SEAFOOD is catch of the day, confirm scientists

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SEAFOODPLUS
Seafood is so often the source of conflicting advice: eat it and you will live a long and healthy life. At the same time it is a common cause of food poisoning. Whatever the risks and benefits, seafood makes a regular appearance on dinner plates the world over.
In 2002 (latest figures), average consumption per person in developed countries was 16.2 kg for the year. Finding out more about the health benefits of this food, as well as the risks, is clearly of great consequence.

The SEAFOODplus project is an advocate of eating more fish. Research by the mammoth 68-partner project, with teams from 14 EU Member States, plus Norway, Iceland and Canada, has backed up commonly held beliefs on the health benefits of eating seafood and this information is being used to encourage fish consumption. Findings on consumer attitudes to fish and seafood are facilitating this process, while results on production methods are improving the quality of fish and seafood.

The partners worked in fish farms, laboratories, processing facilities and hospitals and had significant breakthroughs. Results include the discovery of a previously unknown micro-organism that causes histamine poisoning, and new knowledge on how to avoid this illness in the future. The SEAFOODplus team has also carried out new analyses of epidemiological data, finding new evidence of positive effects on postnatal depression.

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The key to a long and healthy life?

A 200g portion of fish meets around half of an adult’s daily protein requirements. Sea fish is a source of iodine, fatty fish species contain high levels of vitamin A and D, lean fish are rich in B vitamins and fish oil is rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), essential for cell growth and regeneration.

One of the project’s breakthroughs was new ways of getting selenium into the human diet. Selenium has an antioxidative effect in the bodyevidence suggests that it protects against cancer. Europeans typically have an inadequate intake, and fish is an important source. The amount of selenium contained in a portion of fish can be raised if garlic grown in soil – particularly rich in selenium – is mixed with fish feed for a few days before the fish are killed. Selenium is then present in the fish flesh and enters the diet as a natural functional food.

Taurine is another substance present in fish which is beneficial to human health. It facilitates the passage of vitamins and minerals into the bloodstream and stimulates the burning of fats. But as the SEAFOODplus team illustrated, much of this is lost if the fish is deepfried, microwaved or steamed. Cooking the fish in foil or grilling were found to have the highest taurine retention rates. This will influence advice given by nutritionists. The team also found two ways in which to enrich fish with taurine. The first involves injecting taurine, while the second sees pieces of fish soaked in a solution and rotated in a cylindrical container. No side- effects have been found, and tasters were unable to identify which samples had the added taurine.

The team also found benefits for weight control of a fish-rich diet. Volunteers from three countries took part in a trial. Those taking a fish oil capsule once per day lost 7kg over eight weeks. Not only did the volunteers lose weight, they also reduced the amount of fat in their blood and improved glucose and insulin levels. Cholesterol levels also dropped considerably, and most significantly in those fed three portions of lean fish per week.

One person’s fish is another person’s poison

The above are all good reasons to increase consumption of fish and seafood. But if the project partners were to win over consumers, they would have to take a closer look at the illnesses sometimes occurring after eating fish and other seafood.

Here too the SEAFOODplus team has made huge advances, the results of which could lead to a real reduction in the most frequently occurring incidences of food poisoning. One such breakthrough has been the discovery of a new micro-organism that causes histamine poisoning, even when seafood is stored at low temperatures. The microorganism seems to have been overlooked by previous studies. The project team established its life conditions and is now able to advise processors on how to handle seafood so as to avoid future incidences if histamine poisoning.

The team developed new detection methods for two of the viruses most frequently occurring in bivalve molluscs, as well as novel technology to avoid contamination by predicting where the viruses may show up. A real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) was used to detect the presence of Norovirus or Hepatits A. This enables industry to give guarantees to consumers on the safety of their seafood products.

Changing consumer perceptions

In an ideal world, these substantial findings on health benefits, as well as new techniques for drastically reducing the risk of food poisoning, would be enough to convince consumers of the benefits of a seafood-rich diet.

Before attempting to influence consumer behaviour, the SEAFOODplus team had to first find out what it was up against. Surveys confirmed that the vast majority of the general public is aware that eating fish offers health benefits. But many are apparently put off by bones, the flavour or the smell of fish. The team therefore came up with ways of enhancing fish products so that they contain more of that which makes them so attractive nutrition-wise, but fewer of the characteristics that put off consumers.

Questionnaires on the ethics of fish farming were also used to investigate consumer behaviour. Shoppers confirmed that they were pleased to see labels on how the fish had been farmed, favouring a stress-free environment.

Other breakthroughs include a new molecular biology-based technique that facilitates the rapid identification of fish species, and further, novel mild processing methods for smoking, dehydrating and sterilising fish have been studied applying the so-called hurdle technology. The new methods have cost, taste and health benefits for the consumer, and are more efficient for industry.

The results will affect society and industry alike: awareness of the health benefits is increasing demand while improving consumers’ health. Industry meanwhile has been gifted with novel, sustainable and efficient methods for satisfying this demand.