Snake oil’s secret ingredient

By Ann Griswold • Published: February 22nd, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Old Western movies often feature a traveling medicine man peddling snake oil elixirs out of the back of his buggy in a dusty desert town. Curious onlookers gather round the buggy as a member of the audience raves about the oil’s magical healing properties. After swindling the townspeople out of their money, salesman and stooge ride off into the sunset toward the next unsuspecting town.

Nowadays, the term “snake oil” is synonymous with any product that sounds too good to be true. But a recent study suggests the slippery salesmen of the silver screen might have been on to something after all. Researchers at the Japanese National Food Research Institute examined the nutritional content of oil derived from the Erabu sea snake and found that it contains twenty-percent omega-3 fatty acids… an even higher concentration than in fish oil, one of the most popular sources of the nutrient.

Omega-3 fatty acids are becoming modern-day cure-alls, shown to do everything from staving off aches and pains to lowering the risks of diabetes and heart disease. Researchers tested the effects of snake oil on mice and found that it helped the rodents swim longer and navigate mazes more quickly.

The power of snake oil is nothing new to the Chinese, who have used it for centuries to ease the pain of arthritis. But after years of suffering a bad rap in the rest of the world, scientists have finally granted credence to the infamous elixir’s famous claims.