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Cod-liver Oil: What's it Good For?

Updated on July 10, 2010
Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz has a PhD in linguistics from Rice University. She is an ape language researcher and the author of Vacuum County and other novels.

Somebody in the forums recently mentioned that cod-liver oil really sells itself. People write articles about things entirely unrelated to cod-liver oil, or even to cods or to livers, and then they end up being credited on their Amazon sales for having sold cod-liver oil through that hub. This had me curious. Why would anybody order cod-liver oil on Amazon. What do they use it for? And why haven't any of my hubs inspired anybody to go out and buy cod-liver oil?

Cod-liver oil tablets: Image Credit: The Wikipedia
Cod-liver oil tablets: Image Credit: The Wikipedia

Something Children Were Forced to Swallow

Before I started researching this hub, I had a vague recollection that cod liver oil was something children in 19th and early 20th century literature were forced to swallow, although I could not recall if it was for health reasons or as a form of punishment. Was I confusing cod liver oil with castor oil? I wasn't sure.

Was cod-liver oil supposed to be good for you? Or was it a way to make you "be good"? And are those one and the same thing?

Nutritional and Medicinal Uses of Cod Liver Oil

As its name suggests, cod liver oil is an oil derived from the liver of a cod. Like all oils, its caloric content is mostly fat. Some use it as a means of supplementing their fat intake. For others it is the non-caloric elements of the oil that are the attraction.

Cod-liver oil is high in vitamin A and D, and it was originally thought to be a good way to supplement deficiencies in those vitamins. Specific benefits of ingesting cod-liver oil are said to include:

  • relief of arthritis symptoms
  • strengthening hair and nails
  • reducing acne
  • coping with the effects of multiple sclerosis
  • reducing incidence of Type 1 Diabetes in children, when the mother takes it during pregnancy

When applied topically, cod liver oil makes wounds heal faster.

Ill Effects of Cod Liver Oil

Because cod liver oil contains more than the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A, one of the most often cited side-effects of cod liver oil consumption is an overdose of Vitamin A. It has also been suggested that high dosages of cod liver oil during pregnancy might lead to birth defects.

Other undesirable effects of the consumption of cod liver oil include indigestion, diarrhea and vomiting.

Today, when people take cod liver oil, they usually swallow capsules and avoid the taste. However, in its heyday, cod-liver oil was taken by the spoonful. It was oily, fishy smelling and induced a gag-reflex. And this, I believe, is what led to the punitive uses of cod liver oil.

Cod Liver Oil in Brtitain during WWII

Punitive Uses of Cod Liver Oil

Here is a documented historical instance of cod liver oil used as a punishment:

  • A child evacuated into the English countryside during the blitz could expect to receive cod liver oil as a punishment for stealing more appetizing food: "We had midnight feasts, but once we were caught scrumping apples and were given cod liver oil as a punishment."

What I find odd about this is that during the very same period and place (England during the Blitz), cod liver oil was simultaneously used as a beneficial nutritional supplement and a way to punish children.

There is something very odd about this scenario. Imagine saying to your child: "I can see that you've been naughty. I'm going to go get the Vitamin C now!"

Brimstone & Treacle & Cod-liver Oil

Castor Beans

Image Credit: The Wikipedia
Image Credit: The Wikipedia

Nutritional and Medicinal Uses of Castor Oil

Castor Oil is a vegetable oil derived from the castor bean (Ricinus communis). According to the wikipedia: "It is a triglyceride in which approximately ninety percent of fatty acid chains are ricinoleic acid."

Beneficial uses of castor oil include:

  • food additive
  • in candy
  • a mold inhibitor
  • a laxative
  • an agent to help induce labor
  • a skin care product, when used topically
  • a rub for joint pain

Castor Oil in Disney's "Mary Poppins"

Punitive Uses of Castor Oil

  • In previous centuries, children who misbehaved were given castor oil as an alternative to corporal punishment
  • According to the Wikipedia, in Fascist Italy castor oil was one of the tools of intimidation used by Mussolini's blackshirts. Dissidents were force-fed large quantities of castor oil. It rarely killed them, but the results were unpleasant and humiliating. Mussolini's power, it was said, was backed by "the bludgeon and castor oil."
  • In the Poor Man's James Bond by Kurt Saxon there is a recipe for turning castor beans into ricin poison.

The Resurgence in Popularity of Yesteryear's Patent Medicine

Of late, both cod-liver oil and castor oil, after at least one generation of neglect, have seen a resurgence of popularity. Once known only for their nasty taste and punitive uses in older books for and about children, they are now touted for their miraculous ability to heal wounds, reinvigorate the body and promote general well being. How do we account for this?

Food goes through fads. After World War II, American nutritionists decided that fat was bad and carbs were good. They also ruled that plant matter was healthier than animal flesh, and that when choosing between two oils, the vegetable oil was preferable. Bacon and eggs for breakfast were replaced by cereal. Lard as a shortening was set aside for all vegetable Crisco. Maragarine trumped butter. Low fat dairy products were preferred over their more luxurious tasting high fat counterparts.

After decades of this regimen, Americans were overweight and suffering from all sorts of illnesses, many of which were caused by a deplorable lack of fat -- and particularly animal fat-- in the diet. In order to remedy this situation, some dietary supplements high in fat were recommended. Cod liver oil is one of these. It has high levels of the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which are now considered "good fats".

It is likely that the people ordering cod-liver oil are looking for a dietary supplement to help heal their bodies of the symptoms of fat deficiency, since vitamin A and D supplements are available in many other forms besides cod-liver oil. It's also possible that the medicinal value of both cod-liver oil and castor oil are being recognized again by those who hope to circumvent the medical establishment's monopoly on the treatment of auto-immune and other chronic diseases. It could well be the case that some people appreciate the laxative effect of both these oils.

