The Viking Experience
The origin of the use of cod liver oil as a food dates back to the Viking Era (late 700s to 1100). Fish and fish liver oil were important parts of the Norse diet. The Vikings consumed most of the fish liver oil during the cold months when the days were shorter and lacked sunlight. And because the winter months were also the prime fishing season, the livers stayed fresh and the oil obtained was also very fresh and of a high quality. The most common method of obtaining fish liver oil used by the Scandinavian Vikings in Northern Norway was as follows: Water in a large pan, rather like a kettle, was brought to a boil. Birch tree branches were placed on top of the pan, and the liver was placed on top of the birch branches. As steam rose, it began to cook the liver, and oil from the liver would begin to drip into the water. The straw-colored oil was skimmed off, and the process was repeated several times. The pale oil obtained was largely devoid of taste and odor. The Vikings would often consume whole cod livers dipped in the cod liver oil.
”Highly valued for its powers of healing, strength and energy the pure, raw oil was called “Gold of the Ocean” by the Vikings of Northern Norway.”
Once harvested, cod livers begin to break down and go rancid within a very short period of time. To preserve cod liver oil for use during non-fishing months, the Viking Druids developed a process based on nature’s seasonal changes to extract oil without the use of heat or pressure, while the livers were still fresh. These principles were handed down to a select few from Nordic generation to generation. The oil obtained from this method was stable, pale colored with a slight but pleasant fishy taste. Highly valued for its powers of healing, strength and energy the pure, raw oil was called “Gold of the Ocean” by the Vikings of Northern Norway.
Cods Commercial Success
The Norse name for cod liver oil is lysi, meaning “light”, and it was used to fuel lamps all over Europe. Icelanders, and some older Norwegians, still use the word lysi or lyse when referring to cod liver oil. The modern Norwegian word for cod liver oil, tran, was borrowed from the Dutch/German word for “drop” or “tear”. In English the term “train oil” was in use, until replaced by cod liver oil. Cod fish, cod livers and the resultant oil have always been an important part of Scandinavian export, and remain so to this day.
“Early cod oil extraction processes were rudimentary, in that they were little more than putrefaction, which released oil as the livers rotted and broke down”
The period from the advent of the Industrial Revolution (mid 1700s) until the early 1900s was the heyday of cod oil production for use in industry. Cod were plentiful, and their livers produced a significant amount of oil – important for use in leather tanning, lamp oil, woodworking, soap, paint and other commercial applications. Early cod oil extraction processes were rudimentary, in that they were little more than putrefaction, which released oil as the livers rotted and broke down. In Cod Liver Oil and Chemistry, (1895) F. Peckel Möller writes the following passage regarding the process:
This rudimentary process was designed for commercial cod oil, not for human consumption. The livers were putrid and the oil impure, rancid, and often mixed with other fish oils. This meant very little to the producer or the customer, as their reason for using these strong smelling oils was not for health benefits but for commercial applications.
A Medicinal is Born
As far back as the Viking era, Norwegian fisherman rubbed cod liver oil on their joints and muscles to ease soreness. By the 1700s, infirmaries and apothecaries had observed the oil’s success and began prescribing it to patients suffering from rheumatism. The first written account of the healing effects of cod liver oil taken internally was in a letter, written in 1782 by Robert Darbey, at the Manchester Infirmary in the U.K., to Dr. Thomas Percival. Mr. Darbey recounted events that took place at the infirmary some years earlier:
“A woman, who labored under the most excruciating rheumatism, and was an outpatient of the infirmary, being advised to rub her joints with the oil was induced to take it, at the same time, internally. A few weeks restored her to the use of her limbs, and she was cured.”
Later published papers praised cod liver oil for curing gout, scrofula (a tubercular infection of the lymph nodes), rickets and other maladies. In 1822, cod liver oil was officially recognized by the medical profession for its curative powers. No one understood why or how it worked. Some thought its iodine content was the source of its healing properties, although it was later found that cod liver oils containing little or no iodine healed patients just as well. Vitamin A and D and omega fatty acids had not yet been discovered, so for the time being, the healing powers of cod liver oil remained a mystery. Once cod liver oil was established as a medicinal, a great deal of research ensued to determine best practices: best species of cod, chemical breakdown of the oil, diseases for which cod liver oil was to be prescribed, correct dosages, etc. Based on its tremendous healing powers, cod liver oil extracted from the Gadus Morhua species of cod came to be known as “true” cod liver oil. The banks of the Lofoten Islands in Norway became the Mecca of cod liver oil production, due to huge shoals of this species of cod, unmixed with other species. No other locality in the world had such a vast resource of cod so well suited to the production of medicinal cod liver oil. One would assume that only the pale oil from the Gadus Morhua was used for healing, as it contained the least amount of offensive residue, and undoubtedly had the greatest healing properties. Astonishingly, this was not the case. Rancid, foul-tasting light brown and brown oils, often containing rotted pieces of liver, were also dispensed for medicinal purposes – with positive results. In his book, The Three Kinds of Cod Liver Oil, written in 1845, L. J. de Jongh found much debate among practitioners of the era as to which oil was the best for healing. There was a contingent of practitioners who felt pale oil was best for its healing powers, fishy (but not repugnant) taste, and little if any disturbance to the digestive system. Yet there were also a number of practitioners of the time (de Jongh among them) who were firm believers in the brown oils.
