Evidence is increasing that seafood is essential in the human diet for good nutritional status.
However, a lot of questions are being raised about seafood and health. How much should be eaten? Are some fish species better than others? Does consumption of capsules of fish oil negate the need to eat fish? If I have to eat fish, how do I prepare it? Do some products contain toxic elements that can be harmful for me or my children? Is farmed fish just as good as wild fish? Where can I get proper information I can trust?
The general recommendation from health authorities is that all consumers should eat seafood at least twice a week. In most European countries, consumption is far below this level. But is there any reason to be concerned that consumption is too low? Seafood contains essential dietary elements, and further, some of these elements are present only in seafood and thus can not be obtained from other food sources. So there is cause for concern.
But should all consumer groups receive the same recommendation on seafood intake? Some health authorities advise pregnant women not to consume too much oily fish, as it may contain environmental contaminants potentially harmful to fetuses. However, if this does present a risk, the consumption must far exceed the recommended two seafood meals per week. In addition, there is very little known about the impact of environmental contaminants on human health, as the toxic levels have been estimated only from animal studies. Recent epidemiological studies on humans who consumed seafood with high levels of contaminants conclude that the positive effects of seafood consumption far outweigh the potential negative effects of the contaminants. Further risk-benefit analyses should be conducted on seafood and human nutrition.
Other studies have revealed that when pregnant women totally avoid eating seafood, they run a high risk of developing post-partum depression, which has been ascribed to the lack of a specific fatty acid, DHA, in their diet. This fatty acid is only contained in seafood and can only be synthesized in the human body in very low quantities, even when suitable metabolic precursors are consumed.
There is also reason to be concerned about the nutrition of the unborn and young children. Accumulating medical evidence suggests that for successful early development of the human body, and particularly the brain, certain essential elements must be present at the right moment and in adequate quantities to “program” the future metabolism in the adult person. Among these elements are essential fatty acids present in seafood. The need for these fatty acids seems to continue in order for the brain to maintain its capacity during a person’s entire life and to prevent cognitive problems. These problems may be bipolar disorders and learning disabilities in children, reduced mental capacity in adults, and dementia and other brain defects in the elderly. It is imperative to investigate this further to make life better for large population groups.
Having seafood at a restaurant is considered by many as a delicacy, particularly when shrimps, prawns, or even lobster is served. But many chefs have made it an art to prepare dishes with sometimes uncommon fish species, giving the guest an extraordinary experience. Many consumers may be reluctant to buy seafood for household consumption because they think that they cannot master the cooking and create the same wonderful restaurant experience. Even if at-home cooks cannot replicate restaurant cuisine, a lot can be done to make it easier for consumers to find easy-to-prepare seafood products in grocery stores, instructions on how to prepare and cook fish, nutrition information, and the product’s country-of-origin. Developing new products that attract consumers who currently do not choose seafood may raise consumption closer to the recommended levels.
Is it better for consumers to get the essential nutritional components from seafood in the form of capsules, as is already on the market for omega-3 oils? Can supplements compensate for a lack of seafood consumption? The most recent results from EU-supported research, such as SEAFOODplus (www.seafoodplus.org), provide evidence for consumption of seafood as being the best source for its nutritional elements. Further, there is a range of factors—other than omega-3—which are also essential. It might actually be that the proportion of the nutritional components in the diet is important for obtaining the optimal effect. Some results indicate that seafood may lead to a changed energy metabolism, which counteracts overweight and obesity. More information on such effects would be essential for reducing the current major lifestyle diseases in the Western world and developed nations.
Torger Børresen, Ph.D., a Professional Member of IFT, is Professor and Research Director, DTU Aqua - National Institute of Aquatic Resources, Dept. of Seafood Research, Technical University of Denmark, Building 221, DK-2840 Lyngby, Denmark ([email protected]).