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Aug. 5 2009 - 2:56 pm | 27 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Your joint supplements may be made from powdered sharks

Picture taken at Georgia Aquarium, pictured is...

Image via Wikipedia

No one seems to know what percentage of chondroitin supplements are made from ground-up shark cartilage, perhaps because most chondroitin comes in bulk from mysterious sources in China. But the booming supplement poses enough of a threat to disappearing sharks that conservation groups, including Shark Trust, urge people to avoid it. Some groups urge people to buy only bovine chondroitin, which is made from cattle tracheas, if that’s a more comforting thought.

Chondroitin is usually combined with glucosamine, currently the most popular supplement in the United States with annual sales of more than $200 million, according to the University of Washington Department of Family Medicine (glucosamine pdf, chondroitin pdf). Glucosamine is usually made from shrimp and crab shells.

Both supplements contain the chemical building blocks of human cartilage, and we take them under the assumption that if we consume those building blocks, our body will have what it needs to make new cartilage. Studies have not borne out that assumption, although some patients have reported reduced pain from osteoarthritis. Many scientists believe the supplements pass through our bodies without doing much at all.

Except that they increase demand for shark, shrimp, and crab parts.

When the Journal of the American Medical Association or the Annals of Internal Medicine publish studies on glucosamine and chondroitin that fail to mention imperiled sea life, they sometimes hear from Dr. Martin Donohoe of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. In 2007, Dr. D.T. Felson suggested in an editorial that there’s no harm in letting patients take chondroitin if they think it works, and Donohoe responded:

I disagree. In the midst of the largest global extinction since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, when we are losing over 5,000 species per year (10,000 times the naturally-occurring rate of extinction), we must take special care to preserve all creatures and promote biodiversity.”

Fishermen kill 70 million sharks per year, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, and 80 percent of sharks have vanished from some areas of the ocean. To add insult to injury, chondroitin is often used in arthritis supplements for pets, killing sharks so pet owners can believe they’re reducing arthritis pain in their dogs.

Booming sales in glucosamine and chondroitin can be traced, alas, to the media, which began reporting on the supplements in the mid-1990s. The positive coverage included popular books like “The Arthritis Cure” by Jason Theodosakis, and of course the New York Times is also at fault:

Sales boomed after New York Times health columnist Jane Brody wrote in a 1997 column that the combination helped her arthritic dog and relieved her own knee pain by about 30 percent. But Brody went on to have a double knee replacement, and recent studies have found little or no benefit from glucosamine and chondroitin, either separately or in combination, for treating osteoarthritis.

via St. Petersburg Times.

Related story: Meet a shark attack survivor who now works to save sharks.


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  1. collapse expand

    I’ve always thought this shark-cartilage supplement idea was pretty bogus. It’s one degree away from the ol’ tiger-penis soup. We should, however, study sharks for their anti-cancer abilities, but I wouldn’t want that to serve as an excuse for killing a lot of sharks. We’ve heard that “it’s for science” excuse before, haven’t we?

    I’m pretty sure that photo in this post is from the Atlanta Aquarium. I saw the two whales sharks they had there soon after that exhibit opened. I was immediately shocked that such large fish were kept in such a tiny space. They swam lap after lap after lap. One of them died not soon after the premier, in 2006, and that story was smuggled into obscurity pretty quickly. I think one whale shark remains. It belongs in the Sea of Cortez, not downtown Atlanta.

  2. collapse expand

    You’re right, Scott, about the photo being from the Atlanta Aquarium. And I agree with you about the confinement.

    Shark cartilage is also being sold prematurely as a cancer remedy, based on the rumor/assumption that sharks don’t get cancer. But in fact, they do, including chondroma, cancer of the cartilage. Here’s a report on that from the American Cancer Society.

  3. collapse expand

    I would like to point out that most animal body-part cures are fairly large, close to apex, organisms. Rarely is there someone raving about ants curing their diabetes, or some newly discovered impotence cure that involves rabbit parts. Which is surprising, when you consider how “active” rabbits are.

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    Environmental reporting recruited me 25 years ago—on my first day as a reporter for my college newspaper, when I discovered my college was discarding radioactive waste in the regular city trash. Since then I've written hard news for dailies, including the Arizona Republic, and slanty news for alternative weeklies, including Newcity. I've written a column for New Times, stories on the Web for Forecast Earth, essays for PEN International and other magazines. I lived in an idyllic California village nestled among volcanoes and vineyards until my batteries were full of sunshine, and then I returned to my origins on the South Side of Chicago, where hope persists with no illusions about the struggle ahead. I cross the asphalt jungle by bicycle and el, mostly to get to the University of Chicago, where I teach journalism. But what matters more than any of this is a lifelong love for the natural world. We are all born with it, I believe, but some turn away.

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