Raw, boiled, fermented, alive, fluorescent, it's all edible, mostly. (Illustration by Michaela Compo/George Washington University)
Redefining ‘pescatarian’ in a sustainable diet
Egyptian civilizations used to lower narrow-stemmed, ceramic jars called amphorae to the bottom of the sea. The fishermen would wait for an octopus to use it as a den. The amphorae was then raised back to the surface and consumed as a part of their seafood-rich diet.
Many Western people think of seafood as one category: fish. As Jessica Gephart, an environmental scientist and professor at American University said in an interview, “We talk about it (seafood) as one group in the same way we might talk about chicken or beef, but really it represents 2000 species that are captured or cultivated around the world.”
Seafood is more than fish
The term seafood refers to a diverse array of organisms from fish to cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish, etc.) to algae (phytoplankton, seaweed), among others.
We often limit our seafood choices to only fish, leaving the rest of the sea in a tank.
How can we expand the conversation around seafood — and why should we?
Ole Mouritsen, physicist and professor of gastrophysics and culinary food innovation at the University of Copenhagen, answers, “It’s a matter of elevating people’s knowledge of what seafood is.”
Mouritsen’s exploration of cephalopods and algae began as an interest in Japanese cuisine. His curiosity led him to years of research surrounding these organisms and their role in food systems. He has worked alongside scientists and chefs to explore the nutritional compounds and flavor found in these species. In his recent paper, A Role for Macroalgae and Cephalopods in Sustainable Eating, Mouritsen claims we should look further to octopus, squid, seaweed and other aquatic organisms for a lessened environmental impact and greater health benefits. His research calls for a change to “consume marine food in a more diverse and insightful manner, including eating from lower trophic levels and limiting bycatch and waste” (Mouritsen & Styrbæk, 2018, p. 2). By consuming these compounds at the source, we are able to maximize the nutritional value of these foods. Typically 90% of nutrients are lost as they move up the food chain through consumption. Marine seaweed is on the lower end of the food chain, and dense in micronutrients. Cephalopods are generally on a higher trophic level, while still retaining much of their nutrient density. When we eat the organisms towards these lower trophic levels (compared to large fish, cows, pigs, etc.), we consume the richest nutrient components, with fewer calories.
Role of cephalopods & algae in a nutrient-rich diet
Raw, boiled, fermented, alive, fluorescent, it’s all edible, mostly.
Beyond their delectable flavor, these two types of organisms provide omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The human body cannot synthesize these nutrients on our own, so we must seek them out in our food. Micronutrients including iodine, iron, copper, zinc, and selenium are also found in many species of cephalopods and algae. All of these nutrients are essential for our health and brain function (Mouritsen & Schmidt, 2020).
Beyond nutritional value, one of the huge strengths of seafood is the diversity, explained Gephart. Not only are there over 2000 species of seafood organisms, but they are “found in all climatic belts on the planet and they can be harvested in the wild or farmed in aquaculture” (Mouritsen & Schmidt, 2020, p. 2).
Mouritsen highlights in an interview that when it comes to diet “taste comes first — after that you can talk about nutrition, health, calories, and sustainability.” The central component of Mouritsen’s research related to seafood is the umami flavor found in cephalopods and algae. Umami, is considered “the essence of deliciousness” (Mouritsen, 2016, p.8). Found in a variety of cephalopods and algae, “umami may be a part of the solution to provide healthier, less caloric and more satisfying meals” (Mouritsen, 2016, p.8) — while adding the same delicious savory flavor we’re used to. The umami-rich seafood plays the role of an alternative to salt or sugar. Replacing additives with seaweed and other umami-rich foods can “reduce the fat content by up to 30%… and reduce salt intake up to 50 % without reducing while retaining palatability” (Mouritsen, 2016, p.8). This work has also involved experimentation with the use of umami as seasoning for vegetables in an effort to make a plant-based diet more palatable for omnivores.The craft of preparation
The reason most Americans find cephalopods and seaweed unappetizing is the texture. Cephalopods get their texture from collagen, which makes up their muscular structure. In his research, Mouritsen speaks to the value of proper preparation, describing for example how improperly prepared squid can transform from a subtle, tender dish to a rubbery, greasy mess. Japanese cuisine offers models of how to handle these meats. We may look to their example, Mouritsen believes, to see “as with other types of meat this can be handled by culinary insight, craftsmanship, and scientific knowledge”(2020, p. 3). For these more uncommon types of seafood, it will take culinary insight and public communication for them to find their way onto Western grocery store shelves.
Looking to the future
Feeding the growing human population will require culinary innovation. Mouritsen notes that in order to meet our needs, “we would have to use all the resources of Mother Earth,” including cephalopods and algae — even if it takes some getting used to. Seafood represents an under-utilized, sustainable alternative to more expensive, carbon-producing food products. Mainstreaming seafood — in all its variety — will make the world easier to feed.
When it comes to food you can’t really force it. It takes a long time. It probably took a long time for Americans to learn how to eat pizza.” -Ole Mouritsen
Mouritsen, O. G. (2016). Deliciousness of food and a proper balance in fatty acid composition as means to improve human health and regulate food intake. Flavour, 5(1). doi:10.1186/s13411-016-0048-2
Mouritsen, O. G., & Schmidt, C. V. (2020). A Role for Macroalgae and Cephalopods in Sustainable Eating. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, . https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01402
Mouritsen, O. G., & Styrbæk, K. (2018). Cephalopod gastronomy – a promise for the future. Frontiers in Communications, 3, . https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2018.00038