happy Norwegian woman stomp them like Italians used to stomp grapes for wine, perhaps singing Norwegian folk songs? Or are they cold pressed in a stainless steel press?

The thought suddenly occurred to me: how about I use that thing called…what’s it’s name? Oh, yeah – Google – and do a little searching rather than just making shit up?

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Cod liver oil was traditionally manufactured by filling a wooden barrel with fresh cod livers and seawater and allowing the mixture to ferment for up to a year before removing the oil. Modern cod liver oil is made by cooking the whole cod body tissues of fatty fish during the manufacture of fish meal.

So you’ve got your fermented type and the cooked type. One tastes gross (fish livers that sit for a year fermenting CAN’T taste all that great) but hasn’t been possibly robbed of nutrients by heat. But is the heated stuff still gross at this point?

OK – Carlson’s hasn’t explained to me how their cod liver oil is made so I did more digging to come up with this explanation of the various different processed used today. It comes from the Weston A. Price Foundation, which has decidedly odd notions about food that I cannot endorse nor dispute – I simply don’t know. You’ll have to make your own decisions on this one. Here’s a description of some of the different manufacturing processes – read the whole article for yet more info on cod liver oil than one person should need in order to make a decision about using the stuff – I’m just going to snip out some of the more interesting bits:

To summarize my findings, all the factories were engaged in industrial processing of cod liver oil, which involved alkali refining, bleaching, winterization and deodorization. Each of these steps, especially the deodorization, removes some of the precious fat-soluble vitamins, especially vitamin D.

The third type is the fully cleaned and deodorized cod liver oil with synthetic vitamins added back in. Most of the cod liver oils on the market fall into this category.

The main steps of the process are cooking for coagulation of the protein thereby liberating bound water and oil, separation by pressing of the coagulate yielding a solid phase (presscake) containing 60-80% of the oil-free dry matter (protein, bones) and oil, and a liquid phase (press liquor) containing water and the rest of the solids (oil, dissolved and suspended protein, vitamins and minerals). The main part of the sludge in the press liquor is removed by centrifugation in a decanter and the oil is subsequently removed by centrifuge. The stickwater is concentrated in multi-effect evaporators and the concentrate is thoroughly mixed with the presscake, which is then dehydrated usually by two-stage drying. The dried material is milled and stored in bags or in bulk. The oil is stored in tanks. . . . An important prerequisite for efficient [oil] separation is high temperature, implying that the press liquor should be reheated to 90°-95°C before entering the centrifuges. This applies to sludge removal as well as to separation of oil and water. . . Oil polishing, carried out in special separators, is the final refining step done at the factory before the oil is pumped into storage.

Phospholipid-deprived fish oil is obtained by mixing fish oil with water and a monosodium glutamate (MSG) by-product with stirring, fermenting the mixture in the presence of urea, processing the mixture with steam, and centrifuging the mixture to separate water and phospholipids from the fish oil. Further steps are neutralizing the separated fish oil with NaOH [caustic lye], washing and drying the washed fish oil in vacuum; mixing the dehydrated fish oil with powders of earthworm excrement, subjecting the mixture to reaction at least 30 °C or higher for 0.5-1 hour, bleaching the fish oil absorbed into the earthworm excrement powders by use of activated clay, and filtering the bleached fish oil through a filter, and deodorizing the bleached and filtered fish oil under a steam atmosphere in a high vacuum, deodorizing apparatus, cooling and filtering the fish oil and packaging it into a closed vessel. The refined fish oil is significantly improved in acid value and peroxide value.

So at this point I have to assume that my Carlson’s fish oil isn’t fermented as it is flavorless. Was it bleached or mixed with worm excrement? Am I taking less than a third of the low level for vitamin A toxicity or 136%? Is the vitamin A from the fish or added back in? Is it natural or synthetic if it IS added back in? Or does Carlson Labs use a different approach entirely?

All this reading and research has left me more confused than enlightened – and I have spent hours reading this stuff to get this confused.

And this is why I hate supplements.

10 thoughts on “Why I Hate Supplements

  1. Wow, hmmm. I live this post, but I too tend to question everything. I work in a large, multi- department chain store ( not Walmart), and used to work in the nutrition department . I try to buy supplements that I low have benefit, or that my dr insists on. Here in the NW, every woman I know , and a few guts, have been put on D. Try to buy certified Oregon Tilth Organic, or Kosher, etc. I’ve got psyllium husk fiber , St Johns Wort, and a host of other things, like cranberry. I’ve also been iow to take a slug of apple cider vinegar with the cranberry pills. Cod liver oil, though? I’d just take a trusted fish oil pill available at Costco and call it good. There are four different varieties of that goop for sale at our store. Two kinds of people buy it: the very elderly and people who’ve just watched done diet guru on TV touting the week’s latest fad. Bah, humbug! What about mercury?