“Based on its tremendous healing powers, cod liver oil extracted from the Gadus Morhua species of cod came to be known as “true” cod liver oil.”
Pale Lofoten oil was superior to brown oils in purity, healing and taste. The issue was quantity which left practitioners with little choice but to use brown oils. Other healing options of the day included pale oils from Iceland, Newfoundland, Scotland and other cod liver oil producing countries. Often a mixture of several species of cod, mixed with haddock and even seal oil, these other oils were only marginally medicinal when compared to true cod liver oil sourced from Norway. As light brown oil was readily available, distribution channels were set up across Europe and the United States. Even L. J. de Jongh built a facility in Lofoten to distribute light brown oil. As one 1869 advertisement stated, “It was fitting that the Author of the best analysis and investigations into the properties of this Oil should himself be the Purveyor of this important medicine.”
The Möller Method
In 1850 a Norwegian by the name of Peter Möller perfected a process to extract oil by steaming fresh cod livers. The new process cleared up a great deal of issues with taste, putrid liver particles and digestive insults without damaging the healing properties of the oil. The new rendering process also enabled the production of larger quantities of pale cod liver oil, enough to furnish apothecaries and infirmaries across Europe and the Americas with a high-quality, medical grade cod liver oil. For the first time in its short history as a medicinal, cod liver oil was being produced not for industry but for human consumption. The Peter Möller Company was established on the banks of Lofoten in 1854.
F. Peckel Möller writes in Cod Liver Oil and Chemistry what may be the defining statement regarding brown oils from rotted livers versus Peter Möller’s method of rendering fresh livers:
Cod-liver oil is undoubtedly one of the most valuable medicinal agents known to man. Its value has one remarkable proof in the fact that it was extensively used in the days when only the brown variety could be obtained. In those days cod-liver oil was not a desirable article of consumption; indeed, to put the matter plainly, it was an abomination, and no one could have taken it willingly, even once, not to speak of day after day and month after month. Nevertheless many people did take it, and the only reasonable explanation is that the oil must have given strikingly favourable results; otherwise, medical men would not have been justified in prescribing it, nor could their patients have been induced to use it. But although cod-liver oil was thus highly esteemed, despite its very objectionable characters, these, there is no doubt, were a great drawback to its successful administration. The class of patients to whom the oil is given, or at all events to whom it is useful, are cases with, broadly speaking, defective nutrition, and, therefore, exactly the cases which can least afford to risk any disturbance of the digestive apparatus. Yet this was the very thing that the old, badly prepared cod-liver oil was most apt to do. It was not only disagreeable to the palate, but it was also intensely irritating to the stomach, and often it must have been a question whether its administration did not do more harm than good.
“For the first time in its short history as a medicinal, cod liver oil was being produced not for industry but for human consumption.”
These highly objectionable characters of the old cod-liver oil were due to the fact that it was not the oil pure and simple, but the oil with something added to it. This something was the cause of the greater part of the trouble, and, not to mince the matter too finely, it was nothing more or less than an extract of rotten livers. The oil was obtained in those days simply by allowing the livers to putrefy, when the decomposition of the albumens resulted in the breaking up of the cells, and the escape of the oil globules contained in them. It also, however, resulted in the formation and inclusion in the oil of a large variety of putrefactive products, part of which has recently been found to consist of poisonous ptomaines. These, even up to the present day, are called, ‘active principles’ by some people, but we need hardly add that an admixture of poisonous ptomaines, both quantitatively and qualitatively uncontrollable, is not a desirable addition to any medicinal remedy, and perhaps least of all to cod-liver oil, seeing that it is much more a food substance than a medicine. If they are present in the oil they render it not only disgusting to the patient, but they also make it quite as likely to hurt as to help him.
“The new process cleared up a great deal of issues with taste, putrid liver particles and digestive insults without damaging the healing properties of the oil.”
