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Forage fish like sardines can be healthy protein option. Photosiber/Getty Images
  • If more people ate certain types of fish it could save as many as 750,000 lives by 2050.
  • Researchers looked at how replacing red meat with certain types of “forage” fish could impact overall health globally.
  • “Forage” fish include smaller fish lower on the food chain including sardines, herring and anchovies.

Eating so-called “forage fish,” which include sardines, herring, and anchovies, could possibly save as many as 750,000 lives a year in 2050 and make a huge impact in the number of diet-related diseases and disabilities, a new analysis suggests.

The research, published in BMJ Global Health this week, used datasets for 137 countries and replaced those populations’ red meat consumption with that of forage fish from marine habitats.

Researchers predict that 8 to 15 million disability-adjusted life years could be saved by this dietary shift, especially in low- and middle-income countries, which have more abundant stocks of these fish and particularly high rates of heart disease.

The data analysis used four different scenarios to imagine how replacing red meat with forage fish could work:

  • Domestic supply prioritized: using forage fish for national consumption — based on “local health needs” — or red meat replacement.
  • Minimized meat intake: prioritizing the consumption of forage fish for countries where red meat consumption is above recommended levels
  • Adequate fish intake: prioritizing the consumption of forage fish in countries that simply don’t eat enough fish
  • Equal percentage replaced: all countries had approximately 8% of red-meat replacement (the percentage of that replacement was determined by the limited global supply of forage fish)

The “adequate fish intake” scenario was seen to lower deaths the most. Despite a globally limited supply of forage fish, by increasing the daily fish consumption to close to the recommendation in most countries, the researchers saw the potential for deaths worldwide from stroke, diabetes, bowel cancer, and heart disease to be reduced by 2% in 2050.

They also saw “several barriers, such as fish meal and oil processing, overfishing, climate change, and cultural acceptance may prevent the health benefits of forage fish from being realized,” the analysis points out.

Anchovies, sardines, and herring are lower on the oceanic food chain, with larger fish being their predators.

They are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, and calcium, but the researchers say about 75% of them, “including a significant amount caught off the coasts of countries suffering from food insecurity and malnutrition in the Global South,” are used for fish oil and fishmeal — for farm-raised fish — rather than for human consumption.

Melanie Murphy Richter, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the director of communications for the nutrition company Prolon, who was not involved in the research, told Healthline that the small size of forage fish means they store less fat — so they also contain less fat.

Forage fish, like anchovies, have about 2 grams of omega-3 per 100 grams canned, whereas cooked wild salmon may have around 2.2 grams of omega-3 per 3.5-ounce (100-gram) portion. However, according to Richter, the exact amount of omega-3 can vary depending on factors such as type, size, and preparation method.

Despite only small potential discrepancies in omega-3 content, Richter pointed out that an advantage of smaller fish is that they likely contain lower amounts of certain toxins from ocean pollution.

“Because forage fish are smaller and lower on the food chain, they tend to accumulate fewer toxins (like mercury, for instance) than their larger counterparts,” Richter said. “This makes them a nutritionally more viable option than larger fish options. In fact, an overconsumption of certain toxins like mercury can interfere with the absorption of other essential nutrients found in fish and compromise the bioavailability of important vitamins and minerals.”

Some areas of the world that have long incorporated such fish into their diets do see significant benefits, Richter said.

“According to research, coronary disease in Nordic countries is among the lowest in all of Europe, which could be in part due to their diet,” Richter said. “In general, we know that people whose cultures and diets prioritize fish consumption have improved heart health, brain health, better weight management and metabolic health, and most of these regions are also associated with greater longevity as seen in certain Mediterranean countries and Japan which also have high fish consumption.”

Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Dept of Department of Wellness & Preventive Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, and a senior fellow at the Meadows Behavioral Healthcare in Wickenburg, Arizona, who was also not involved in the research, told Healthline that she sees more of her patients moving toward a more plant-based or pescatarian diet than she did 10 to 15 years ago. Part of it, in her view, is how people are looking for different sources of protein.

“Embracing canned fish is a great way to get the nutrients these fish provide. Often, canned fish can be cheaper than fresh or even frozen fish and can be utilized in a variety of culinary ways,” Kirkpatrick said. “If you are trying to control sodium, then options that are packed in water or oil with less sodium would be optimal.”

Richter suggested that consumers try to stick with water-based canned fish, as many brands have sugar or salt added. Additionally, Richter advises people to avoid any packaging that contains BPA.

BPA is a harmful chemical that can contribute to toxic overload and endocrine disruption overtime when consumed in excess. Look for the BPA-free labels, and be sure to purchase cans without dents, rips, or tampering,” Richter said, adding that where the fish have been sourced is also important. “Look for cans that have been certified by reputable organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), Friend of the Sea (FOS), Dolphin Safe, or Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA).”

A new data analysis suggests that forage fish — herring, sardines, and anchovies — could save up to 750,000 lives a year in 2050 if they replaced red meat consumption by reducing the number of diet-related diseases, especially heart disease.

Forage fish are plentiful in the Global South, where heart disease can be much higher in certain countries, but three-quarters of the global catch are turned into fish oil or food for farm-raised fish.

Forage fish also contain large amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, and calcium, and can be found in grocery stores; avoid buying anything packaged with BPA materials, salt, or sugar.