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Seafood can help ensure that the world’s poorest people get enough nutritious food

Skjermbilde 2020 12 18 kl

Small fish like sardines and anchovies contain many important micronutrients, and in many places they are considered food for the poor. This picture is taken in Ghana, where most of the fish at the fish markets are catched from small boats.

Photo: Astrid Elise Hasselberg/ Institute of Marine Research

Seafood can play a key role in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger by 2030. ⁠⁠⁠”That makes it really important to emphasise the role of seafood and to include it in food strategies”, says research scientist Marian Kjellevold.

There are currently over 800 million people in the world who don’t have access to enough food. Around 2 billion people suffer from hidden hunger – in other words their diet contains too few micronutrients such as iodine, vitamin A, zinc and iron.

Micronutrient deficiencies are not always visible, which is why it is called hidden hunger. Small children are particularly vulnerable to hidden hunger, as it can result in impaired physical and intellectual development.

In low and middle income countries in Africa and Asia, the strategy is often to provide dietary supplements or to fortify plant-based foods such as bread and cereal products in order to increase the amount of micronutrients in the diet.

“The results of our research show that small fish which are eaten whole contain a unique combination of the most important micronutrients”, says Marian Kjellevold.

Food instead of dietary supplements

She therefore believes it is really important to emphasise the role of these fish in food strategies. This may be the best way for the world’s poorest people to ensure that they get enough micronutrients.

Another important advantage of consuming minerals by eating fish is that animal-based foods also improve the body’s absorption of iron and zinc from plant-based foods, such as cereal products.

“You can compare it to taking an iron supplement together with vitamin C, in order for your body to absorb the iron better”, she explains.

Small fish eaten whole are packed with vitamins and minerals

This year marks the start of the UN international Decade of Ocean Science. In conjunction with that, the Ocean Panel recently launched a report that amongst other things stressed the great potential of the ocean to help feed the whole world.

Through the Nansen programme, scientists at the Institute of Marine Research (IMR) have documented both the nutrients and contaminants found in seafood in various low and middle income countries.

“What is true for all of the countries is that the fish eaten whole, such as sardines and anchovies, are particularly nutritious”, says Kjellevold.

For example, analyses of samples from Sri Lanka show that there is a big difference between the amount of nutrients in a small fish eaten whole and in a large fish where you normally only eat the fillet. In the case of the small species, as little as 30 grams of fish a day, which is a typical portion size in Sri Lanka, can meet people’s daily requirements for several micronutrients.

 Anchovies catched on cruise with «Dr. Fridtjof Nansen» in 2017 Photo: Annbjørg Bøkevoll/IMR

Fish eyes are rich in vitamin A

Sardines and anchovies are both often prepared and eaten whole in many African countries. The scientists have collected data which show that whole sardines contain 20 times as much vitamin A as the fillets of other species.

“That is probably because vitamin A is found in the eyes and the liver. When the fish are eaten whole, including the bones, head and guts, they are also more nutritious”, says research scientist Inger Aakre.

Whole sardines and anchovies also contained three times as much iron and calcium.

“Vitamin A and iron deficiency are both widespread all around the world, being two of the most common forms of nutrient deficiencies.”

The figure shows some of the most nutritious whole fish samples obtained in north-west Africa, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, as well as a salmon fillet from Norway. The figure shows how much a 100-gram portion of the species contributes to the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, zinc, iron and iodine. All the sampled species are commonly eaten.

Nutritional value is retained during processing

Researchers at the IMR are also performing field work in Africa and Asia to document the content of nutrients in processed fish sold at local fish markets.

In Ghana, for example, fish is processed either by smoking, salting or sun-drying, so it can be stored and transported around the country without needing refrigeration.

“Our results show that these fish are also rich in micronutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and B12.”

Fish processed by smoking, salting or sun-drying is also rich in micronutrients. Photo: Astrid Elise Hasselberg/IMR

The ocean as a sustainable source of food

“Our food system is harming both the planet and human health, and in order to achieve sustainable food production that promotes good health, we must change our food system”, says Kjellevold.

In 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission concluded that major changes are needed in order to create a food system that is good for both our health and the planet. The proposed changes included reducing our consumption of red meat, mainly eating plant-based food and keeping our consumption of seafood low to moderate.

“The world’s poorest people can’t afford that diet. That’s why it’s so important to document the nutritional content of food that is available to them locally”, says Kjellevold.

Small fish is often sold cheap, and is accessible to many people. Photo: Marian Kjellevold/IMR

Fish must be included

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 2 is to end hunger. Seafood will play a critical role in creating a food system that provides enough of the right nutrients to the world’s growing population.

“The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal to combat hunger doesn’t place much emphasis on food from the ocean. Often, it only refers to land-based food, but the fish we have analysed are a gift from the ocean, and full of nutrients”, says Kjellevold.

She explains that some small fish are sold cheap in small quantities in markets and that in many places they are considered food for the poor.

“That’s precisely why these food sources are accessible to many people.

The world’s food supply situation is complex and there are no simple solutions. However, small fish represent an underexploited resource that is unique in already being available to the poorest in the society”, says Kjellevold.


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