Of course, this is all speculation on my part. It's possible that people are trying to find new ways to discipline their children or to establish fascist regimes in their country of origin. You can never tell!


Is cod liver oil a good thing or a bad thing? Is castor oil an instrument of torture or a nice nutritional  additive? The answer is both. Like any other substance, it depends on how you use it. There are no bad substances or good substances, but what you make of what you have at hand is entirely up to you. Let's just hope that all those people who have been ordering cod liver oil will use it wisely. When they randomly wander off-topic into an Amazon capsule and start ordering nutritional supplements, let's hope our readers use them for good rather than evil. After all, every object on earth can serve to further whatever purpose we are pursuing. This is true of not just cod-liver oil, but each and every product we peddle on-line!

(c) 2010 Aya Katz


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    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 3 years ago from The Ozarks

      Hi, SweetiePie, that is true. I have found that a combination of vinegar and baking soda can clean almost any stain with more power than commercial cleaners.

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 3 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I think the same is true with old fashion cleaning products like vinegar. In the 1950's and afterwards everyone wanted to buy fancy cleaning products at the store, but these were often chemically smelling, and not always that great at cleaning. Now people are going back to old fashion things like vinegar, which is amusing.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 5 years ago from The Ozarks

      Mrs. M, I'm afraid I don't know much about the market for castor oil in Zambia.

      If you are having trouble finding it there, you could try ordering through Amazon, but the shipping costs would be considerable.

    • profile image

      Mrs m 5 years ago

      Where can i buy castor oil in zambia?

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks

      Lacy, I am so pleased to hear that cod liver oil is helpful for dogs as well as humans.

    • profile image

      lacy 6 years ago

      My father in law gave cod liver to a dog and it was able to walk when he was down

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Shalini! I'm glad that, whatever efficacy there was to your doses of cod liver oil as a child, they were administered kindly and never as a punishment.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 7 years ago from India

      Hi Aya - I'm from the generation that had both by the spoonful - no capsules and there was no spoonful of sugar to make those medicines go down.I must say though - these were never meted out as punishment so I guess we were lucky! Was it these two that kept us hale and hearty through childhood and later? I don't know - but my parents' generation certainly believed so!

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Debby! It's always good to hear about the many, many different ways cod liver oil can be helpful.

    • Debby Bruck profile image

      Debby Bruck 7 years ago

      Awesome Aya! Only the seniors will reminisce about these two oils. Very educational and of course, love the songs. I use castor oil on my skin and is used for packs to withdraw toxins. I guess I took cod-liver oil when it wasn't so popular and not lemon-flavored, as it is today. Our grandparents called FISH BRAIN FOOD - So any form of fish would improve our intelligence. Blessings, Debby

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Avamum. Good to know that you find the cod liver oil capsules convenient and healthful.

    • Avamum profile image

      Sarita Harbour 7 years ago from Yellowknife, Canada

      Interesting hub - I used to get "dosed" with cod liver oil as a child as well. As an adult I find the capsules far easier to ingest and as a previous commentator said it does wonders for my skin! Good topic for a hub!

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      the viv, thanks for your question. Most bottles of cod liver oil come without an expiration date, leading one to believe that if they are properly packaged, they will not spoil if left unopened.

      I myself do not have any cod liver oil recipes. If you find some, come back and let me know!

    • profile image

      the viv 7 years ago

      dose cod liver oil go bad if not opened? dose anyone have recipes w/ cod oil?

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      DeBorrah, Good to know! I may give it a try!

    • DeBorrah K. Ogans profile image

      DeBorrah K Ogans 7 years ago

      Aya Katz, As a matter of fact I had some today! Chilled it really is quite palatable! Try it and let me know what you think?

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, DeBorrah K. Ogans. Have you tried the orange flavored kind? Is it any more palatable?

    • DeBorrah K. Ogans profile image

      DeBorrah K Ogans 7 years ago

      Aya Katz, Nice informative hub! You have presented some great points on the benefits of Cod liver oil! By the way it also comes in Orange flavored! Thank you for sharing, Peace & Blessings!

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Oliversmum, thanks! One of the downsides of cod liver oil consumption was always the taste of it. I guess that hasn't changed much. Glad you find it beneficial, though.

    • oliversmum profile image

      oliversmum 7 years ago from australia

      Aya Katz. Hi. This is a very interesting hub with some great information, some of which is new to me.

      For many years we have taken Omega three fish oil, and during the Winter months a product called "Hypol" which is a Cod Liver Oil Emulsion, and found them both to be very beneficial to us, but I must say the Hypol leaves a lot to be desired in taste, it is awful.

      Thank you for sharing this hub with us. :) :)

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

      Loveofnight, thanks. It's amazing what a colorful history these dietary supplements have had!

    • loveofnight profile image

      loveofnight 7 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

      i really learned some new things in this hub today,thx.i almost forgot about things like cod liver or castor oils.i believe that i may have to re-invest in one or both of these products.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Samina, thanks for your comment. It's good to know that this supplement is doing you good!

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Jerilee! I'm amazed that you had a family member who still used cod liver oil as a standby disciplinary tool. I myself only ever read of such things in books, but it was enough exposure to make me think of the substance as nasty. It took some research to learn of its more beneficial effects.

    • profile image

      Samina 8 years ago

      Thank you Dr Katz. I am pleased to say I have been using it since long and I guess it really works good for my skin, hair, nails and bones. I should recommend it

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 8 years ago from United States

      Some excellent points Aya! I do know that in my grandmother's child rearing kit -- it was the ultimate threat if we misbehaved. I don't think she every gave it to us, but I do remember seeing the bottle and being allowed to smell it.