A generation or two ago the brown oils were the only kind that were made or that could be obtained, and the people of the present day who have to take cod-liver oil may be thankful that, in regard to this at least, they live in happier times. All the disagreeable and detrimental qualities of the oil due to decomposed albumens were removed by the introduction of Möller early process. The livers were no longer left to rot till the oil exuded, but the oil was drawn off from them while they yet perfectly fresh.
Even with this improved process, it took almost 40 years for the Möller method to take hold. There were several reasons for this delay. Many loyal followers of brown oils believed that “clear” oil lacked iodine, which at the time was considered an important component of the oil’s healing properties. Further, brown oil distribution channels were well established, so those heavily invested in the success of brown oils were not as likely to switch processes. And for many practitioners and distributors, it was difficult to accept that cod liver oil could be healing without the nasty taste so long associated with brown oils. As the Möller method finally made headway into the market, many imitators sprang up, pawning their “pale oil” as true cod liver oil, when in fact they were whale, seal or other fish oils with little or no healing effects. Unfortunately, this tarnished the Möller method’s reputation and further delayed its acceptance.
Truth is Mighty and Will Prevail
Eventually as new information came to light the iodine theory faded, the clear cod liver oil rendered from fresh livers proved to be a potent healing oil and more effective then the darker and putrid tasting oils. Measures were put in place to assure the distribution of true cod liver oil from Lofoten, Norway. U.S. author John Rayner speaks to the subject of “true” cod liver oil in Cod Liver Oil: Its Uses, Mode of Administration, etc. etc., Compiled from the Best and Latest Authorities (c.1890):
At the commencement of our manufacturing the pure Cod-Liver Oil, we met with great opposition, from many whose prejudice and interests were in favor of the dark putrid oil. But “Truth is mighty and will prevail,” and with few exceptions, the superiority of the fresh light-colored oils, prepared from fresh livers, is now so universally acknowledged, and sought for as to induce all kinds of spurious imitations as before mentioned; such as mixing lard with a little of the genuine oil, or some other oil to avor it; bleaching the common Tanners’ oil. Some more bold but no more unprincipled, put up the Whale Oil in its natural purity, and call it Purified Cod Liver Oil.
True Cod Liver Oil
Once accepted, the Möller method of producing pure medicinal grade cod liver oil spurred a surge in cod liver oil consumption and production. In 1870 there were 57 cod liver oil mills along the Norwegian coast. By 1890, that number had increased nearly three-fold, to 148 mills. The Scott and Bowne Company, established in 1876 in New York City, became a popular brand of cod liver oil in the United States. Labeled as “Scott’s Emulsion of Cod Liver Oil,” it was originally a mixture of the foul tasting light brown oil with a formula advertised as 50% pure cod liver oil with hypophosphites of lime and soda along with a sweet tasting glycerin. By cutting the horrid taste of light brown oil, the company slogan became “Palatable as Milk”. By the early 1900s, the Scott and Bowne Company were among those that had made the switch over to the Möller method (calling it “the S & B process”) of rendering fresh cod livers, as evidenced by this entry into a 1920′s medical journal:
It Must Be Made Right From the Start – Norway is best known for her Midnight Sun and her immense harvests of the deep. Nature has nowhere been so prodigal in providing the ideal conditions for the spawning, feeding and the true development of the Gaddus Morrhuae than in the waters surrounding the far famed Lofoten Islands, Norway. For a century or more cod liver oil has been recognized as a dependable and easily absorbed nutrient and more recent investigations reveal that it is an exceedingly fruitful source of anti-rachitic vitamines. Cod liver oil to be used to the fullest extent by the system should be pure and sweet and free from admixture with inferior non-cod oils and also free from admixture of blood and gall – due to careless and unscientific handling of the livers. Cod liver oil is as delicate as butter and in the selection and processing of the livers, should receive as much care as science has thrown around the production of pure milk. It must be made right from the start. For nearly half a century the producers of the “S & B Process” Clear Norwegian Cod Liver Oil have concentrated their endeavors and specialized upon the product of the livers of the True Gaddus Morrhuae. This oil is guaranteed a 100% product of the livers of the True Gaddus Morrhuae and absolutely free from admixture with other oils and impurities.
