Seafood in small appetizer cupsThe double-edged sword of seafood health—the importance of omega 3’s for health, coupled with the over-generalized significance of mercury and other toxins to a person’s diet—creates a challenge for the seafood industry. Health should be a major part of seafood’s branding in the protein market, but it has become a qualified statement in an unqualified marketplace. The truth is, for women of childbearing age, it is essential that their diets are rich and inclusive of seafood, but they should avoid a small group of species high in mercury. As Barton Seaver lamented in a recent interview, “unfortunately only half that message got out.” The red flag was raised and more than just vulnerable communities saw it, and this has resulted in lingering confusion and apprehension around seafood generally.

Numerous scientific studies[1][2][3] have outlined these benefits, which range from decreased risk of heart disease to improvement in baby’s brain and nervous system development. The U.S. Government’s new dietary guidelines, released in December 2015, suggest increasing seafood consumption by replacing meat, poultry and eggs with seafood twice a week[4]. As the seafood industry identifies ways to make its products more convenient to eat or prepare, and younger generations absorb the message of nutrition, sustainable seafood has a major opportunity to capitalize on its lean, clean profile with a changing consumer landscape.

Despite the demonstrated health benefits of seafood consumption, a few species of fish contain concentrations of certain contaminants, such as mercury and PCBs, at levels that are unhealthy for pregnant women, young children and other vulnerable populations—a relatively small subset of consumers. These levels are the result of bioaccumulation of these fat-soluble toxins (meaning that each time a fish consumes fat, it accumulates whatever toxins were dissolved in that fat). Levels of these toxins are particularly pronounced in wild-caught fish at the top of the food web, such as tuna, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. While these are large, predatory fish, the key is not simply size, but life span. Bioaccumulation occurs over time, and fish that are lower on the food chain—or farmed—don’t have time to take up dangerous levels of mercury, regardless of their diet. Further still, studies have shown that selenium, generally found at higher levels in fish than mercury, is an inhibitor of the toxin and outweighs any potential harmful effects. Only sharks and whales contain higher levels of mercury than selenium.

Despite the demonstrated benefits of eating seafood, consumers remain mystified. The seafood industry can take a two-pronged approach to addressing their concerns. The first is to highlight the incredible health advantages seafood provides, and leave old messages in the past where they belong. The focus should be on a lean protein, that is quick and easy to prepare, and is rich with Omega-3s in many cases—good for your brain, your heart, your life. At UMass Dining they’re taking it a step further. “We are currently…tracking 400 freshmen, looking at eating in relationship to students’ grade point average. Six months in, initial data indicate eating more lean proteins is related to a higher GPA and higher sugar consumption to a lower GPA. We tell our students seafood is brain food.”

The second approach is to stack seafood up against other proteins, vegetables included. Step out from the seafood silo and you will find a food landscape in which fish is highly competitive in the discussion of health and nutrition—not to mention climate impacts as Steve Gaines points out. In light of the unique opportunity to capture a larger share of dinner, coupled with its health and environmental profile, seafood should compare itself to the traditional centers of the plate—rather than comparing one fish to another.

Current trends suggest that seafood will continue to be touted by the media and the U.S. government as a healthy choice. The seafood industry can benefit by leveraging and marketing these health benefits, while continuing to make advances towards low-fat fish feeds that produce fish with low toxin loads. A balanced messaging approach that both demonstrates the superior health of seafood compared to other protein products, as well as illustrates the advances the industry is making towards further improving the health of seafood, will help reduce consumer confusion and elevate seafood as the healthiest choice of protein. The message from the sustainable seafood community should be simple: superior health + increased convenience and accessibility = a clean, lean protein for future generations.

[1] Mozaffarian, Dariush, and Eric B. Rimm. “Fish intake, contaminants, and human health: evaluating the risks and the benefits.” Jama 296, no. 15 (2006): 1885-1899.

[2] Hibbeln, Joseph R., John M. Davis, Colin Steer, Pauline Emmett, Imogen Rogers, Cathy Williams, and Jean Golding. “Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study.” The Lancet 369, no. 9561 (2007): 578-585.

[3] Kromhout, Daan, Edward B. Bosschieter, and Cor de Lezenne Coulander. “The inverse relation between fish consumption and 20-year mortality from coronary heart disease.” New England journal of medicine 312, no. 19 (1985): 1205-1209.

[4] US Dietary Guidelines 2015 – 2020: Shifts Needed to Align with Healthy Eating Patterns

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Key Takeaways

  • Seafood’s health challenges have been over-generalized and misleading
  • It is better to eat some seafood than no seafood
  • There is a significant opportunity for the industry to market the positives of seafood, and stack up against other proteins

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