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Analysis by:Bill Manci, President, Fisheries Technology Associates, Inc. and consultant with Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG)

Palm oil is being touted as a less-expensive alternative to fish oil in farmed fish diets. While this might make good economic sense, the ramifications to human health may be problematic

June 4, 2010

Analysis by Bill Manci, President, Fisheries Technology Associates, Inc. He consults with leading institutions through Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG).

Palm oil is being touted as a less-expensive alternative to fish oil in farmed fish diets.  While this might make good economic sense, the ramifications to human health may be problematic.

Some soul-searching may be required as we look for new and better ways to replace fish oil in fish feeds. Recent research from Malaysia makes me a bit nervous, and more than a bit concerned about our priorities.

I read an article that suggests using palm oil as a substitute for fish oil in fish diets. The rationale for this change is four-pronged (Palm Oil Replaces Fish Oil In Tilapia Feed – Substitution Also Increases Shelf Life by Wing-Keong Ng, Ph.D.; Osan Maroof Bahurmiz, M.S.
Published in the Advocate by
 Global Aquaculture Alliance
 
First, fish oil supplies are finite and increasingly expensive as overall demand grows. We must therefore find substitutes and alternatives that are more sustainable and economically viable.
 
Second, palm oil supply is relatively abundant, and its production is supported by a vast and growing infrastructure. More palm oil is produced in the world than soybean oil!
 
Third, palm oil is much more chemically stable over time than fish oil. At 30 weeks, frozen tilapia fillets were dramatically less rancid and—not surprisingly—tasted better than fillets from fish oil-fed tilapia.
 
Finally, palm oil appears to work well technically as a replacement for fish oil. The Malaysian research suggests that palm-based feeds produce tilapia just as quickly and efficiently.
 
The pluses here are very attractive, particularly for fillets that are frozen for up to 30 weeks. As frozen fish fillets age, fats within the fillets oxidize and become rancid—a serious problem in taste and nutrition.

As much as 96 percent of this oxidation can be eliminated by using palm oil as a replacement.
 
All of this would be great, expect for one “small” point. Unlike fish oil, palm oil is a very poor source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and an abundant source of artery-clogging saturated fatty acids. To be

specific, tilapia fed a palm oil diet contain less than a third of the omega-3s as compared to fish oil-fed tilapia, and significantly higher levels of saturated fats.
 
Here is my concern. We are already beaten upside the head repeatedly by our detractors who claim that aquacultured fish are less nutritious than wild-caught alternatives (never mind their environmental

arguments!). Do we really want to add fuel to that fire by degrading the nutritional quality of our fish by replacing fish oil with palm oil?
 
No! Critics of aquaculture will have a field day! I can see it now. They will write, “Not only have these conscienceless aquaculturists reduced the omega-3 content, but they have dramatically increased the saturated fat content too!”
 
There is a socio-economic consideration here as well. I am convinced that fish producers whose sole purpose is to produce the least expensive and most freezer-stable fish fillets possible will adopt this new nutritional approach. When this happens, their products will be cheap to buy and therefore most attractive to those people in the lowest economic strata of our society. Do you see where I’m heading with this?
 
The aquaculture industry will be accused of profiteering, and exploiting the most economically disadvantaged of our society through products that are not only less nutritious, but actually degrade their health.

Does the industry want the nutritional equivalent of a McDonald’s label? I don’t think so.
 
At the same time, those consumers who can afford higher quality will continue to buy fresh fish fillets only. In all likelihood, the producers of these never-frozen fillets will avoid the palm oil diets (unless they want to practice business suicide) and produce nutritionally superior fillets by using healthier fish oil alternatives.
 
The farmed fish industry should not give aquaculture naysayers more fodder for their cannons! Let’s not be accused of socio-economic injustice. Instead, let’s focus on fish oil alternatives that avoid these pitfalls. We already know that fish oil alternatives based on marine algae and select terrestrial plants will provide many of the technical and economic benefits without the downside. They are on the market today and available to feed manufacturers.
 
In the meantime, I challenge the research community to develop better shelf-life solutions. Unless there is a magic remedy for high levels of saturated fats and low omega-3s in palm oil, we must avoid the temptation and its use.  Clearly, this is a case where the benefits do not outweigh the costs.

[Source: Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG).]

Download the March/April issue GAA's the Advocate to read thie article

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