Emu oil is making the rounds (again) as a cure for just about everything. Those who sell it bolster their claims with technical sounding but medically imprecise terms such as “anti-inflammatory properties” and “natural healing” (what is unnatural healing?). Even the New York Times has been in on the emu oil action with an article that seemed more about advertising the stuff than actually investigating the health claims.
Is Emu oil a revolutionary product or just another form of snake oil?
The emu is a flightless bird native to Australia. Emu oil is simply rendered fat from the bird, like schmaltz from chickens. It can be solid (like schmaltz) or refined and processed so it remains liquid at room temperature (the oil). I am a big fan of schmaltz for cooking. I always save the chicken fat when I roast a bird and either use it for french fries (so yummy, it’s beyond belief) or for latkes if it is that time of year.
For all this “medical” hype there is very little data regarding emu oil. Some of this might be the fact that we don’t eat much emu in North America and so poultry journals (who knew?!) focus more on the birds and eggs commonly consumed. But food industry journals aside, the medical literature on emu oil is equally sparse.
Many of the claims about emu oil rest on its omega 6 (linoleic acid) and omega-3 content. [Omega primer: both omega-6 and omega-3 are essential fatty acids, meaning we have to get them from our diets. While both are essential, we get far too much omega-6 in a Western diet versus omega-3s]. But here’s the thing, the linoleic acid content of chicken fat is about 20% and so is emu. Pastured chicken is high in omega-3’s (compared with other animal sources) and I just can’t verify from any published source that emu oil is higher in omega-3, and anyway, the omega-3 content of emu oil (like all animals) will vary depending on its diet.
The omega 6/3 claims are likely moot anyway. While we know the Western diet ratio isn’t healthy, pharmaceutical doses of omega-3 have failed to show improvement in all cause mortality or cardiovascular death. Supplements just can’t trump a good diet.
But maybe it’s something other that omega 6 or 3’s that gives emu oil it’s great healthy benefits. The sum of the published medical literature on the effect of emu oil on inflammation is 10 rat studies (most using olive oil as comparison, which makes no sense as olive oil is much lower in linoleic acid) and one clinical trial. In this one clinical trial comparing topical emu oil with 1% hydrocortisone the hydrocortisone was more effective. You are a very poor anti-inflammatory if you are out performed by 1% hydrocortisone!
Lack of science not withstanding, the fact that emu oil is promoted for about every medical condition is another snake oil clue. The FDA highlighted emu oil in a 2009 article on how to spot health fraud. If you look at the websites that promote emu oil (including that piece in the New York Times) there are claims that it helps everything. The disease mechanisms between eczema, ulcerative skin conditions, post chemotherapy mucositis, and pain are so different that one product simply can’t treat them all. And then there is the point that if doctors were truly seeing amazing recoveries with emu oil case reports and case series would be popping up all over the place, but they haven’t.
Placebo effect aside, applying an emollient to the skin often feels good but there is no science to say that emu oil is any better than olive oil, coconut oil, or rendered chicken fat for that matter! In fact, based on the data emu oil and chicken schmaltz don’t seem that different.