Fish, health and sustainability: what you need to know

As many people try to improve their diet by reducing their red meat intake, fish seems like a good healthy option. However, the sustainability of fish consumption is increasingly questioned. Here we look at the health claims and arguments for and against eating fish and explore some alternatives.

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Fish can be an important source of essential nutrients, but can we eat fish sustainably? We are investigating. (Pictured: Aerial shot above a circular fish farm in a loch, Scottish Highlands, UK.) Image Credit: Abstract Aerial Art/Getty Images

Some people consider fish a healthy alternative to red meat. It is a good source of protein, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and several minerals and vitamins.

Omega-3 fatty acids, which research has shown can have a positive effect on heart healthare present in high concentrations in fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel.

Research indicates that these fatty acids may also promote greater blood flow to the brain, which is vital for providing essential oxygen for brain function. And one study suggested that omega-3s may play a role in healthy brain aging.

Eating fish can also fight inflammation: A recent study found that eating fish regularly helps reduce the incidence of chronic inflammatory conditions and may even benefit the body. immune system.

Medical News Today spoke to Kate Cohen, MS, RDN, for the Ellison Clinic at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., to uncover the science behind some of these claims.

“Fish and shellfish are the main sources in our diet of polyunsaturated fats, DHA [docosahexaenoic acid] and AEO [eicosapentaenoic acid]which are associated with brain development during pregnancy and linked to a number of potential overall health benefits,” she said.

But not all fish are equal. “Cold water fish have a higher amount of fat to keep the fish warm in icy waters, but this also loads the fish with beneficial omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids,” she said. added.

However, concerns remain about high levels of Mercury in some of these cold-water fish. Suitable options with high concentrations of beneficial fatty acids and low levels of mercury are wild salmon, sardines, rainbow trout and Atlantic mackerel.

And what about white fish and shellfish? Less caloric than fatty fish, they don’t contain high levels of omega-3s but are a good source of lean protein and many minerals and vitamins, such as iron, zinc and vitamins A, B12 and D.

Cohen recommended including fish in your diet 2-3 times a week to reap the benefits, but advised you to “rotate your fish.” Your body needs all the vitamins and minerals available in fish, so don’t stick to just one type.

Shocking images of litter, environmental pollution and bycatch (the unintentional capture of a species of fish or marine life), including marine mammals, turtles and seabirds, have brought many people wonder if the health benefits of fish and seafood are worth the environmental costs.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sets the standard for sustainable fishing around the world, with organizations such as Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch fulfilling a similar role in the United States. The MSC refutes the claim that sustainable fishing does not exist, stating three principles for sustainable fishing: sustainable fish stocks, minimizing environmental impacts and effective fisheries management.

The MSC states that “fish stocks can recover and recover if managed carefully over the long term”. Its website includes a list of fish that are sustainable when they carry the MSC label.

In the United States, the Washington-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) goes further, giving a regularly updated list of fish that are both healthy – in terms of contaminant levels – and sustainable. Similar information is listed on the US government’s Fishwatch.

Josep Lloret, Director of the Oceans and Human Health Chair at the University of Girona, Spain, agreed that sustainable fishing is possible but difficult: “Artisanal (small-scale) fishing is considered the most sustainable, but even this has its own environmental footprint, such as the impact on vulnerable species due to selectivity issues.

“Marine protected areas (MPAs) can be effective if well implemented and well managed. However, many MPAs around the world do not have a proper management plan,” he added.

There is some good news. According to the European Environment Agency, there are signs of recovery in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea.

However, he says further collective action is needed to restore healthy commercial populations of fish and shellfish in European waters. In the United States, despite overfishing, some stocks are beginning to recover thanks to careful fisheries management.

“Seafood is a healthy option over meat, but if we follow doctors’ recommendations for omega-3 fatty acid intake, with the expected increase in human population, we will very quickly deplete our seas. .”

— Josep Lloret, University of Girona

So if wild fish stocks cannot provide the amount of fish needed for optimal fatty acid intake, where can the fish come from?