    1. You obviously typed this on a cel phone. Hopefully I translate your ‘cel-speak’ correctly.

      Last first: the product states that it: ‘is regularly tested (using AOAC international protocols) for freshness, potency and purity by an independent, FDA-registered laboratory and has been determined to be fresh, fully potent and free of detrimental levels of mercury, cadmium, lead, PCB’s and 28 other contaminants.’ So unless they are totally lying through their teeth, the mercury isn’t at any level greater than any other fish.

      All fish have methylmercury contamination – we humans have been very thorough in ensuring that every ocean on the planet is polluted. If you consume fish products, you consume pollution. The trick with fish is to eat young fish – they don’t have time to accumulate as much toxins.

      As to supplements, I used to fill an entire pill bottle with the various magic potions that I thought would make me feel better but I finally came to the conclusion that I cannot depend on what’s in them. Like I said: in the US they are *completely unregulated*. Even if a particular compound has proven benefits, it’s a gamble that the particular brand you and I buy contains what it says it has – and I decided for myself to give them up and spend the money on better food instead.

      I don’t feel any different – and save hundreds per year on pills with dubious contents. If you like St. John’s Wort, you can buy it in bulk from China and save a lot of money – even start a vitamin business:


      Note they are all from mainland China – a place that has a dubious record for quality and purity.

      As to buying any old fish oil at Costco (which I used to do)…well, fats are awfully complicated. Perhaps my thinking on them deserves a separate post.

  2. Have you ever seen canned cod liver or encountered any information on it in your search? It’s an Icelandic/Russian thing. It comes with its own oil and is delicious in all kinds of salads.

    I tried Carlson’s CLO once but see no point in it or a similar product when I can just get regular canned cod liver.

    Let me know if you are interested and I can give you more links / information…

      1. You just need one jar to see for yourself what it looks like. Normally it does not have any worms 🙂 someone just was very unlucky. Check out this Paleo Hacks thread for some general reviews:

        It should be easily available in most Russian or European stores in your area. I buy mine at the Middle Eastern market that carries many Israeli and Russian foods. It is better to buy the one that is made with Icelandic cod (it can still be a Russian brand, but it will indicate the source properly).

        If you send me your mailing address (I suppose you have an access to my email address?), I’d be happy to send you a jar sometime later in June when I get to my store next time.

        1. Ok – to the possible disgust of other readers, I am not *entirely* put off by one review in a hundred saying they found a worm. It’s nice of you to offer up a can, but I live in an area where I am sure I can find the stuff locally – I live in an area so culturally diverse that I can probably find anything.

          Since you’re so passionate about it – have any good recipes? I am not usually a fan of liver except as liverwurst or it’s fancy cousin – pâté. I’ve also had awesome chicken livers in a restaurant, but our attempt to recreate the dish did not go well – except for the dog.

        2. Well, I am not really that passionate about cod liver, it is just as if someone was trying to understand how yogurt is made without ever seeing milk – you would surely suggest him to check out milk first.

          I can’t stand chicken or beef liver at all, but cod liver is very different. It doesn’t have that livery taste at all. It tastes mildly fishy, like canned sardines, and has a pate-like texture. Best of all, you don’t need to cook it.

          A very simple (and very filling) cold salad, a variation of an egg salad:

          * boiled eggs (chopped)
          * shallot (chopped) or 1/3 yellow onion (very finely chopped)
          * cod liver (mashed; cold – keep it in the fridge for a couple hours before opening)
          * a bit of cod liver oil (if the whole mix is still too dry)
          * salt and pepper to taste (canned cod liver will have some salt in it – be careful)
          * pickles (chopped) (1 medium pickle per 3 eggs) – optional
          * fresh herbs (dill, parsley, green onions) – optional
          * lemon juice – optional

          This is good by itself or with some lettuce leaves.

          The remaining cod liver oil has a mild fishy taste – like the oil from a tin of sardines. It can be stored in the fridge and used instead of olive oil for any green salad, provided you are OK with a slight sardiney taste to your salad. Surprisingly, it keeps well in the fridge for quite a while. Has never turned rancid or bad on me and I did store it for more than a month.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I do apologize, I used the cell phone, which auto corrects things into very ridiculous things. Yes, our cod liver oil claims the finest in purity. i just don’t wish to drink it as is.

    1. I think the cel phone phenomenon is so common as to need no apology. It’s part of daily life these days.

      I think the cod liver oil goes down as another ‘failed experiment’. I take a tablespoon every few days and probably won’t get another bottle. Again, my understanding is that you don’t need a lot of omega-3, and if you keep your intake of omega-6 oils to reasonable amounts it’s no big deal.

      We’ll see however…

      1. On another note, I’ve been gaining weight like crazy the least two weeks, and I think it’s a combination of errors and simple biology, but I hate it… a lot.

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