Context: Omega-3 fatty acids are purported to reduce the risk of cancer. Studies have reported mixed results.
Objective: To synthesize published and unpublished evidence to determine estimates of the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on cancer risk in prospective cohort studies.
Data sources: Articles published from 1966 to October 2005 identified through MEDLINE, PREMEDLINE, EMBASE, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, and CAB Health; unpublished literature sought through letters to experts in the neutraceutical industry.
Study selection: A total of 38 articles with a description of effects of consumption of omega-3 fatty acids on tumor incidence, prospective cohort study design, human study population; and description of effect of omega-3 among groups with different levels of exposure in the cohort were included. Two reviewers independently reviewed articles using structured abstraction forms; disagreements were resolved by consensus.
Data extraction: Two reviewers independently abstracted detailed data about the incidence of cancer, the type of cancer, the number and characteristics of the patients, details on the exposure to omega-3 fatty acids, and the elapsed time between the intervention and outcome measurements. Data about the methodological quality of the study were also abstracted.
Data synthesis: Across 20 cohorts from 7 countries for 11 different types of cancer and using up to 6 different ways to categorize omega-3 fatty acid consumption, 65 estimates of the association between omega-3 fatty acid consumption were reported. Among these, only 8 were statistically significant. The high degree of heterogeneity across these studies precluded pooling of data. For breast cancer 1 significant estimate was for increased risk (incidence risk ratio [IRR], 1.47; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.10-1.98) and 3 were for decreased risk (RR, 0.68-0.72); 7 other estimates did not show a significant association. For colorectal cancer, there was 1 estimate of decreased risk (RR, 0.49; 95% CI, 0.27-0.89) and 17 estimates without association. For lung cancer one of the significant associations was for increased cancer risk (IRR, 3.0; 95% CI, 1.2-7.3), the other was for decreased risk (RR, 0.32; 95% CI, 0.13-0.76), and 4 other estimates were not significant. For prostate cancer, there was 1 estimate of decreased risk (RR, 0.43; 95% CI, 0.22-0.83) and 1 of increased risk (RR, 1.98; 95% CI, 1.34-2.93) for advanced prostate cancer; 15 other estimates did not show a significant association. The study that assessed skin cancer found an increased risk (RR, 1.13; 95% CI, 1.01-1.27). No significant associations between omega-3 fatty acid consumption and cancer incidence were found for aerodigestive cancer, bladder cancer, lymphoma, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, or stomach cancer.
Conclusions: A large body of literature spanning numerous cohorts from many countries and with different demographic characteristics does not provide evidence to suggest a significant association between omega-3 fatty acids and cancer incidence. Dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids is unlikely to prevent cancer.