Should We Be Swallowing Fish Oil Supplements?


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I take 700 milligrams of fish oil every day; you need all the brain power you can get to keep up with the TreeHugger crowd. Another writer takes three times that, saying "This is one thing where the studies have convinced me that even if there's an environmental problem, I'll keep taking it because the health benefits are so high."

But a New York Times article (found in Good) says that a lot of fish oil comes from menhaden, which a recent book calls "the most important fish in the sea" because of its importance in the food chain, but is being vacuumed up to make everything from Omega 3 supplements to lipstick. (more on the issue below the fold)


Paul Greenberg writes in the New York Times:

Menhaden filter-feed nearly exclusively on algae, the most abundant forage in the world, and are prolifically good at converting that algae into omega-3 fatty acids and other important proteins and oils. They also form the basis of the Atlantic Coast's marine food chain.

Nearly every fish a fish eater likes to eat eats menhaden. Bluefin tuna, striped bass, redfish and bluefish are just a few of the diners at the menhaden buffet. All of these fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids but are unable themselves to synthesize them. The omega-3s they have come from menhaden.

He writes that one company, Omega Protein, takes half a billion fish every year. And this isn't a new problem; the author, H. Bruce Franklin, wrote an article in Discover Magazine in 2001 with the same title, complaining about the same company. He called it the "kibble of the sea":

These kibble of the sea fetch only about 10 cents a pound at the dock, but they can be ground up, dried, and formed into another kind of kibble for land animals, a high-protein feed for chickens, pigs, and cattle. Pop some barbecued wings into your mouth, and at least part of what you're eating was once menhaden.

Humans eat menhaden in other forms too. Menhaden are a key dietary component for a wide variety of fish, including bass, mackerel, cod, bonito, swordfish, bluefish, and tuna. The 19th-century ichthyologist G. Brown Goode exaggerated only slightly when declaring that people who dine on Atlantic saltwater fish are eating "nothing but menhaden."

Hmmm, time to write my Omega 3 supplier and ask where the oil comes from...

More in the New York Times and Discover

More on Fish Oil:
Over-Hyping Fish Health Claims May be Bad for Environment
8 Sustainable Sources of Farmed Fish & Seafood
Overfishing Means Marine Animals Are Starving: Report