Putting fish back on the menu
Featured in EUROFISH Magazine 1/2020
Seafood is declining in popularity in Norway, a country with one of the world’s highest figures for per capita consumption. Falling interest in seafood is prompting the authorities and institutions to find out the reasons behind this development and devise ways to counter it.
Norway is the world’s largest exporter of fish and seafood in terms of value after China. The country is however not only an impressive exporter but is also an avid consumer of fish and seafood products. Within Europe, it is only the Icelandics and the Portuguese who eat more seafood than the Norwegians. However, as in many countries, even those with a long tradition of eating seafood, consumption in Norway is declining. Seafood is associated with a number of health benefits both in children and adults. Falling fish consumption therefore can have repercussions on public health, so a number of initiatives backed by a network of public and private institutions have been put in place to reverse this trend.
Among these is the Norwegian Directorate of Health, a body with a mandate to improve the general level of health among Norwegians. A recent report from the directorate analyses developments in the Norwegian diet. What people eat is among the factors closely related to the risks of developing illnesses and of premature death and the directorate’s recommendations regarding diet, nutrition, and physical activity are intended to reduce these risks. The sustainability of a diet is also an aspect that is taken into consideration when making national recommendations today and a healthy diet, meaning one with a high content of fruit, vegetables, and whole grain products and a low content of red and processed meats, is generally more sustainable. The report finds that the development in Norwegian eating habits between 2008 and 2018 has been mixed. Sugar and milk consumption declined, that of vegetables increased, consumption of meat decreased slightly, while that of fish fell considerably. In 2018, Norwegians ate 2.6 times more meat than fish, a figure that was 2.2 in 2008.
Several factors behind the fall in seafood consumption
The decline in seafood consumption in Norway is well documented. Studies commissioned by the Norwegian Seafood Council, a body owned by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries to promote Norwegian seafood to the world, show that consumption in Norway has declined across species i.e. volumes consumed of all the main species (salmon, cod, shrimp, mackerel, saithe, herring, and trout) have fallen consistently between 2013 and 2017. Annual seafood consumption has also dropped across all age groups except for the elderly. The latter not only eat the most seafood but have also maintained their consumption over the years even as other age groups have reduced theirs. A cause of much concern is that the reduction in consumption is most marked among people between 18 and 34 years of age. Research has shown that eating habits tend to settle from around 30 years and if eating fish and seafood is not a habit by then, it may never become one. This is also the time when people start to have children, and if the parents are unused to eating seafood themselves, it is unlikely they will inculcate a fish-eating habit in their offspring. The fear is that as the generation that eats the most fish (the elderly) gradually passes away, it will be replaced by another that is less interested in fish with potential consequences for public health as well as for the seafood industry. But why do young people turn away from fish? The reasons are manifold. Increasingly busy lifestyles mean less time to spend preparing meals. Fish is considered more difficult to cook than other forms of animal protein and it offers less product variety compared, for example, with pork or chicken. Seafood is more expensive than meat and its price increased by 14% between 2013 and 2017, while food in general increased 8% over the same period. For some, fish is associated with negative experiences in childhood making them less inclined to eat it as adults. Some consumers surveyed implied that they did not eat fish for pleasure, but because it was healthful. Eating fish was akin to carrying out a duty — virtuous, but not enjoyable. Meat, on the other hand, they ate because they wanted to. A few consumers also stated that fish was difficult to find in supermarkets in comparison to meat. A harried shopper could easily grab a packet of meat, pay, and leave, while finding the fish takes more time and effort.
Consumption of fish and seafood offers a range of benefits
The benefits gained from eating fish and seafood have been documented in multiple studies. From infancy a diet rich in fish and seafood sets the stage for healthy development. Metabolic programming is the term used to describe the link between early diet and later health status, and studies have shown that the diet of expectant and nursing mothers as well as that of young children influences the risk of development of certain non-infectious diseases such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, or type 2 diabetes later in the child’s life. Pregnant women can promote the development of their children and reduce the risk of the child contracting certain diseases as an adult by consuming a diet rich in fish and seafood while pregnant and during breast-feeding. In addition, such a diet is considered to have a positive impact on a child’s health, neurological development, and the growth and function of the brain.
