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Mussel power: How the green-lipped mussel became NZ's first 'superfood'

New Zealand green-lipped mussel.

Forty years ago, a bearded mollusc became one of our first commercial “superfoods”. Joanna Wane meets the mussel man.

When researchers in the US began scouring the world in the 1960s for marine life with potential as a cancer therapy, tests on New Zealand green-lipped mussels failed to show any anti-carcinogenic qualities at all. But what the lab analysis did find in Perna canaliculus, a native species found only in our waters, was significant anti-inflammatory activity.

By 1974, Auckland company McFarlane Laboratories had developed a commercial freeze-dried powder extract, using shellfish harvested from its green-lipped mussel farms off Waiheke Island. By the mid-80s, Seatone was being exported to more than 25 countries, backed by a major clinical study in Scotland that gave it the tick as an effective therapy for both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

Today, the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise website describes green-lipped mussel extract as “one of the most effective natural anti-inflammatory and joint mobility supplements available” and dozens of products (of varying quality) are now on the market worldwide.

It’s also a popular ingredient in veterinary products, used to relieve everything from degenerative joint disease in dogs to fetlock lameness in horses with osteoarthritis. At Auckland Zoo, Kashin the elephant was prescribed a course for chronic arthritis in her later years.

When green-lipped mussels first hit the headlines, rules around product claims were much looser than they are today. Marine scientist John Croft, who helped set up McFarlane’s mussel farms and later became the company’s research director, remembers Seatone (later rebranded as Biolane Seatone) being launched as a novel health food farmed from the sea to treat arthritis. “We’d be in jail if we said that now,” he says.

But Croft – who became known internationally as “the mussel man” – has no doubts about the mollusc’s beneficial powers, through its ability to inhibit the degenerative enzyme processes that take place in our joint tissue and bones. That’s why Maori, whose traditional diet was heavy on shellfish, used to have such a low incidence of arthritis, he says. “But you have to eat them raw.”

An independent consultant since the 1980s, he still works with companies to develop natural health products that are effective but don’t have the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs. His latest is a topical anti-inflammatory gel made from green-lipped mussel extract and undaria seaweed. “In future years, many more valuable products that will treat some of our most debilitating diseases will come from the seas and oceans,” he writes in his book, Arthritis and Aging: A Solution from the Sea, published in 2015.  

A feast from the sea – but New Zealand green-lipped mussels lose their anti-inflammatory properties when they’re cooked.

Originally from the UK, Croft grew up in a small fishing village in Lancashire and was a tanker captain before being employed as a pollution officer to investigate the impact on commercial marine species. In 1972, he put himself, his wife, their teenage daughter and Vauxhall Viva car on a ship to New Zealand, after accepting a position with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries – only to be told on arriving in Auckland that he was out of a job, because the lab he’d been hired to run was no longer going ahead.

After stints working as a deckhand and truck driver, he was taken on by McFarlane’s (later bought by Healtheries, which then became part of Vitaco) to establish their mussel farms and a hatchery for research.

Still renowned as an expert in the field, Croft was last year on standby to fly to the United States as a witness for a company that uses New Zealand green-lipped mussel extract in some of its pet products, and was being sued by a multinational that claimed to own the intellectual property rights. Croft provided evidence that the therapeutic benefit of green-lipped mussels was “prior knowledge” and the case was withdrawn.

At 84, Croft describes himself as “still fit as a buck rat”. The only medication he’s taken in years was a blood-thinning agent, after he broke his ankle recently moving bullocks on his two-hectare lifestyle block.

He’s been taking green-lipped mussel extract – the product he helped invent more than four decades ago – for the past 18 years, since he began suffering from age-related degeneration in his joints. Now pain-free, he reckons he’s holding the condition at bay. “That’s the biggest market: quality of life for ageing people,” he says. “Some of it’s genetic, some of it’s good diet. But my doctor said his practice would be defunct if everyone was like me.”



This was published in the April 2017 issue of North & South.

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