Solving non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity is one of the biggest challenges facing sustainable financing. Two thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese, and the cost of heart disease is projected to reach $818 billion by 2030. Heart disease is the number one killer in America and globally. While there are many actions people can take to improve their health, a surprisingly under-emphasized strategy is to encourage healthier eating with increased seafood consumption.
The USDA recommends eating seafood twice per week, and following this advice has been observed to reduce an individual’s risk of dying from heart disease by 36%. Moreover, following USDA recommendations on seafood consumption is correlated with a longer life, and expectant mothers who eat seafood twice-weekly help support their babies’ brain development.
Despite the massive amount of scientific research backing up seafood’s numerous health benefits, consumption remains quite low. While the average American consumes about 140 pounds of sugar each year, only 14.4 pounds of seafood is consumed. As bleak as it is, this average only paints part of the picture: only one in five Americans eats seafood twice a week per USDA guidelines, and half of Americans never eat seafood at all. The nutritional landscape is not positive, but there is great opportunity for change.
This opportunity for change presents major investment opportunities as well. While the large number of people who do not eat seafood regularly present a negative health outlook, they also represent tremendous growth potential. Even a small increase in the portion of Americans who eat seafood twice each week, from 20% to 21%, would represent 5% growth in the number of Americans following USDA recommendations on seafood. Moreover, the barriers to greater seafood consumption are not as high as people think.
The Seafood Nutrition Partnership developed “Eating Heart Healthy program,” starting in June 2014 in collaboration with Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Roxbury Tenants of Harvard, to teach underserved women about the importance of seafood consumption for their health. This program consists of four 90-minute classes over one month. Prior to the start of the program, the participants receive a free health screening that includes a measure of their omega-3 index levels. Higher omega-3 levels in a person’s red blood cells correlates with lower risk for sudden cardiac-related death. Topics covered in each class include identification of cardiovascular disease risks and symptoms, healthy eating on a low-income budget, and a cooking demonstration that shows practical tips for preparing and cooking seafood. (YouTube Video on Eating Heart Healthy)
Overwhelmingly, we found that our participants wanted to eat seafood, but were unfamiliar with simple ways of buying and preparing it. By providing the participants with some basic knowledge of how to incorporate seafood into their diets, we were able to activate them and their families to eat seafood twice weekly. We look forward to expanding this program with additional support.
The size of this opportunity to invest is even larger considering the fragmented nature of the seafood industry. Historically, seafood firms have battled over the small percentage of Americans who eat seafood regularly, and have attempted to grow consumption with commodity campaigns similar to those run by beef, pork, and dairy. Even so, there are thousands of species to promote when it comes to seafood – and the one thing they all have in common are health benefits. An area of growth opportunity is for seafood packaging innovation to help seafood compete with meals that can be made in only a few minutes. Further, there are large opportunities for those able to streamline the seafood supply chain. In short, the seafood industry is ripe for disruptive innovation.
In addition to the direct return on investment through growth in consumption, an investment in seafood is an investment in the workforce. By eating more seafood, employees become healthier, and thus better workers who are able to stay in the workforce longer and be more productive. Further, this is an investment in the workforce of the future – as today’s mothers increase their seafood consumption, they will produce smarter children, who will be superior workers when they become employed. Increasing seafood consumption thus ensures that we will have more people prepared for the workforce.
A positive effect of investing in the seafood industry would be the decrease in costs elsewhere in the economy, such as medical costs. As Americans increase their seafood consumption, and thus decrease the rate at which they suffer from heart disease, diabetes and obesity, the burden these diseases place upon the medical system will decrease. Beyond this general economic benefit is the benefit to employers of reduced cost of insuring employees.
From a supply-side perspective, the science on managing wild fisheries stock has improved significantly. In addition to wild seafood, a growing source of seafood is produced through aquaculture, or fish and seafood farming, where it now comprises over 50% of the seafood available for consumption worldwide. Aquaculture as a farming practice has been in existence since our early human history and its scale has grown in the last 30 years. Exciting technology developments are being introduced in the areas of best practices, feed innovations that use less fish meal, and an increasing appreciation for land-based aquaculture.
Finally, investing in the seafood industry would help the planet. Compared to other proteins, seafood is a sustainable industry, with 71% of commercial fishing undertaken at biologically sustainable levels with an improving trend. Moreover, seafood byproducts are used beyond the food industry, from biogas to makeup. By moving towards greater seafood consumption, we can reduce the future costs that more production intensive proteins would impose on the environment.
Seafood has enormous growth potential because of its relatively low share in the standard American diet – and this growth would not only benefit the health of people across the country, but also result in a return on investment. Moreover, this increase in people’s health has secondary effects in business efficiency and reduction in health costs for employers. Investing in seafood makes the environment healthier because of sustainable industry practices and provides an alternative to production intensive proteins. As investors and as people concerned with the state of the world, we must seek investments that foster health and wellness. Investments that support a seafood-rich diet represent a simple step that can provide great returns for businesses, people, and the planet. Our future depends on making these forward thinking decisions.
About Seafood Nutrition Partnership
Seafood Nutrition Partnership (SNP) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire a healthier America through partnerships that raise awareness about the essential nutritional benefits of eating seafood. Through its education efforts, the organization aims to help Americans gain the skills to select, order and prepare fish and shellfish, and to inspire a healthier America by promoting a nutrient-rich diet that includes seafood. SNP is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative and the NCD Roundtable. More information is available at SeafoodNutrition.org.Linda Cornish is Executive Director of Seafood Nutrition Partnership, a nonprofit that is addressing America’s public health crisis through a seafood rich diet. Will Baird was a Summer Associate in 2014 and is finishing his Senior year at Dartmouth College.
Ogden C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B.K., & Flegal K. M. (2014). Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. Journal of the American Medical Association, 311(8), 806-814.
 Michelle Fay Cortez, “Heart Disease Treatment Cost to Triple to $818 Billion by 2030, Study Says.” Bloomberg. 24 January 2011.
 CDC FastStats, World Health Organization, “The top 10 causes of death.”
 Harvard School of Public Health. “New Study Shows the Benefits of Eating Fish Greatly Outweigh the Risks.” October 2006.
Annals of Internal Medicine
 Sally Squires, “Fish in Mother’s Diet Benefits Child, Study Finds.” Washington Post. 16 February 2007.
 US Census Bureau; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
 Harvard School of Public Health. “Fish: Friend or Foe?”
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2014”