February 2022 Issue
By Liz Weiss, MS, RDN
Vol. 24, No. 2, P. 30
How a Pandemic Pivot and Consumer Curiosity Created the Perfect Seafood Storm
When FMI released its most recent “Power of Seafood” report in February 2021, the findings were undeniable: Seafood—from lobster to kelp, pollock to mussels—is having a moment. In 2020, there was a whopping 28.4% increase in supermarket seafood department sales, far higher than that in the produce, meat, and deli departments. As a whole, the seafood industry generated $16.6 billion in food retail sales in a single year. Retail seafood sales continued strong through 2021, with frozen seafood sales 40.3% higher than the first half of 2019, and fresh sales 33.5% higher.1 Demand is robust, seemingly with no end in sight.
This is positive news for nutrition professionals who work with clients and patients to help them eat more healthfully. Seafood, whether canned, fresh, or frozen, contains high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and other important nutrients, including vitamins D and B12 and the minerals selenium, iron, and zinc. It can be a vital part of a healthful and varied diet. Eating fish is associated with a reduced risk of CVD, depression, and type 2 diabetes, and has been shown to support immune health. Furthermore, seafood consumption during pregnancy provides mothers and infants with omega-3 fats, needed for a baby’s brain and eye development. For all those reasons (and more), the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating at least two seafood meals per week.2 Despite seafood’s growing popularity, Americans still struggle to meet that requirement.
Barriers to Consumption
The gap between recommendations and consumption is due to one main reason: Seafood has a tendency to intimidate consumers. Jessica Miller, RDN, CDE, who works for the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, based in Washington, D.C., says, “Before COVID- 19, the top reason we heard for not eating seafood more was people weren’t confident in cooking it themselves. Survey data showed people were craving seafood and just needed help to make it themselves.”3 The Seafood Nutrition Partnership launched the “Eat Seafood, America!” initiative to encourage Americans to buy and eat sustainable seafood and support the seafood community. “Currently, about 20% of the population is eating seafood at least twice a week. [Consumption is] on the uptick overall, which is great news.”
Lindsey Kent, RDN, a retail dietitian at the ShopRite of East Hartford and Manchester, Connecticut, agrees. “I find that one of the biggest barriers to meeting recommendations of incorporating seafood twice a week is not knowing how to prepare this particular protein. Many customers explain that seafood is a treat they get when eating out. The reality is, most seafood is quick, easy, and much more affordable to prepare at home.” Her store makes a point to teach people how to prepare this important food, offering free resources such as cooking classes, personalized meal and recipe recommendations, and shopping assistance.
The Pandemic Pivot
Madelyn Kearns, editorial project manager at SeafoodSource.com, an online news and resource center for the seafood industry, has some insight on why seafood consumption is now surging. “Many of the trends guiding modern seafood portfolios were seeded before the pandemic. However, when COVID-19 took hold, it essentially doused those seeds and sent the growth process into overdrive, particularly for retail categories like frozen and shelf-stable.”
Miller adds, “In March 2020, when the pandemic started and restaurants shut down, there were major disruptions in the seafood supply chain—in many ways different from other industries, as there was all of a sudden a surplus of seafood, a very perishable product. Fishers and farmers needed to get seafood into consumers’ hands and help them learn to prepare it on their own.”
This pivot has been swift and effective, Miller explains. “What we’ve heard from a lot of the fishermen and co-ops, as well as many of the smaller seafood companies, is that direct-to-consumer seafood delivery has done very well for them and has opened up a new channel that will continue in the future. One example of a company making this shift is Blue Circle Foods, which was mostly focused on retail prepandemic and now has a monthly subscription box.”
Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, in Portland, Maine, saw an incredible shift in her sector: “At the onset of the pandemic, we knew restrictions around dining out and traveling would greatly impact the Maine lobster industry, so we quickly pivoted to make our product more approachable for home cooks, sharing content and recipes to inspire usage. At the same time, many of our lobster suppliers found new ways to reach consumers with a variety of product offerings including DIY Maine lobster roll kits, Maine lobster mac and cheese bites, and even Maine lobster infused butter. They made products available through retail and delivered directly to their doors—all at a range of price points.”
