Investigating the benefits of increased seafood consumption

Dr Neil Auchterlonie, Chair of Seafood 2040, talks about research looking at the socio-economic benefits of increasing seafood consumption.

The Seafood 2040 strategic framework is a plan for a seafood industry in England that is thriving and sustainable. Its primary objective is to encourage England’s population to consume more seafood, working towards the recommended two portions of seafood per person per week. 

Many of the health benefits of seafood are documented. We know that it is protein rich, highly digestible, and a source of many important micronutrients. These include many essential amino acids and fatty acids, notably the long chain omega-3s. It also provides a range of important vitamins and minerals in a form that is readily accepted by the body.  

Despite broad knowledge on nutritional value, the socioeconomic value of seafood consumption in relation to human health is not clearly understood. We don’t yet have clear information on the possible impacts of increasing seafood consumption for Government budgets, the economy, NHS, and the population. Essentially, there is a gap in data for evidence-based decision-making and planning.  

It’s important that we look at this because, based on our knowledge of human nutrition and physiology, there are clear indications of positive benefits from increased seafood consumption. Gathering data on health and quality of life is likely to making the case for eating more seafood even more compelling than it already is.

Posing a research question 

Recommendation 6 of the original Seafood 2040 strategic framework seeks to address this topic. It asks whether it’s possible to estimate the potential value to society, via health benefits to the economy, if people eat more seafood. Through research we hoped to be able to answer questions such as:

  • Would there be positive economic impacts on future Government spending and NHS budgets?
  • If so, by what margin? 
  • What would be the social and economic impacts on population health?

We secured research funding from Seafish and the Marine Management Organisation to look at this. We then commissioned researchers from Risk & Policy Analysts, Health Economics Consulting and the University of East Anglia to carry out research. Their work attempted to determine the health benefits gained from increasing seafood consumption from current levels to two portions per person, per week; and estimate the financial savings of those health benefits to society.  

Research results and analysis 

Within their review the researchers recognised that including fish in the diet produces several health benefits. They noted an association with improved health outcomes for some cancers (colorectal, lung and ovarian cancers) and Type 2 diabetes. They proposed that that these benefits may stem mostly from weight control and reduced risk of being overweight. Using data, the researchers turned their attention to the socio-economic benefits. They identified these as including both avoided NHS care costs and business savings from reduced work absenteeism.

Overall, the research provides some insight into what potential scale of benefits of increased seafood consumption to consumers in England – as well as the UK – could be. Indeed it suggests potential savings of £1.3 to £3.5 billion per year. 

The analysis also suggests that: 

  • Yearly socio-economic benefits from increasing seafood consumption are likely to far exceed the costs to the consumers from buying seafood. 
  • There will also be further benefits to consumers linked to reduced ill-health and better quality of life. 
  • The benefits to individuals from reduced risk of ill-health from type 2 diabetes and cancer are valued between £80 per week and £140 per week respectively. 
  • The net socio-economic impacts of increasing seafood consumption to one more portion a week across the English population can be valued at between £14.5m and £58.2m. 

Research challenges and limitations 

We’ve learned a great deal from this work, but it should be understood that this was a pioneering study on a technically difficult and complex question. There are many challenges in conducting such studies across populations due to the data noise caused by so many other, often confounding variables. There are also some important caveats to keep in mind in interpreting the data. For example, it may be that those with healthier lifestyles and lower risk for these health outcomes already choose to consume more seafood because it reflects their interest in health. 

The work, independently peer reviewed twice, does offer interesting early indications of potentially substantial health benefits from increased seafood consumption. We are treating it as a preliminary piece of work which provides a useful starting point to quantify the effects. Some potentially substantial savings to government are suggested and require further exploration. Equally there are potential impacts that were not investigated in this study. This includes the benefits of seafood consumption to cardiovascular health. For example, we know from scientific literature that long chain omega 3 fatty acids found in seafood have protective effects so this is an area which also merits further review and analysis.

Next steps 

For the Seafood 2040 programme and the Seafood Industry Leadership Group, this research is an important first step and a useful platform on which to build future work. Further research is now required to validate the results and determine how to include additional health conditions. Equally important is the opportunity bring into analysis an overview of wellness indicators. This would allow us to investigate the impact of increased seafood consumption on quality of life.  

We will be taking this forward within a revised Recommendation 6 for the Programme in subsequent research in 2022 and 2023. 

Find out more 

You can download the summary research report from the link below: 

You can read more about the Seafood 2040 programme from the link below: 

If you have queries about Seafood 2040 please contact Kimberly Cullen, Seafood 2040 Programme Manager, on Kimberly.Cullen@seafish.co.uk