A European Food Safety Authority panel tasked with addressing the risks and benefits of fish and seafood consumption concluded that seafood is a source of energy and essential nutrients such as vitamins A and D, iodine, selenium, and calcium, all of which have well-established health benefits. Seafood also provides certain fats, the omega-3 fatty acids, that are also associated with good health. Compared with mothers who ate no seafood, consumption of about 1-2 servings of seafood per week and up to 3-4 servings per week during pregnancy led to better functional outcomes of neurodevelopment among infants measured in terms of communication and motor skills, and social and visual development. This level of consumption is also linked with a lower incidence of coronary heart disease among adults. Other studies have shown that fish consumption reduces the risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease as well as the risk of contracting diabetes.
Seafood is also an important source of other nutrients and bioactive components such as phospholipids, proteins and peptides, taurine, fibre, and carotenoids among others. One carotenoid, β-carotene, forms vitamin A in the human body, others have been seen to cause reductions in biomarkers of oxidative stress, inflammation, and triglyceride levels and reduce the risk of stroke, and various cancers. High levels of fibre are contained in edible seaweed and have been shown to reduce the risk of certain cancers and suppress gastrointestinal inflammation. Polysaccharides extracted from various edible seaweeds have been seen to reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels in plasma in animal studies and they are also associated with anticoagulant, antiviral, and antioxidant activity. Taurine, an amino acid largely obtained through seafood, plays a role in several important biological processes in the human body, including calcium modulation, antioxidation, and immunity and may bring about a reduction in the risk of l
ifestyle-related diseases. Seafood is a very good source of protein that has excellent amino acid scores and digestibility. In addition, it may have a positive impact on lipid metabolism and on insulin sensitivity in insulin-resistant individuals. Other studies have suggested that dietary protein from fish offers a significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease. Certain fish proteins are associated with reduced serum and liver cholesterol levels, and with the inhibition of fat absorption in the small intestine and thereby in suppressing an increase in body mass. Several human studies have shown that krill oil, which has phospholipid containing omega-3 fatty acids, cause desirable increases in plasma and cell membrane levels of omega-3 fatty acids. These phospholipids can also alleviate obesity-related disorders, and act as anti-tumour, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidating agents.
Collaboration necessary between all seafood industry players
Since seafood is closely associated with better health outcomes, there are sound reasons to encourage its consumption. A number of initiatives are proposed in the action plan to boost the presence of fish and seafood in Norwegian diets. These include promoting the links between seafood and health, disseminating information about seafood, researching further into seafood’s content of nutrients, directing advice on seafood to vulnerable social groups including children, young people, pregnant women, and certain immigrant populations, and increasing collaboration between the administration, the food industry, and other stakeholders to augment seafood consumption. Institutional measures also play a key role in boosting seafood consumption. The Norwegian national dietary action plan 2017-2021 is intended to contribute to diets that promote health and prevent diet-related illnesses in the population as a whole with emphasis on children and their families, young people, and the elderly. With regard to fish consumption the goal is to increase it by a fifth by 2021 in the population as a whole and the same increase in the number of children and young people who eat fish at least once a week and a fish-based sandwich topping at least three times a week. Other goals include a reduction in the consumption of sweets, sugary drinks, saturated fats and salt, and an increase in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Currently roughly four tenths of men and three tenths of women eat the recommended quantity of fish, while only a quarter of men and a fifth of women eat the recommended quantity of fatty fish.
