Fish health benefits undersold

From international policymaking to point-of-sale, fisheries need to engage in selling the benefits of their product

As president of the World Aquaculture Society, Australian Graham Mair (third from left) is among the dignitaries and sponsors lined up to officially open the trade show as part of the society’s 2015 annual conference in South Korea.
Photo: Catherine Norwood

By Catherine Norwood

Fish have been promoted as an important source of protein for decades, but the World Aquaculture Society (WAS) has been told that more could be done to promote the additional nutritional benefits of fish and seafood. This was the message from Shakuntala Thilsted, senior nutrition adviser with WorldFish, who was the plenary speaker at the WAS annual conference in May.

The event, held on Jeju Island in South Korea, brought together almost 2500 delegates from 66 countries for four days of presentations and discussions aimed at improving the profitability and sustainability of aquaculture, with the ultimate aim of improving human health.

Shakuntala Thilsted said, with a population of seven billion today, projected to reach eight billion by 2024, there was considerable discussion about how much food would be needed to feed these billions.

“We need to move beyond the quantities of food, to the nutritional value of food, and fish in particular,” she said. “Although there are few dietary guidelines with specific recommendations for fish, we know that fish is important in the diets of humans.”

She said fish is a rich source of multiple nutrients, and essential fats are linked to brain development in children, for cognition particularly during the first 1000 days (gestation to age 24 months).

Along with protein and omega-3 fatty acids, fish and other aquatic animals play an important role in meeting dietary requirements for vitamin A, vitamin B12, riboflavin, vitamin D, vitamin E, and highly bioavailable forms of iron, zinc, calcium and phosphorus.

Her presentation focused particularly on the nutritional needs of children in the first 1000 days of life and of pregnant and breastfeeding women in poor countries, where as little as 50 grams of fish a day could make a significant difference to the health and wellbeing of mother and child.

Cultural consumption

To increase fish consumption, particularly in poorer countries, year-round local production is needed, although this can include a diverse range of species. Fish products need to be in a form that is culturally acceptable and affordable. In poorer countries they also need to be of a high nutritional value, or nutrient dense, and safe to eat – given potential food-storage issues.

While westernised countries focus on large species such as Atlantic Salmon and Barramundi, in developing communities smaller fish species are more affordable and can be purchased in small quantities and mixed into a dish for sharing – such as a curry dish in Asia, or incorporated into a relish eaten with meats in Africa.

Nutritional information

Speaking at a ‘Seafood and Health’ session held later in the conference, Shakuntala Thilsted highlighted the lack of recommended daily intakes for fish, compared with dairy food or eggs. She said perhaps this reflected the cohesive engagement of the dairy and egg sector with health and nutrition issues, and also the investment in these sectors.

Her own research showed that fish could challenge current advice in some areas. This included higher concentrations of calcium in small fish that was more readily used by the body than that provided by the world’s “gold standard” for calcium – milk. She said nutritional analysis for seafood is expensive and more difficult than for terrestrial animals.

Photo of WA researchers Adva Mori (left) and Nicole Watts The Western Australian Department of Fisheries provided one of the few Australian stands at the trade show, promoting an automated microdiet feeding system developed by senior researcher Sagiv Kolkovski for use in hatcheries. WA researchers Adva Mori (left) and Nicole Watts (pictured with the dispenser) helped to staff the stand and also presented the results of their octopus culturing and ranching projects, which featured in the March 2015 issue of FISH magazine.
Photo: Catherine Norwood

The bioavailability of nutrients also requires analysis as well as identifying the levels of nutrients. Among those countries with the best analysis are Denmark, Japan and Australia.

Session chair and member of the Global Initiative for Life and Leadership through Seafood, Roy Palmer said internationally, the lack of nutritional analysis presented a huge gap for aquaculture and fisheries – one he hoped could be addressed by establishing a community of practice, through the World Aquaculture Society, focused on nutritional and health issues.

A loosely based community of practice would allow members from diverse interest groups to work together to share relevant information and respond to issues without the need for formal working groups or committees, he said

Health and sustainability

Also speaking at the WAS health and wellbeing session was Jillian Fry, director of the US-based Public Health and Sustainable Aquaculture Project at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future.

She said while it is possible to produce healthy food, if it is not produced in a sustainable manner then global food security will never happen. “We need to think more about sustainability and expansion at all costs.”

The western diet needs seafood for different reasons than low and middle-income countries. The US diet is high in meat, dairy and eggs – way beyond nutritional needs of these foods.

From a health perspective, seafood provided its own range of nutritional benefits, while also offsetting consumption of other meats, potentially reducing the health risks associated with consuming too much red meat, including cardiovascular disease.

“Seafood has a high role to play in shifting diets to better health and sustainability,” Jillian Fry said. 

More information

WorldFish

Jillian Fry, jfry3@jhu.edu

John Hopkins University

Roy Palmer, palmerroy@hotmail.com