Innovations on the Rise
There’s a wide variety of new products and new delivery methods being offered across the seafood industry. “We have definitely seen both retailers and seafood companies innovate to offer more ready-to-eat meal solutions,” Miller says. “It helps alleviate some people’s concerns over preparing seafood and offers a fairly foolproof cooking experience. These are anything from preseasoned fillets you just put into the oven to open-and-eat tuna meal pouches. The frozen category has some tasty, and healthier, new products. And one of our favorite products over the past couple of years is a cooked Alaska pollock noodle.” Made with pollock, egg whites, and tapioca and potato starch, each serving has 70 kcal, 10 g protein, and 7 g carbohydrate.
“Seafood pairs well with many of the trends in cooking and flavors we’re seeing lately, from global-inspired flavors to the reducetarian eating pattern [consumers looking to reduce but not eliminate animal products from their diet]. And a rise in pescatarian eating,” Miller says. “Ways to air-fry salmon continue to be a top cooking search on Google. There’s even a TikTok trend happening with leftover salmon and rice.”
Miller describes the tinned seafood resurgence, which she says “ties into the ‘sea-cuterie’ idea,” a play on the traditional charcuterie board that swaps cured meats for seafood. She’s a fan of FishWife, a female-owned business in Los Angeles that’s marketing tinned sustainably fished or farmed smoked salmon, rainbow trout, and albacore tuna to a younger generation, and Mini Fish, in Los Angeles, founded by Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN, which packages sustainably caught steelhead trout in convenient pouches seasoned with fennel, red pepper, pumpkin seeds, turmeric, paprika, and cayenne.
Miller says kelp also is part of the seafood boom, in everything from noodles to popcorn seasoning. And there’s more: “Kvarøy Arctic launched a salmon dog in summer 2020 that’s still one of our favorite new products. The Jalapeno & Cheese and Chile and Cheddar Cheese are really good flavors. Vital Choice also launched a salmon dog last summer.”
These innovations are hitting the spot with consumers. Says Kearns, “Deeper into 2021, we’ve seen a rise in food boredom, prompting consumers to crave excitement in their daily routines—and for their palates—after many, many months of preparing and eating most of their meals at home. So seafood product innovators who offer adventurous and bold flavor profiles in their portfolios also have been faring well in this environment.”
Is Sustainability the Most Important Innovation?
If nutrition professionals want to keep encouraging clients to enjoy the plethora of new seafood products and fresh fish overall, the oceans will need to be managed to keep the fish swimming for generations to come. As the number of seafood consumers grows, so too does the segment of the market concerned with the sustainability of their consumption. The “Power of Seafood” report also revealed that 4 in 10 consumers, up from 3 in 10 in 2019, say sustainable seafood certifications have a major impact on what they buy, and 71% want to be more knowledgeable about seafood sustainability.
According to Kearns, “Consumers are being drawn to brands that align with their values, so products with a sustainable core or focus—that cater to the stomach, the heart, and the needs of the planet—are attractive options. And consumer conscientiousness in this realm is only expected to grow as more educational resources arise.”
RDs can help clients learn about where their seafood comes from and how to eat it in a way that nourishes their families while also keeping the oceans healthy. Under the “Science” tab at seafoodnutritionpartnership.org, the “Seafood Sustainability” page outlines three steps consumers can take to “buy sustainable seafood.” Step one is to trust their retailers. Most retailers already have seafood sustainability programs in place, and they’re often posted online. Step two is to ask questions of their retailer—find out where their seafood is from, whether there’s third-party certification for the product, and how long it’s been on the shelf. And finally, choose the products that have one of the sustainable seafood certifications on their labels. Consumers can choose the certification that most aligns with their specific environmental concerns. Miller also suggests another helpful resource, sustainablefisheries-uw.org, where Ray Hilborn, PhD, and colleagues at the University of Washington offer a primer on the science of seafood sustainability and practical ways consumers can take action.
