Every day, Norway exports the equivalent of 27 million meals of fish worldwide, whether rosy pink farmed Atlantic salmon, plump white fillets of cod, silvery-sided whole herring, or any of the other farmed and wild-caught species that flourish in the icy waters off the Norwegian coast.
With every mouthful, people who eat Norwegian seafood not only enjoy the pleasures of fresh, tasty food, but gain from the enormous health benefits that come from consuming fish and seafood. Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids have long been known to help promote a healthy cardiovascular system, but recent research now shows that the health benefits of routine fish consumption go far beyond omega-3. People who regularly eat fish may have less joint pain from arthritis, may be less susceptible to diabetes, have stronger bones that help prevent osteoporosis and might even benefit from some protective effects against Alzheimer’s disease.
“People think that omega-3 is the only thing that’s good about fish,” says Livar Frøyland, Head of Research for the Seafood and Health Programme at NIFES, the National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research in Bergen, and an adjunct professor of nutritional physiology at the University of Bergen. “But that’s a trap. Seafood provides much more than omega-3.”
Frøyland should know. NIFES is affiliated with the Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, and has its central focus on nutrition, whether feed for fish or fish as food. NIFES pays careful attention to both what fish are fed, as well as the kinds of nutrients and other substances found in fish when they’re on your fork. This scientific documentation helps make Norway a world leader in providing healthy fish that taste good, too.
Seafood has proven health benefits for young and old alike.
© Anne Lise Norheim/Norwegian Seafood Export Council
You are what They Eat
As researchers learn more about how various nutrients contribute to human health, foods are being increasingly fortified with these nutrients, such as omega-3, to create what is commonly called “functional food”. In a project financed by the Research Council of Norway and linked to an EU-funded research project completed in August 2004, NIFES researchers examined the response of cardiovascular patients to salmon fed diets that had differing amounts marine-based omega-3 fatty acids.
The research at Ullevål University Hospital came up with some surprising results. While patients with cardiovascular disease benefited most from fish that had consumed the greatest amounts of marine omega-3, the groups that ate fish with lesser levels of marine-based omega-3 fatty acids lowered their total cholesterol levels. This suggests that farmed salmon could be created to cater to an individual’s cardiovascular health. People with heart disease could choose to buy salmon that had been fed only marine-based omega-3 in their diets, to reap maximum cardiovascular benefits. But healthy individuals who just wanted to take preventative steps to lower their cholesterol could buy salmon that had been fed more plant-based omega-3, Frøyland says. “This could be the future foundation for product tailoring,” he notes.
Vitamins, Minerals & Bone Health
Fish also supplies high quality proteins, trace minerals such as iodine and selenium, vitamins A, D, and E, and is a good source of calcium, particularly from soft-boned fish such as sardines.
All these nutrients packed into fish makes them a “nutritional bomb”, jokes Frøyland. But this combination has many health benefits. One of the most striking findings came from Bordeaux, France. A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2002 showed that elderly people who eat fish or seafood at least once a week lowered their risk of dementia, including from Alzheimer’s disease, by 34%, with the greatest benefit found in people who ate the most fish.
While seafood has its clear health benefits, like every other plant and animal product we consume, it can be exposed to unwanted contaminants. To combat this problem, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority monitors farmed fish and shellfish, in collaboration with NIFES, which has its own comprehensive seafood safety research programme.
In fact, Norwegian fish may be among the most carefully monitored and tested food in the world. The Norwegian system involves checking thousands of samples of fish and fish feed each year; the system also allows for complete traceability from the start of a fish’s life until its consumption as a meal.
The AquaMax programme, coordinated by NIFES, started in March 2006 and has a EUR 16 million budget with 32 partners from Europe, China and India. The goal of the
programme is to replace as much as possible of the fish meal and fish oil currently used in fish feeds with sustainable, alternative feed resources.
© Bjørn Winsnes/ Norwegian Seafood Export Council
Global Health & Food Supply
Call them zealots, but researchers like Frøyland see a future where fish and seafood consumption can help tackle global health challenges. For example, one of the simplest benefits from eating seafood may be that it means that you aren’t eating a food that is high in harmful fats. “If you eat fish you get omega-3, iodine, proteins,” Frøyland says. “But also you don’t eat a hamburger.”
The Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs is sponsoring an international conference in May 2008 that will look at exactly how seafood consumption might in fact help with global health, particularly with lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. The conference will also examine the production of sustainable fish feed to maximize the health benefits of farmed fish for consumers, as is being examined by the EU-sponsored project, AquaMax, which is also being coordinated at NIFES by Dr. Øyvind Lie, NIFES Director.
“Global seafood consumption is forecast to increase to approximately 165 million tonnes in 2030 from 100 million tonnes in 2001,” says Fisheries and Coastal Affairs Minister Helga Pedersen, in an open invitation to the conference. “This increase can only sustainably come from aquaculture, since traditional capture fisheries have reached their limit.”
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