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Top Story: Communicating seafood's benefits

The medical community strives to get consumers to eat a balanced diet that includes fish

Steven Hedlund
December 01, 2005

The message is simple: Seafood is good for you. It’s an ideal source of lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids.

But amid the diet trends and food scares inundating consumers, seafood’s healthful image often suffers. You can’t really blame consumers for being confused. Deciphering the glut of nutritional advice they receive from dieticians, physicians, the media, the government, food companies and advocacy groups is no easy task.

Caught in the midst of the what-to-eat, what-not-to-eat debate are retailers and restaurateurs trying to keep abreast of the latest research while juggling the responsibilities of buying and marketing seafood.

Studies touting the health benefits of eating seafood, particularly the multitude of ailments omega-3s help prevent, are piling up. But so are news reports detailing the harmful effects of consuming toxins such as methylmercury, which accumulates in long-lived, predatory fish like tuna and swordfish.

Consumers, who pick up snippets of information here and there, often get confused by the mixed messages and, as a result, avoid eating seafood altogether.

In this issue, SeaFood Business takes an in-depth look at the latest research and at what seafood marketers and health professionals are doing to reach out to those who influence consumers’ food-purchasing habits.

The key, they say, is driving home the message that seafood’s health benefits far outweigh the potential risks. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not.

Try explaining, in layman’s terms, the health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosopentaenoic acid (EPA) while putting the potential risks from methylmercury in perspective.

As difficult as it is, bridging the communication gap will improve your customers’ health, along with your seafood sales.

Dr. Matt Hahn, a family physician in rural western Maryland, reads most of the trendy diet books. He studies most of the popular medical journals. And he scans the Web site www.mdconsult.com frequently. That’s in addition to seeing 25 or so patients a day.

So what’s his take on seafood?

“The weight of evidence points toward seafood and its health benefits,” says Hahn.

But are his patients eating more seafood? Well, that’s a work in progress.

“People say they want to eat better, but very few actually do,” says Hahn. “I see the full spectrum.

“Some people say, ‘I eat meat and potatoes and that’s all I’ll ever eat.’ Others are educated [about diet]. But there’s so much confusion out there about what to eat and what not to eat. What we’re trying to do is bridge the communication gap.”

In an effort to close that gap, three years ago Hahn and Bill Lands, Ph.D., a biochemist and pioneer in omega-3 research, designed a program called the “Morgan County Menu” (it was originally called the “Morgan County Diet”). Morgan County, W.V., is located across the Potomac River from Hancock, Md., where Hahn is medical director of the Tri-State Community Health Center.

The program encourages patients to maintain a balanced diet and exercise regularly. Hahn and Lands reach out to the community by organizing discussions at events like the Morgan County Fair, held in July.

“It’s been slow, but we’re optimistic,” says Lands, author of the book “Fish, Omega-3 and Human Health.”

“My guess is we’ve reached 1,000 people. But we haven’t found a way to get at the other 15,000 [people in Morgan County]. It’s a challenge. But I want to see a higher percentage of the population know what I know.”

The latest version of the Morgan County Menu advises patients to consume omega-3s by eating seafood or taking fish-oil supplements regularly. It’s the third of the program’s 10 commandments to a healthy lifestyle, ranked in order of importance. The first and second commandments are: Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables and exercise regularly.

“I’m seeing more evidence [in support of omega-3s] all the time,” says Hahn. “The omega-3 message has really gotten through in the past year. When you mention omega-3s now, people seem to know what you’re talking about. It’s come a long way.”

At the same time, Hahn recognizes that toxins in seafood pose a risk to certain segments of the population. In the case of the neurotoxin methylmercury, pregnant and nursing women, women of childbearing age and young children are at risk.

“I try to be careful about everything I advocate,” says Hahn. “There are legitimate concerns about [toxins] in seafood. There are concerns about [toxins] in all foods. So I tell my patients not to eat too much of any one food. I recommend that they eat a variety of seafood two to three times a week.”