Tips for RDs
Opportunity abounds for RDs to broaden their clients’ palates and help them transition to eating more seafood. Miller says given the many benefits to eating seafood, RDs can more easily motivate clients by personalizing information and recommendations. “We know behavior change is hard. Changes in habits often are formed when people feel a personal connection to something. I encourage you, during counseling, to find a way to personalize messages to your client in a way that will move them. Do they have a grandmother who struggled with macular degeneration? Seafood is good for the eyes. Does heart disease run in their family? Seafood has protective benefits for the heart. Do they have a child struggling in school? Seafood has been shown to improve focus and behavior in school-aged children. There’s science behind these benefits, and adding more seafood in the diet doesn’t have to be difficult.”4-9
Kent offers the following tips for helping shoppers integrate more seafood into their diets:
• Designate one day of the week where there’s always seafood on offer. “Setting a designated day like Seafood Saturday can make it easier to reach the recommended two servings a week,” Kent says.
• Choose frozen. Frozen seafood is as nutritious as fresh and frequently is sold in single-serve packages for convenience. “Often times, you can find a variety of individually portioned seafood choices like salmon and cod in the frozen section of the seafood department,” Kent says. “Having seafood options in your freezer can make it easy to incorporate one of your recommended servings any day of the week.”
• Try new varieties. RDs should encourage clients to try different types of seafood and not just stick to their old favorites. “An item many do not think of when it comes to heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids is mussels. Frozen mussels are already cooked and sometimes come flavored in tomato- or wine-based sauce. In just minutes, you can have a delicious, heart-healthy seafood dish on the table and ready for dinner,” Kent says.
• Add that special touch before cooking. Breading seafood is a sure hit for families. Kent suggests coating mild fish such as cod or haddock in panko breadcrumbs or crushed cornflakes for homemade fish sticks.
• Reach for canned seafood. Suggest clients “stock up on canned tuna and try adding it into classic recipes like meatballs or burgers. Canned tuna is a quick and affordable seafood option you can have on hand at all times,” Kent says.
• Cook fish as you would meat. Clients can cook and flavor fish as if it were beef and poultry. “For example, if [they] love grilling, try swordfish or tuna steak. Fan of tacos? Mahi-mahi, cod, and haddock are all great options to switch up [their] protein offering on taco night. Love burgers? Swap out beef for salmon,” Kent says.
• Rave about new seafood innovations on the market. Clients will be pleased to know about all the convenience items available in the grocery aisles. Recommend clients “pick up a pouch of salmon or a flavored tuna packet for lunch or a snack on the go. Packed with protein and omega-3 fatty acids, these items can be a great addition to salad, mixed into microwavable minute brown rice, or scooped up with whole grain crackers and crunchy veggies such as endive leaves and baby bell peppers,” Kent says.
To be sure, RDs have an opportunity to take advantage of the industry’s pivot and subsequent seafood surge. They can use this time to teach curious consumers how fish can be part of their everyday home cooking. Dietitians can share recipes for fresh fish from the seafood counter, and also encourage clients to visit the myriad choices in the freezer and the shelf-stable aisles. RDs also can help them develop their own and even their kids’ taste for seafood, too, by choosing interesting new products, from seafood noodles to preseasoned pouches to cheesy salmon dogs. Rarely have consumers been so eager for new information about their food, and rarely have RDs and other health care professionals had so many options and products to help their clients.
— Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, is a mom of two grown boys with a specialty in family nutrition and wellness. She shares recipes and healthful living advice on LizsHealthyTable.com and her podcast, EAT, DRINK, LIVE LONGER. Weiss is a cooking instructor, frequent lifestyle guest on TV shows across the country, and a Have a Plant Ambassador for the Produce for Better Health Foundation.
1. FMI Power of Seafood 2021 provides insights on ways to maintain strong seafood sales. FMI website. https://www.fmi.org/newsroom/latest-news/view/2021/02/23/fmi-power-of-seafood-2021-provides-insights-on-ways-to-maintain-strong-seafood-sales. Published February 23, 2021.
2. US Department of Agriculture, US Department of Health and Human Services. 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf. Published December 2020.
3. Ruggless R. Pent-up demand grows as restaurants reopen during pandemic. Nation’s Restaurant News. May 11, 2020. https://www.nrn.com/operations/pent-demand-grows-restaurants-reopen-pandemic
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