Analysis: fish has a high content of 'complete' protein as well as omega-3 fatty acids, minerals and vitamins

The concept of 'getting more protein into your diet' has become a huge phenomenon of late - and there is good reason as to why this message is pushed by physical health experts and nutritionists. Similar to fat and carbohydrate, protein is an essential macronutrient and is required for maintaining and building muscle mass, improving immune function, and facilitating several vital biochemical processes in the body.

Some 11 of the 20 amino acids (protein building blocks) that the body needs to maintain good health and normal functioning can be manufactured by the body. However, the other nine amino acids, the ones known as ‘essential’ amino acids, must enter the body via what we eat and drink.

Fish is of excellent nutritive value owing to its high content of ‘complete’ protein, as it contains all nine essential amino acids, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins. According to the Dietary Reference Intake report for macronutrients, a sedentary adult should consume 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight, meaning that the average sedentary man should eat about 56g of protein per day, and the average woman should eat about 46g per day. Active adults have a recommended protein intake of 1.4 – 2g protein per 100g body weight.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Countrywide, Suzanne Campbell reports on fishing tourism from Co Louth and asks if Irish fishing has a better future if we eat more Irish caught fish

A 100g cooked serving of most types of fish and shellfish provides approximately 15–25g of protein.

Pollack 17.4g per 100g

Cod 17.5g per 100g

Salmon 20.4g per 100g

Halibut 21.5g per 100g

Lobster 22.1g per 100g

Shrimp 24g per 100g

Tuna 28g per 100g

The protein content of fish ranks lower than chicken and turkey breast which contain 31g and 30g protein per 100g, respectively, but much higher than egg whites (11g protein per 100g). While fish protein content is similar to cooked red meat, which contains 20-25g protein per 100g, the fat content of red meat is much higher than that of fish, therefore, fish represents a less calorific option for the same amount of protein.

Many people associate high protein consumption with the athletic population, but high protein diets have also been linked with weight management within the general public. Many studies have reported that protein induces a greater feeling of fullness, than fat or carbohydrate, so protein-rich foods are, by nature, weight loss friendly foods. In addition, fish proteins have been reported to be more satiating than meat proteins.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, dietician Orla Walsh on the importance of fibre and protein in our diet

In Ireland, 68% of men and 34% of women are overweight or obese and these statistics are unfortunately expected to increase in the coming years. Obesity is associated with the storage of lipids resulting in the development of fat mass. Due to the high content of high-quality, digestible protein in fish, an increase in fish consumption may reduce the incidence of obesity. An epidemiological study in Norway found that consumption of lean fish once a week or more was associated with a decrease in future metabolic score and triglyceride content and an increase in high-density lipoprotein-cholesterol (the ‘good’ cholesterol) content.

Low-value fish, such as blue whiting or boarfish, and fish by-products (substandard muscle, viscera, heads, skins, fins, frames, trimmings etc) are commonly used as animal feed or fertilizers, but they also contain high amounts of protein. Opportunistically, scientists can now extract the protein from these sources and commercialise these proteins as supplements or ingredients for functional foods. Functional foods are food products with additional health claims for those who consume them, i.e., cholesterol-lowering ability, and are now commonplace, with Bord Bia reporting that the global market for functional foods is forecast to be worth over €250 billion by 2023.

Fish protein aids weight loss, improves cognitive function and promotes heart health

As Ireland is an island nation, low-value and underutilized fish represent a highly accessible and affordable source of valuable protein. The European Commission's 'Landing Obligation' policy, which came into full effect in 2019, prevents fishing vessels from reintroducing landed fish back into the sea, with the aim to reduce waste and protect the marine ecosystem. This policy has resulted in a large amount of fish with very low market value being caught.

In addition, fishing, aquaculture, and fish processing in Ireland is estimated to generate 64,000 tonnes of by-product per annum. The opportunity now exists to up-value fish and fish by-products through the extraction of the protein and purification of protein products such as peptides for their application as health-enhancing functional food ingredients.

Not only does the consumption of fish provide us with the protein required for healthy hair and nails and strong muscles and bones, but fish protein also aids weight loss, improves cognitive function, and promotes heart health. Extraction of fish proteins with such health-promoting potential for functional food applications can also promote environmental and commercial sustainability in Ireland.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