A medical miracle
But physicians like Hahn aren’t the only source of dietary advice. Actually, only 12 percent of the 700 consumers the American Dietetic Association surveyed in 2002 said physicians were their primary source of nutritional information. The bulk of respondents cited a form of media, such as television (72 percent), magazines (58 percent), newspapers (33 percent), radio (18 percent), books (15 percent) and the Internet (13 percent).

Recognizing that the media plays a significant role in influencing consumers’ food-purchasing decisions, the seafood industry is stepping up efforts to publicize the growing body of evidence in support of a seafood-rich diet.

In early December, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sponsored a three-day conference in Washington, D.C., designed to do just that. “Seafood & Health ’05” featured researchers, educators and policymakers, who discussed the latest research with health professionals, seafood buyers and journalists from around the globe. The Canadian, Norwegian and Icelandic governments co-sponsored the event.

“Information accumulates in pieces,” says Lands, a conference participant. “You need a conference like this to bring the pieces together.”

A similar conference in Seattle 20 years ago put omega-3s on the map in the United States. The connection between omega-3s and heart health was established by Scandinavian researchers examining the seafood-rich diet of Greenland’s Inuit population in the 1970s.

But it wasn’t until researchers and health professionals gathered at “Seafood and Health ’85” that research in the field took off.

Since then there’s been a tremendous amount of research indicating that omega-3s reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, says Alice Lichtenstein, chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee and director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston.

Since 2000, the AHA has recommended that healthy adults eat fish, particularly fatty fish, at least twice a week. Fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, herring and lake trout contain the highest concentrations of DHA and EPA, types of omega-3s.

“People should eat more fish,” advises Lichtenstein. “If you eat fish, you not only get omega-3s, but you get the benefits of a lean protein that you don’t get with beef and poultry.”

In addition to the heart, the brain may also benefit from regular seafood consumption, supporting the old adage that “seafood is brain food.”

Eating fish during pregnancy may aid fetal brain development, according to a recent Harvard Medical School study. Researchers tested 135 mothers and infants and found that the more fish a woman consumed during the second trimester, the better her 6-month-old performed on a mental-development test.

“It’s important from a health standpoint that people don’t lose out on seafood’s nutritional benefits,” says Emily Oken, the lead researcher. “Because if they stop eating seafood, what are they going to eat? Probably more burgers and fries.”

Eating fish at least once a week may also curb age-related mental decline by the equivalent of three to four years, according to a recent Rush University Medical Center study.

Researchers surveyed 3,718 Chicagoans over the age of 65 and found that the rate of cognitive decline fell 10 percent among respondents who ate fish once a week and 13 percent among respondents who ate fish at least twice a week.

“The purpose of the study was to identify food we may eat that may protect the brain,” says Martha Clare Morris, the lead researcher.

“There’s been quite a bit of research connecting fish consumption to neurological development. But just recently we’ve been looking at what happens to the brain as we age.”

Research also suggests that omega-3s help fight breast cancer, diabetes, psoriasis, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. The list of potential health benefits from consuming seafood is lengthy (see table on p. 30).

“Seafood consumption can prevent all kinds of diseases,” says Linda Chaves, a senior advisor to NOAA and one of the “Seafood & Health ’05” organizers. “This is a message that needs to get out.”

Understanding the risks
Seafood’s disease-fighting power is not the only message that needs to get out. There’s also a need to put the potential risks associated with eating seafood in perspective, because consumers are confused, say conference organizers.

“The negative news is increasing,” notes Chaves. “The positive news is getting lost, and it’s difficult for the average person to know what to do.”

For example, the Web’s most visited natural-health site, www.mercola.com, lists fried seafood as one of the five unhealthiest foods, alongside doughnuts, potato chips and french fries (seafood is the only protein on the list).

Joseph Mercola, the site’s founder, says fish is “loaded” with toxins such as methylmercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).

Mercola acknowledges that fish is high in omega-3s, and undoubtedly there are healthier ways to cook seafood than frying it. But odds are, consumers who are incapable of putting the potential risks associated with eating seafood in perspective will avoid eating seafood — no matter how it’s prepared — after reading that.