Consumers latent desire to eat more seafood can be realised
Kantar, a market research organisation, has established that consumers desire to eat more fish, but find translating this desire into reality a challenge. This finding suggests there is considerable potential to boost seafood consumption, which is something that the Norwegian Seafood Council and other organisations promoting fish consumption can build on. However, consumer wishes regarding fish and seafood will have to be accommodated if consumption is to increase. Families with small children for example want meals that are quick to find, buy, and prepare, and are inexpensive. People under 40 are looking for suggestions on how to prepare a meal that revolves around fish. They are also looking for more convenience products that are quick and easy to prepare. Consumers are also influenced by the reputation of farmed fish. Salmon is the most consumed seafood in Norway, but among some consumers farmed salmon has a poor reputation. This is mainly due to a lack of knowledge, or because of the spread of rumours, myths, or fake facts. Working to disseminate factual information about salmon farming and the salmon industry that can counter the negative stories about the sector, may in the long term boost the consumption of salmon. According to the Norwegian Seafood Council, initiatives to boost the consumption of seafood should endeavour to increase consumers’ desire to eat more seafood and should make it easier to for them to choose seafood. The former can be achieved by focusing on attributes such as high quality, healthful, and sustainable, and by disabusing consumers of the idea that it is difficult to prepare or combine with other dishes.
Selecting seafood when at a supermarket can be stimulated, among other things by highlighting simple recipes, or offering fish-based meals that are ready to cook or heat, or placing fish together with foodstuffs (vegetables, pasta etc.) that it can be eaten with.
Eating more seafood scores points for the environment too
Increasing fish consumption while reducing intake of red meat not only brings health benefits to the individual but also contributes to the health of the planet, an argument which may well resonate with the young. Findings of the EAT-Lancet Commission, a multinational group of scientists tasked with defining targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production, found that global food production is the single largest driver of environmental degradation. At the same time, unhealthy diets are the leading risk factor for non-communicable diseases the incidence of which is growing. “Effectively, how we grow, process, transport, consume and waste food is hurting both people and the planet”, assert the authors. While the positive influence of seafood consumption on human health is well documented, the discussion about its environmental impact is more recent. In a paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment in 2018, Ray Hilborn and colleagues showed how there were big differences in the environmental impact of fish production and consumption. The species of fish or seafood, whether it is farmed or wild, how it is farmed or caught, and how it is processed, stored, and transported all determine a product’s impact on the planet. Comparing four metrics of environmental impact (greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, release of nutrients, and acidifying compounds) for livestock production, aquaculture, and capture fisheries, as well as studying additional literature on antibiotic use, freshwater demand and pesticide use, the authors concluded that the lowest impact production methods were small pelagic fisheries and mollusc aquaculture, whereas the highest impact production methods were beef production and catfish aquaculture.
Fish, white meat and vegetables can replace red meat
Substituting seafood for meat is thus likely to make sense from an environmental perspective depending on what the seafood is and how it is produced. But Nicole Darmon from INRA, the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, reported at a conference in Copenhagen in 2019 that reducing intake of meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, while increasing that of fruit and vegetables, could achieve a reduction in environmental impact of 30-40%. Her findings suggest there is a trade-off between a diet that is healthful (thanks to the seafood) and one that is environmentally-friendly. Another paper by scientists from the Universities of Tasmania and of British Columbia published in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2018 estimates that carbon emissions from marine fisheries, and small pelagic fisheries in particular, are low compared with those from the production of red meat such as beef and lamb. More recently Greenpeace, an environmental NGO, in a criticism of the European Commission’s proposed European Green Deal said that climate and environmental targets could only be met “with a substantial reduction in the production and consumption of livestock products, particularly meat.” The Norwegian dietary action plan emphasises the importance of health as well as of sustainability when making food choices. With a point of departure in the Brundtland Report’s (named after Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway) definition of sustainable development (development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of
future generations to meet their own needs) the plan expects to contribute to sustainable development by encouraging people to make dietary choices that have a low impact on the environment. These choices should also promote a reduction in food waste as this will increase the supply of food without adding to the pressure on the environment. At the end of 2016 the government presented a white paper to Parliament on the future of Norwegian agriculture which stated that a reduction in emissions from agriculture based on reduced demand for red meat would call for increased consumption of fish, as well as vegetables, and white meat.
The reduction in seafood consumption among Norwegians could, in the long term, have impacts on public health, the economy of the seafood sector, and potentially on the environment. By adopting a multipronged approach that draws on support from different stakeholders, authorities, institutions, trade bodies, research organisations etc., and that targets the general public with a special focus on certain groups, this negative trend can hopefully be reversed. A successful campaign will also have international repercussions as other countries facing similar challenges could learn from Norway’s experiences. The stakes are thus higher than they seem.