The Halo Effect from Eating Menhaden (The Oiliest Catch–Part 4)
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 7, 2012
The name “menhaden” comes from a Native American word for fertilizer, and it’s generally thought to be the species Squanto advised the Pilgrims to plant with their corn. On the Connecticut coastline, where I live, farmers used to apply them to their crops at a rate of 10,000 per acre—enough to make even a Reedville resident gag. Menhaden meal has been an ingredient in chicken, pig, and dairy feed since at least the nineteenth century. It’s now also a standard part of the diet on many fish farms, where it typically takes four pounds of forage fish to produce a pound of the salmon and other species we like to eat.
Menhaden rarely turn up on our dinner plates baked, fried, or otherwise; the combination of oil and bones is just too daunting. But we eat menhaden more often than we generally realize. It is a key ingredient, for instance, in the Smart Balance Omega-3 spread I buttered onto my toast this morning, and it’s one reason the eggs I just ate, formerly deemed a cholesterol nightmare, are now prominently labeled as a heart-healthy omega-3 product. Highly refined menhaden oil also turns up in salad dressings (such as Cindy’s Kitchen All Natural brand), cookies (Trader Joe’s Five Seed Almond Bars), and other products that can seem just a little healthier thanks to the omega-3 halo effect.
Almost everyone I spoke with, on both sides of the menhaden fight, also seemed to be taking fish oil in capsule form, at times with almost religious devotion. Research since the 1990s has demonstrated persuasively that omega-3 fatty acids promote normal brain and eye development and can protect against heart disease—hence their reputation as a “miracle food.”
Menhaden is a latecomer to this booming market. Most fish-oil capsules instead contain oil from sardines and anchovies caught on the Pacific Coast of South America. Neither these species nor menhaden actually produce the omega-3 oil themselves. They get it from the algae they eat. And yes, that means it’s possible to bypass the fisheries issue entirely and get your ritual omega-3 dose from algae, too. At a laboratory in a nondescript office park in Columbia, Maryland, a few hours north of Omega Protein, for instance, researchers for Dutch conglomerate DSM take microalgae gathered from beaches or scraped from boat hulls and use them to brew omega-3 oils the way other companies brew beer or antibiotics. But the resulting oil retails for two or three times the price of fish oil.
Hence Omega Protein sees a market niche and better profit margins by moving menhaden into the “nutraceuticals” market. Through recent acquisitions, it has its own retail fish-oil brand, Omega Activ. For now, though, the company is still mainly in the business of selling menhaden as animal feed; according to an Omega Protein spokesman, more than half the company’s menhaden catch now goes to China and other Asian markets as pig and fish feed.