Misinterpreting the potential risks associated with methylmercury is perhaps the biggest threat to seafood’s healthful profile.

One-third of consumers the NPD Group, a New York research firm, polled in October had heard or read “a great deal” or “quite a bit” about methylmercury in seafood, and 17 percent were “extremely” or “very” concerned about the neurotoxin.

Methylmercury is known to harm fetal brain development. This prompted the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency to issue a joint advisory in 2004 warning pregnant and nursing women, women of childbearing age and young children to avoid eating swordfish, shark, tilefish, king mackerel and more than 6 ounces a week of canned albacore, or white, tuna. The advisory also recommends consumers in the at-risk category eat up to 12 ounces a week of a variety of seafood low in methylmercury, such as salmon, pollock, catfish and canned skipjack, or light, tuna.

The fear is that consumers not in the at-risk category, including men, misinterpreted this message and stopped eating seafood, thus missing out on its nutritional benefits.

Of the 1,040 consumers Opinion Research Corp. in Princeton, N.J., surveyed in June, 45 percent said the methylmercury advisory applies to the elderly, 35 percent to pre-teens and teenagers, 29 percent to men and 30 percent to all Americans.

The survey results were released in October and administered by the University of Maryland’s Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy.

What’s more, consumers are clearly confused about which seafood items contain high levels of methylmercury. More than 30 percent of respondents incorrectly said shrimp, salmon and canned light tuna are high in methylmercury, while only 4 percent identified swordfish and less than 1 percent named shark and king mackerel as containing high levels of methylmercury.

“The science is clear, but the message is mixed,” says Joyce Nettleton, a nutrition consultant in Denver and author of “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Health.” “The greatest benefits of regular consumption of fatty fish are the cardio-protective effects like reducing the risk of a heart attack or stroke and the [role] of DHA in proper brain development and function.

“Are the benefits greater than the risks? The answer is a resounding ‘yes,’” she adds. “It’s a hypothetical risk. There aren’t bodies coming into the emergency room [from mercury in fish]. That’s the travesty of it. Everything else is lost. [Consumers] just say, ‘I don’t need to eat fish.’

“I’m not arguing that mercury isn’t harmful. Mercury is a nasty substance. But the answer isn’t to stop eating fish.”

A three-year study conducted by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that if consumers were to reduce their seafood consumption by one-sixth, the risk of developing cardiovascular disease would increase. For example, among 65- to 74-year-old men, the annual mortality risk would rise by nearly one in 10,000. Among pregnant women, the loss of omega-3s during pregnancy would reduce an infant’s nutritional benefit by 80 percent.

The study also found that if pregnant women were to eat the same amount of seafood but replace fish high in methylmercury with fish low in the neurotoxin, cognitive-development benefits, amounting to about 0.1 IQ point per newborn, could be achieved with virtually no loss of nutritional benefits.

“If you’re not pregnant or going to become pregnant, eat fish,” says Joshua Cohen, lead author and senior research associate at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. “If you’re a woman of childbearing age, eat fish low in mercury. You won’t be doing your baby a favor by avoiding fish.

“The problem in the real world is, the [methylmercury] advisory may not be coming across the way it was intended,” he adds. “Before you put out an advisory, quantitatively evaluate its risk. You need to look at how people will react, not how you hope they will react. You need to look at the pros and cons.”

The peer-reviewed Harvard study cost about $560,000 and was funded by the Food Products Association’s Research Foundation, which received donations from the National Fisheries Institute’s Fisheries Scholarship Fund and the U.S. Tuna Foundation, says Tim Willard, the FPA’s VP of communications in Washington, D.C.

The FPA, NFI and USTA had absolutely no say in the design or outcome of the study; it’s against school policy, says Cohen.

“We take a lot of steps to ensure it’s independent,” he adds.

Fact vs. fear
The Harvard study is an example of what the seafood industry and medical community are doing to help consumers recognize seafood’s health benefits and put the potential risks in perspective.

