Nfld. & Labrador·Eye on Iceland

Health drinks, medical implants: Cashing in on the curing qualities of cod

Cod collagen in a protein drink? That's not all. One company is using cod skin to treat wounds and sees a potential in breast reconstruction surgery.

A financial crisis leads to fishery innovation and opportunities in health care

A fish skin treatment for wounds and a protein drink from marine collagen are two products helping Iceland companies to diversify. (Jane Adey/CBC)

We've all heard eating lean fish protein is good for you. Well, how about drinking it?

An Icelandic company, Codland, is betting a health drink they've developed using marine collagen is going to be a hit among fitness conscious consumers looking for a healthy glow.

Tomas Eiriksson tested his health drink at one of Iceland's most popular spas. (Jane Adey/CBC)

The start-up company has developed a process to extract anti-aging collagen from cod skin. Collagen is the most abundant protein found in the body and is responsible for keeping skin's elasticity.

"We have the know-how from a Spanish company that is making collagen from pig skin so we are using their know-how to do the same with the fish skin," says Tómas Eiríksson, Codland's Managing Director. 

What can we learn?

Iceland's fishing and marine innovation industries are thriving. In September, a group of harvesters, processors, researchers and government officials from N.L. travelled there to see what can be learned.  Jane Adey, host of The Broadcast, made the trip too and has developed a series called Eye on Iceland. 

The company adds dried cod collagen to its lemon-flavoured beverage called Alda, an Icelandic word that means wave. Eiríksson says the effervescent lemony liquid was born when a small brewery in Iceland asked to use their collagen and make something out of it.

"When ... I tasted Alda in the beginning, I knew this was a good drink. This is something the market wants."

Codland has been testing the thirst for its product by selling Alda at one of the most famous tourist spots in Iceland, the geothermal spa known as the Blue Lagoon.

"That was excellent for us because you get people from different cultures to buy it."

The company behind this protein-enhanced beverage is testing markets in Denmark, the United States and Hong Kong. (Jane Adey)

Products such as Alda are examples of how Iceland is adding value to its fishing industry and people who manage and make a living from the fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador are taking note.

Eiríksson says Codland is moving cautiously but has already sent samples to companies in Denmark, United States and Hong Kong.  

"We will go into more flavours … but before we do that we need to finish building our factory, and be ready for the market. After that we are ready to start exporting."

Cod skin in the doctor's office

Fertram Sigurjonsson is another Icelandic entrepreneur creating value from fish byproducts. Sigurjonsson's company, Kerecis, makes medical implants from cod fish skin.

Kerecis has developed a method of removing all of the cells from fish skin. "From the naked eye it still looks like just regular fish skin and then we sterilize it and pack it," explained Sigurjonsson.

Doctors use it on patients with wounds that won't heal by inserting it into the wound.

"What will happen is that the healthy cells from the wound perimeter would grow into our material. The fish skin starts to become populated by cells and eventually it will convert to human skin as the fish skin breaks down slowly over a few weeks in the wound."

Kerecis Omega3 strips are made from cod skin, and used to treat diabetics and possibly in breast reconstruction surgery. (Jane Adey/CBC)

The fish skin, rich in omega-3, is a way to treat diabetics whose wounds can become infected, resulting in amputations, Sigurjonsson said.

"Evolutionary, the human is related to the fish and human skin is surprisingly similar to fish skin and also because there is no disease transmission risk from cold water fish to humans there is very little need of processing of the skin to make it applicable to the human wound."

We are going to change the world with fish skin.-  Fertram Sigurjonsson

Sigurjonsson's company is focussing on the U.S. market, selling to hospitals and health centres in Washington, Ohio and New York. It hopes to be in Canada soon.

In the meantime, Kerecis is exploring more applications for fish skin in the medical world,  right now the company is working on a product to be used in breast reconstruction.

"Usually you put a silicon implant into the breast but you need a supporting sling to maintain the breast implant elevated and they normally use a nylon string that is sutured into the chest but we are working on technology where we suture the fish skin into the chest to support the implant," says Sigurjonsson.

Fertram Sigurjonsson says an economic decline prompted Icelandic companies to look for more value in fish byproducts. (Jane Adey/CBC)

He thinks the financial crisis of 2008 made people in Iceland work to create more value in the fishing industry.

"People understand and appreciate much better the importance of innovation and creation of new business ... we are going to change the world with fish skin."

About the Author

Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now, Land & Sea and On The Go.