“Cod liver oil to be used to the fullest extent by the system should be pure and sweet and free from admixture with inferior non-cod oils and also free from admixture of blood and gall”
The Active Principles
A great deal of focus was put on the ‘active principles’ of cod liver oil. In 1912 Polish-born biochemist Casimir Funk concluded that certain diseases – such as beri-beri, pellagra, scurvy, and rickets – were caused by the lack of an essential nutrient. He coined the word vital-amines or vitamine (soon changed to vitamin) to describe these as-yet-unidentified substances. Cod liver oil played a central role in the nutritional research that uncovered the secrets of these mysterious vitamins. In experiments with rats at the University of Wisconsin in 1913, Elmer McCollum and Marguerite Davis proved the existence of an essential nutrient in cod liver oil, dubbing it “fat-soluble A.” By 1922, McCollum identified another vitamin in cod liver oil—the antiricketic “fat-soluble D.” Cod-liver oil was an important source of two “new” essential nutrients: vitamin A for growth and healthy eyes and vitamin D for proper bone development. “Cod-liver oil was an important source of two “new” essential nutrients: vitamin A for growth and healthy eyes and vitamin D for proper bone development.” Although long-recognized as a disease, rickets developed into a considerable health problem in the early 20th century, especially in children of the urban poor. With the discovery of vitamins A and D, the medical world transformed cod liver oil from a remedy largely dismissed as old-fashioned to an indispensable part of every child’s diet.
Another important study on vitamins and cod liver oil, published by Arthur D. Holmes in 1924 (Vol. 16, No. 9) and 1925 (Vol. 17, No. 1), showed that cod liver oil extracted via a putrefactive fermentation process decreased in vitamin potency as decomposition progressed.
“Approximately three times as much of the oil from the livers rotted 4 months was required to produce the same growth as with freshly rendered oil.”
Of the freshly rendered oil 0.21 mg daily proved sufficient to maintain body weight of the rat given this dose. Approximately three times as much of the oil from the livers rotted 4 months was required to produce the same growth as with freshly rendered oil. Of the oil from livers rotted 8 months as large as an amount as 6 mg daily proved insufficient as a source of fat soluble vitamin. In particular, vitamin A levels were much lower. The results also showed that oils produced from fresh livers are superior and more potent compared to those produced by decomposition of liver. It was known as the “sun-dried” or “rotting” process. Using this process, the oil was obtained by keeping the livers of the fish in large vats under carefully controlled conditions until they decompose, putrefactive fermentation sets in and the liver tissues have been weakened sufficiently to release the liver oil (a darker putrid smelling liquid) which rises to the surface. This oil is then skimmed off and allowed to settle, or filtered crudely using filter paper, before bottling. This method was in use for a long time in commercial use. It had advantages in that it required little attention or machinery. Studies show fish liver oils produced by the rotting process are rancid and contain fat-soluble liver decomposition products including undesirable and obnoxious by-products which possess undesirable odors and flavors.
Cod liver oil consumption reached its pinnacle between 1900 and 1950. Most of the cod oil producing firms had facilities in Lofoten, Norway, and all used the Möller method – or some variation of the method – in producing oil. Expansion into South America, Indonesia, Canada, Mexico and other global markets increased rapidly during this period.
“…oils produced from fresh livers are superior and more potent compared to those produced by decomposition of liver”.
The Age of Chemistry
Though cod liver oil was the basis for the discovery of vitamins A and D, it also ushered in the age of chemistry marking man’s “emancipation from the fish that swim in the ocean and the vegetation that grows on the land.” Commercial profitability and a modern reliance on chemistry marked the beginning of the end for cod liver oil’s popularity. Chemistry allowed the production of synthetic vitamins, which could be made palatable, and which could be easily produced and patented – and which were very profitable. The chasm widened between those believing in man’s ability to duplicate nature in a laboratory and those, like Dr. Weston A. Price, who believed that “Life in All Its Splendor is Mother Nature Obeyed.”
A Changing of the Guard
By the 1960s cod liver oil was on the wane in the American household. Many of the large cod liver oil producers were bought out or merged with larger pharmaceutical conglomerates. Since the 1960s, additional processes during the extraction and preparation of Norwegian cod liver oil have been put in place. Today nearly all of the cod liver oil available on the market is distilled, winterized, deodorized and bleached; in short, almost all modern cod liver oil is processed to the point of damaging both the nutrient and healing powers of the oil. Synthetic vitamins A and D are often added to this depleted oil to pump up the nutrient levels.
“…almost all modern cod liver oil is processed to the point of damaging both the nutrient and healing powers of the oil.”
In the 1970s, Danish doctor Jorn Dyerburg made the connection between the diet of Greenland Inuit – based on cold-water oily fish – and their low incidence of coronary disease. His work led to further studies on the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, paving the way for the innumerable fish-oil supplements available today. The new research, still ongoing, strongly suggests that there are additional remedial healing qualities to cod liver oil that go beyond its high vitamin content. There are fish liver oils – such as halibut – that are naturally higher in fat soluble vitamins than cod liver oil, and yet have never been found to heal patients with the same efficacy. It is unknown whether cod liver oil contains some yet-to-be discovered remedial properties or an ideal ratio of nutrients that contribute to its unique powers of healing.
“It is unknown whether cod liver oil contains some yet-to-be discovered remedial properties…that contribute to its unique powers of healing.”