Book review – The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet

American author Paul Greenberg has written two previous books about (eating) fish (American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood and Four Fish: A Journey from the Ocean to Your Plate), so he is no stranger to the rather, errr, fishy topic of omega-3 fatty acid supplements. His new book, The Omega Principle, is much more than just a critique of the supplement industry though. This engagingly written reportage digs far deeper, asking where this oil comes from, and reports on that vast segment of the global fishing industry known as the reduction industry, and a food system out of whack with our needs.

the omega principle

The Omega Principle: Seafood and the Quest for a Long Life and a Healthier Planet“, written by Paul Greenberg, published by Penguin Press in July 2018 (hardback, 292 pages)

So, let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Omega-3 fatty acids are part of a healthy diet and Greenberg is not out to disprove this. But in that one sentence lies the essence of the problem. Our eating patterns in the Western world (Greenberg’s narrative is US-centric, but this applies to much of the developed world) have shifted us away from that healthy diet towards one which is poor in these fatty acids. Greenberg draws heavily on the book Queen of Fats: Why Omega-3s Were Removed from the Western Diet and What We Can Do to Replace Them, which is recommended if you want to know more about this. Rather than address the root cause, a vast supplement industry has filled the gap with omega-3–rich fish oil pills. And this is where the claimed benefits of omega-3 become fishy.

As Greenberg explains, a loophole / feature of US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulations is that supplements are not beholden to the same strict rules as food and medicine. This allows supplement manufacturers to make the wildest claims without having to back them up with scientific evidence. Most studies to date have been so-called assocation studies which can establish correlations (between omega-3 and, say, cardiac health), but do not necessarily say anything about causation (do these fatty acids actually cause the changes in cardiac health?). Rigorous, randomised, double-blind clinical trials have only recently completed, or were still underway as this book went to print. But, more and more, the claims of the supplement industry do not stand up to scrutiny.

“a loophole / feature of US FDA regulations […] allows supplement manufacturers to make the wildest claims without having to back them up with scientific evidence”

Surprised? Understandably, I wasn’t. And if that was all that he had to say here, this book would not make much of a splash. Instead, Greenberg casts his net wider. With an estimated worth of some 15 billion US dollars, the fish oil supplement industry churns out a lot of fish oil, which has to come from somewhere. This particular industry is but the latest use the reduction industry has found for its products. The reduction industry?

“Reduction” is a euphemism for what happens to about a quarter of the fish caught globally – the smaller fish that we do not or only barely eat. Most of that is reduced, i.e. literally boiled and ground down to fishmeal, fertilizer, and oil. This is an industry that until not so long ago reduced whole whales to meat and oil, the latter destined to be used as lubricant and lamp oil (see The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century and my review of Energy: A Human History). And, in accordance with overall patterns in the fishing industry, it is an industry that has overfished and exhausted fish stock after fish stock (see also my review of All the Boats on the Ocean: How Government Subsidies Led to Global Overfishing), including the menhaden, profiled in the book The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America. Lately, the industry has started focusing on krill – the very same Norwegian company and boats that made an appearence in The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World also get a mention here.

“all these farty ruminants […] would emit far less methane if fed on a diet more natural to them, such as grass rather than fishmeal.”

Greenberg traces the threads further, describing what happens with the products of this reduction industry as it feeds the industrialised farming of livestock and, yes, other fish (see also the forthcoming The Fishmeal Revolution: The Industrialization of the Humboldt Current Ecosystem). Without being preachy, he describes an agricultural system out of whack with our dietary needs, supplying us with far too much protein we do not need in the form of excess meat, and too little of what we do need. And accompanying it are the numerous environmental problems in waterways and estuaries in the form of fertiliser runoff, algal blooms, episodes of hypoxia and anoxia (low or no oxygen in the water column), as well as the large contribution of methane emissions from all these farty ruminants to climate change. Though this should come as no surprise, I still found it remarkable to be reminded that they would emit far less methane if fed on a diet more natural to them, such as grass rather than fishmeal.

Despite the ruinous state of the world brought on by these industries, Greenberg has not penned a book of despair with The Omega Principle. In the last chapter he profiles the many bold initiatives to change dietary patterns and develop healthier aquaculture practices (look out for mussels in your future). He even goes so far as to suggest how the energy sector and the fishing industry could work towards the same ends. Energy supplied by offshore wind farms instead of burning coal will reduce mercury emissions, making seafood healthier, while also offering habitat for (there they are again) mussel aquaculture. He acknowledges these have their own environmental price-tag, but pointedly asks the reader: which price would you rather pay? The take-home message (one that I keep hammering home since my review of The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise) being, of course, that there is always a price to pay.

Supplied with exemplary annotated notes, The Omega Principle is not afraid to branch out from its starting topic. Whether you have an interest in the efficacy or lack thereof of fish oil supplements, the seafood industry, or the health of our oceans, there is something in here for everyone. This is a wonderfully written, engaging reportage that comes highly recommended.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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