An obvious alternative to wild fish is fish farming or aquaculture. There are no bycatch issues, fish are cheaper to buy, supply is more reliable and there is less impact on wild habitats. But is farmed fish as good for us as wild fish?

“It really depends on what the fish is eating and its environment,” Cohen said. “Farmed salmon, for example, can have about 40% more calories than wild salmon and about 50% more fat, which is a pretty huge difference.”

She added that “there is also a greater risk of contaminants in farmed fish that are kept in small, enclosed pens, as well as exposure to antibiotics resulting from farms’ disease prevention attempts.”

There are also concerns about the food these farmed fish eat.

Josep Lloret commented: “Farmed fish have several problems, including the need for forage fish to feed them (so the forage fish are overexploited), compared to land, we raise ‘lions’ in the sea (predators , such as sea bass, which consume a lot of forage fish), [and there is] impact on the seabed due to pollution.

One way to minimize this pollution is to combine different types of aquaculture, as noted in a 2020 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

If fish farmers keep an extractive species, such as filter-feeding mussels, near fish pens, the mussels remove the waste from the water. And these bivalves are themselves nutrient-dense, low-mercury seafood.

Organizations such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council promote responsible aquaculture and provide certification to farms that meet their standards through independent inspections.

And fish farming organizations are looking for alternatives to fish foods, such as soybeans, canola and seaweed, which provide the omega-3s that fish need.

But what about those who don’t eat fish, either because they don’t like it, because they have allergies, or because they are vegetarians or vegans for ethical reasons?

According to Cohen, fish is the best source of DHA and EPA. Other sea foods, such as seaweed or seaweed, are an option, and omega-3s are also found in grass-fed beef and eggs from chickens that have flaxseed in their diet.

Vegetarian and vegan alternatives to fish are available and have no sustainability issues, but do they have the same nutritional benefits as real fish?

Food producer Novish, which makes plant-based fish fingers, nuggets and burgers, says its products, now available through multinational seafood chain Nordsee, contain no soy or artificial additives. And to give the taste of fish, the brand flavors its food with seaweed and seaweed.

But Cohen advised consumers buying fish alternatives to check carefully“Try to avoid plant-based alternatives to fish that involve multiple mystery ingredients because they are ultimately just processed foods.

The Good Food Institute Europe (GFI), an organization that advocates for alternative proteins, has launched a sustainable seafood initiative to promote plant-based, cultured and fermented alternatives to fish.

He states that “companies are able to transform plant-based ingredients into finished products that create the sensory experience and nutritional profile of conventional seafood.”

Most manufacturers process plant-based “fish” into products, but a new development – cell culture – involves growing fish in the lab from cells. It can create fish fillets without the bones or scales, but it’s still in its infancy.

American food producers Wildtype and BluNalu are both working on these products. BluNalu claims they will be “free from harmful levels of mercury, pathogens, parasites, microplastics and other environmental contaminants”, and will “have the same taste, texture and performance as conventional seafood in all cooking and preparation methods”.

And the GFI adds: “Although not yet commercially available, cultured seafood is identical to conventional seafood at the cellular level – but is free of mercury, heavy metals and antibiotics.”

However, Cohen is not convinced: “There is no clinical data on the comparison of nutrients between real fish and lab-created fish. I hope we put more energy into improving sustainable farming and fishing practices to continue addressing environmental concerns and putting fish on everyone’s table.

So should we eat fish? The nutrients in fish are important, but it’s possible to get them elsewhere if you’re concerned about sustainability issues.

And the key to a healthy lifestyle is to ensure that your diet is varied. Cohen emphasized that it’s not just about eating fish: “Research has shown that diets that incorporate these healthy fats – like the Mediterranean diet – are associated with positive health outcomes. complete as far as possible.

So the message is that if you want to eat fish, read the label carefully to make sure it’s from a sustainable source, and choose oily, cold-water fish for the greatest health benefits as part of your diet. a balanced and varied diet.

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