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Aquatic Foods to Nourish Nations

Golden, C.D., Koehn, J.Z., Shepon, A., Passarelli, S., Free, C.M., Viana, D. et al. 2021

A presentation of a novel aquatic foods nutrient composition database that moves beyond food as protein and calories and highlights aquatic food diversity and its nutritional contributions by nutrient and nation.

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Close up image of 6 different types of silver fish.
Image Credit: Rebecca Gaal

Around the world, billions of people suffer from one or more forms of malnutrition. Blue food can help nourish vulnerable populations, yet it’s often ignored as a potential solution in food policy. Global analyses tend to focus on terrestrial food or reduce thousands of edible aquatic species into overly simplified categories like “seafood” or “fish.” Furthermore, they only account for blue food’s protein and caloric value, overlooking critical nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. From shellfish to seaweed to salmon, sustainably harvested blue food can potentially play a much greater role in tackling malnutrition. 

In the most comprehensive analysis to date, this paper launches the Aquatic Food Composition Database (AFCD)—characterizing levels of hundreds of nutrients across more than 3,750 aquatic species—to provide a more nuanced understanding of the diverse array of blue food and its exceptionally high nutritional value. The AFCD integrates terrestrial and aquatic food models to help policymakers compare nutritional benefits and investigate tradeoffs and interactions among dynamic food systems. With these insights, policymakers can make more informed decisions that improve global health and sustainability into the future. 

Key findings


Blue foods on average have much greater nutritional benefits than terrestrial animal foods. Many blue foods also have a smaller environmental footprint.


Blue food consumption can help tackle malnutrition in all its forms, including undernutrition and overnutrition. Modeling results suggest that increasing the supply of blue foods through sustainable aquaculture investment and better fisheries management could make them more affordable for low-income populations, helping to avoid 166 million micronutrient deficiencies by 2030.


Blue food can support nutritional gender equity. The nutritional benefits of blue foods are especially important for women, who were found to benefit more than men from increased consumption in nearly three times the number of countries studied.


Increased consumption of blue food may reduce the consumption of terrestrial meats, consequently reducing diet-related chronic diseases like hypertension, obesity and certain types of cancers.


National dietary guidelines and nutrition policies should prioritize blue foods where culturally and socially appropriate. Including blue foods in social protection programs, like food assistance and school meal programs, can increase access and affordability for nutritionally vulnerable populations.


In countries where there are high burdens of micronutrient deficiencies, blue food supply chains and availability can be strengthened by improving fisheries management, enhancing sustainable aquaculture, and building more equitable national and regional trade networks.

Christopher Golden

“Aquatic foods seem to be a unique win-win. They have very high nutrient richness and can be produced with relatively low environmental impacts compared to terrestrial meats.”

– Chris Golden, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

J. Zachary Koehn

“Policymakers should leverage the availability of culturally appropriate and sustainably produced foods when building a pathway for nutritional equity.”

– Zach Koehn, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions

“Aquatic foods provide unique micronutrients that can help secure healthy diets. It’s about time we harnessed aquatic foods to their full capacity to deliver ecological, economic and nutritional benefits around the world.”

– Manuel Barange, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Christopher Golden*J. Zachary Koehn*Alon Shepon*
Simone Passarelli*Christopher Free*Daniel Viana*
Holger MattheyJacob EurichJessica Gephart
Etienne Fluet-ChouinardElizabeth NyboerAbigail Lynch
Marian KjellevoldSabri BromagePierre Charlebois
Manuel BarangeStefania VannucciniLing Cao
Kristin KleisnerEric RimmGoodarz Danaei
Camille DeSistoHeather KelahanKathryn J. Fiorella
David C. LittleEdward H. AllisonJessica Fanzo
Shakuntala H. Thilsted
*Asterisk denotes shared first co-authorship.

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