Aquatic Animal Foods Play a Key Role in Supporting Nutrition and Child Health

Children and a woman sit on the ground eating from plates
Children enjoy a meal with fish following a cooking demonstration organized by the Fish Innovation Lab's Samaki Salama project. Photo submitted by Catherine Sarange and Francis Mbogholi

By Laura Zseleczky

From fish to crabs to octopus, foods from aquatic animals provide critical nutrients that support human health and development. However, consumption of these high-nutrient foods varies within and across countries as well as among different age groups. Aquatic animal foods could play a key role in tackling major global health challenges such as childhood stunting, anemia, and hidden hunger (nutrient deficiencies due to low-quality diets), but more evidence is needed to understand the contributions of these foods to nutrition and health outcomes, especially among young children.

A new paper published in Food and Nutrition Bulletin examines data from 175 countries over 20 years to estimate associations between consumption of aquatic animal source foods and important indicators for nutrition and child health, including nutrient availability, undernourishment, child stunting, and child anemia. The authors—including Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish Nutrition Specialist Lora Iannotti and East Africa Specialist Austin Humphries—found that aquatic animal foods were associated with better child health outcomes and nutrients critical for growth, development, and long-term health.

“This analysis combined data from across time and space to examine the contribution of a variety of aquatic animal foods to human nutrition and health,” said Iannotti. “One key finding was the dramatic disparities in access to fish and the nutrients provided across regions.”

The authors found that people generally consumed a median daily intake of 38g of aquatic animal foods, with significant variability between countries. Individuals in countries with low child mortality, an indicator of a nation’s overall health and well-being, had a median daily intake of about 47g of food from aquatic animals while the figure was only about 24g in countries with high child mortality.

Consumption of key nutrients from aquatic animal foods also varied nationally and regionally. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), choline, vitamin B12, iron, and zinc all have been shown to play critical roles in child health and development. The authors found that aquatic animal foods were a predominant source of DHA across all regions, providing more than 60% of intakes of this important macronutrient. Foods from aquatic animals also provided high proportions of choline and vitamin B12 while iron and zinc intakes were lower by proportion relative to other foods.

“Aquatic animal foods provide high proportions of critical nutrients to populations but are an underutilized high-quality food in public health,” said Iannotti.

Consumption of pelagic fish, or fish that live in the open ocean rather than near the ocean floor or reefs, was consistently associated with increased nutrient intakes and reduced child stunting according to the paper. The authors note the potential of this type of aquatic food for sustainable, healthy food systems. Increasing sustainable production of pelagic fish with a focus on small- and medium-scale fishers could improve access to critical nutrients for vulnerable populations.

The authors call for renewed global and national efforts to implement policies and support programs that ensure access to aquatic foods as part of sustainable, healthy diets across the globe. Examples of such efforts include supporting integrated livelihood programs that help small-scale fishers increase income and fish catches in an ecologically sustainable way as well as nutrition-focused social marketing that helps expand awareness of the importance of fish consumption.

The Fish Innovation Lab is exploring exactly these kinds of approaches to help low-income communities improve nutrition and livelihoods through sustainable aquaculture and fisheries. The Samaki Salama project and the Achieving Fisheries Sustainability in a Climate Sanctuary project, for example, seek to increase access to fish in sustainable ways to boost nutrition and food security among some of the most vulnerable groups, such as young children.

As the world recognizes the importance of small-scale fisheries with the 2022 International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture, it is a key moment to draw attention to how aquatic animal foods can contribute to healthy, sustainable diets and food systems. Papers like the one by Iannotti, Humphries, and colleagues are necessary to identify and fill knowledge gaps, and work by the Fish Innovation Lab and partners will be critical to help address remaining challenges such as cost barriers for low-income communities, postharvest loss and contamination issues, and access to inputs for small-scale fishers and fish farmers.

“The Fish Innovation Lab is working with fishers and fish farmers in Africa and Asia to help address the challenges they face in producing, preserving, and accessing fish and other aquatic animals,” said Mark Lawrence, director of the Fish Innovation Lab. “We hope that the innovations and technologies developed through Fish Innovation Lab activities will help these communities consume more nutritious aquatic animal foods in a sustainable way over the long term.”

Published May 10, 2022