“We’re interested in ensuring that dietary advice to consumers is based on science,” says Willard.

“It’s our responsibility as an industry to put out accurate information to help consumers make smart decisions,” adds Cherylyn Harley LeBon, NFI’s VP of public affairs in McLean, Va. “You’ve got to educate them.”

NFI’s recently revamped Web site, www.aboutseafood.com, features a column called “Ask a Dietician,” where dieticians Janice Newell Bissex and Liz Weiss field consumer inquiries. Bissex has also been quoted in Parent, Working Mother and American Baby magazines, says LeBon.

“There is so much information out there that it’s difficult to weed through all of it,” says Stacey Viera, NFI’s public-affairs manager.

“People hear the good and the bad. But they’re beginning to ask, ‘How do I balance them?’”

NFI helped the non-profit National Women’s Health Resource Center organize press conferences at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 23 and at the Blue Fin restaurant at the W hotel in New York on Dec. 1.

Cohen outlined the results of the Harvard study at both press conferences. Nettleton and NWHRC President Amy Niles also gave presentations touting seafood’s nutritional benefits. Amber McCracken, the NWHRC’s communications director, says the room at the Oct. 23 event was “packed” with journalists from around the world.

“Some women think that any risk [associated with methylmercury] is too much risk,” notes McCracken. “That’s why it’s important for us to get the right information to women. They’re the CEOs of their families. They’re the ones making the meals and doing the grocery shopping.

“There are so many studies out there that we had to do something about it,” she adds. “It’s our job to bring all the information together so that women base their decisions on fact, not fear.”

That’s the same idea behind the Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy’s new Web site, www.realmercuryfacts.org. Launched in October, the site features a list of peer-reviewed studies about methylmercury’s effects on the neurological system and a synopsis of each, eliminating the technical jargon and replacing it with layman’s terms. Currently, the site lists more than 50 studies.

“It’s a matter of education,” says Maureen Storey, the center’s director. “What surprised me the most [about the Opinion Research Corp. survey results] was that while the [methylmercury] advisory was meant for a segment of the population — pregnant and nursing women, women of childbearing age and young children — consumers misinterpreted it to include the rest of the population.”

The Web site and the survey were funded by the U.S. Tuna Foundation, which represents the three largest canned-tuna brands, StarKist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea. The USTF had no say in the design or outcome of the survey, says Storey.

The USTF has had its work cut out for it over the past two years. When the FDA and EPA included canned white tuna in its methylmercury advisory for the first time in March 2004, canned-tuna sales dropped 10 percent, and they still haven’t rebounded. U.S. per-capita canned-tuna consumption slipped from 3.4 pounds in 2003 to 3.3 pounds in 2004, according to figures the National Marine Fisheries Service released in November (see cover news story).

Canned tuna has been around so long (it was introduced in the United States more than 100 years ago) that consumers sometimes forget about its nutritional benefits, say canned-tuna marketers.

“Tuna is the seventh-most-popular sandwich in the United States,” says John Stiker, executive VP of corporate development for Bumble Bee Foods in San Diego, “and it’s by far the best for you.”

In fact, a light or white tuna sandwich is higher in omega-3s and selenium and lower in saturated fat than the 11 most popular sandwiches (tuna is the only fish on the list), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Consumers acknowledge that tuna is a pretty healthy food,” says Stiker. “So we don’t spend as much on [promoting] health. Most of our marketing dollars go toward promoting new, innovative, convenient products.

“But we agree as a category that it’s our job to remind consumers that tuna is [healthy],” he adds.

The $1.5 billion tuna industry is launching a national marketing campaign dubbed “Tuna: A Smart Catch” to promote its product’s nutritional benefits. The program, which the government is in the process of approving, would be funded through a fee imposed on tuna canners, similar to the USDA’s “checkoff” programs that supported the “Got Milk,” “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” and “Pork: The Other White Meat” ads.

“Tuna: A Smart Catch” ads were tested in the Pittsburgh and St. Louis markets. The campaign may be launched nationwide as early as Lent 2006, but likely not until the summer or fall, says Stiker.

