One of the most common “cure-alls” was snake oil, and its less than “miracle cures” soon lent its name as a generic to all such fraudulent hoaxes.
Richard Kunin, a California psychiatrist with a background in neurophysiology research, became intrigued with the idea of snake oil in the 1980s. He had been following prior research on the importance of omega-3 fatty acids for health and he realized the much maligned snake oil might be a rich source.
These acids not only reduce inflammation, such as arthritis pain but also improve cognitive function and reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and even depression.“Because of their chemical structure, omega-3’s behave very differently in cell membranes than any other fat,” says Susan Allport, author of The Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do To Replace Them. “They’re much more dynamic, they move around much more, so they allow a lot to happen in the cell membranes. And that’s where enzymes do their work. So these fats allow enzymes to work.”Recently in Japan, a group of scientists at the Japanese National Food Research Institute led by Nobuya Shirai turned their attention to snake oil as well. In 2002, in Fisheries Science, they evaluated the composition of oil from the Erabu sea snake—the source of snake oil in traditional Chinese medicine. They analysed such snakes caught in both the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea and determined that the amount of beneficial omega-3s in sea snakes does not vary depending on their capture location.
In a series of later papers, the most recent published in the Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism in July 2007, Shirai and his team evaluated the effects of Erabu sea-snake oil on a number of outcomes in mice, including maze-learning ability and swimming endurance. In both cases, snake oil significantly improved the ability of the mice in comparison with those fed lard.
Despite Shirai and Kunin’s analyses, snake oil retains its fraudulent feel in the U.S., perhaps because the Japanese research is not widely known and we were only beginning to understand the need for omega-3’s when Kunin published his analysis. “That study came out at the time that we were beginning to appreciate that we did indeed require omega-3’s,” Allport says. “The first medical reason people were looking at omega-3’s was for arthritis…. [But] all of our cells in our bodies have a certain amount of omega-3’s in them. Now we concentrate [research] on the brain and the heart because those are organs that have a higher concentration. But all our cells need these fats in them.”
Of course, most 19th-century snake oil salesmen did not, in fact, sell this particular product. Even those hucksters who did sell actual snake oil would likely have sold the rattlesnake variety, nearly useless for any ache-relieving medicinal purpose. But the original Chinese purveyors of snake oil offered something that probably did exactly what they claimed it would do: help fellow workers relieve the pain of their labors.
Source: Cynthia Graber, Scientific American, November 2007