“We need to talk about the positives and put the negatives in perspective, because they’re minimal,” says John Signorino, president of Chicken of the Sea in San Diego.

The tuna industry is also in court fighting California’s Proposition 65 toxins-labeling law, which requires that signs warning consumers about the dangers of methylmercury be posted in supermarkets and restaurants. The state would like to put a methylmercury-warning message on canned-tuna labels.

White tuna contains an average of 0.35 parts per million of methylmercury, while light tuna averages only 0.12 ppm, according to the FDA. The agency prohibits the sale of seafood that contains more than 1 ppm.

“If people only realized … what the potential risk is,” says Roy Martin, a private consultant in Spring Hill, Fla., and NFI’s VP of science and technology from 1972 to 1999. “Does the average consumer know what 1 part per million or billion is? No. You need to put it in perspective for them.

“Look at it this way: 1 billion seconds ago it was 1959, and 1 billion minutes ago Jesus was alive,” he explains. “Now all of a sudden it dawns on people that [1 ppb] is a minute, minute amount.”

Within the seafood industry, few are aware of the research conducted on selenium and its relationship to methylmercury. Numerous studies indicate that selenium, which is found in an array of foods, including seafood, protects against methylmercury exposure. But when too much methylmercury is in the body, it binds with selenium and prevents it from performing its neurological functions.

“When selenium is in excess of mercury [in the body], mercury doesn’t appear to be harmful,” says Nicholas Ralston, a manager at the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center. Ralston was one of the speakers at “Seafood & Health ’05.”

Most commercially caught fish contain five to 20 moles (the number of atoms in an amount of matter) of selenium for every one mole of methylmercury, and one mole of selenium can protect against 75 moles of methylmercury, he notes.

“When Americans eat seafood they come out ahead, because they ingest much more selenium than mercury,” says Ralston. He compares it to receiving a bill for $20 and a check for $200 simultaneously.

Of the 25 foods that contain the highest levels of selenium, 16 are ocean fish, according to the USDA.

Supply sparks consumption
The challenge for retailers and restaurateurs now is addressing seafood’s health concerns for at-risk segments of the population without scaring all customers away from eating seafood.

In the 1980s, health concerns played a much smaller role in the growth of seafood consumption, asserts Tom Billy, president of International Food Safety Consulting in Chevy Chase, Md., and former chairman of the United Nations’ Codex Alimentarius.

The federal government, he says, was largely responsible for encouraging the development of domestic fisheries by enacting the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976 and the American Fisheries Promotion Act in 1980 and by providing Saltonstall-Kennedy grants and loans to purchase or repair fishing vessels. The government also established the National Fish and Seafood Promotion Council in 1986.

As a result of all this development and promotional activity, the U.S. seafood supply increased, and per-capita seafood consumption soared from 12.5 pounds in 1980 to a record 15.6 pounds by 1989.

After dropping to around 15 pounds in the 1990s, seafood consumption hit a record 16.6 pounds in 2004, up from 15.6 pounds in 2002 and 16.3 pounds in 2003.

But this time the federal government isn’t driving the growth. The emergence of aquaculture worldwide is increasing the availability and reducing the price of species such as shrimp, salmon, catfish and tilapia. Shrimp consumption alone rocketed from 2.5 pounds in the mid-1990s to a record 4.2 pounds in 2004.

Increased seafood consumption also is due to Americans’ desire for a lean protein, because they’re becoming increasingly concerned about their expanding waistlines. According to the NPD Group’s 2005 report “Eating Patterns in America,” 61 percent of Americans said they would like to lose at least 20 pounds, up from 54 percent in 1985. Health is sure to play a larger role in consumers’ food-purchasing decisions in the future.

As Hahn, Lands and other health professionals bridge the communication gap by encouraging their patients to eat more seafood, the tide is beginning to turn against the negative press and seafood’s real health story is starting to be heard.

The future of seafood consumption in the United States — and Americans’ health — is resting on it.

 December 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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