American consumers are poised to eat more fish and seafood. That’s one of the big takeaways from recent research by Changing Tastes into what proteins Americans intend to eat in the year ahead, and it’s great news for foodservice operators looking to advance sustainability efforts, reduce their carbon footprint and grow their business.
Today, only about half of Americans consider themselves regular meat eaters. Over the past year, about one in 11 decided to eat a bit less meat in the coming year as we look for more control over our health because of COVID. All told, four in 10 of us want to eat a bit less meat, and the top choice is to replace it with fish and seafood.
The group poised to drive the biggest increase are the more-than-half of adults who now eat fish and seafood between once a month and once a week. That’s less than the twice-perweek U.S. dietary guidelines.
Millennials and Gen Z make up the largest share of these occasional eaters. They are also more likely to eat some or all of their fish and seafood in restaurants and are less likely to cook it for themselves. That’s a great opportunity for food service operators.
Younger diners are also defining what sustainability for fish and seafood means in foodservice, as they both look to reduce the environmental footprint of their food choices and also understand that their health is connected to the health of our oceans.
Food choices with a smaller footprint
One of the biggest motivations for younger diners is to reduce the environmental footprint of their food choices. More than half of adults would choose fish and seafood more often if they knew it had a smaller environmental footprint than other options. That number is much higher among Millennials and Gen Z-ers.
Food service operators aren’t yet as focused on this opportunity as they could, or perhaps should, be. Our research at Changing Tastes found that only about a third of operators are inclined to put more fish and seafood on the menu if they know it has a smaller environmental footprint.
Letting diners know that choosing fish and seafood can help lower their carbon footprint isn’t just good business. It impacts a foodservice operator’s leadership in sustainability.
Over the past fifteen years, foodservice operators have led Americans to reduce the amount of red meat we eat. The changes we’ve made in our recipes and menus, including using the plant-forward culinary strategy I developed a decade ago, have reduced the nation’s carbon footprint by 15%. That’s a remarkable accomplishment from just doing our jobs compared to the costly “solutions” debated for the transportation and energy sectors. Additionally, the switch from meat to fish or seafood at just one meal a week can get us to 20% of our nation’s overall reduction goals that President Biden committed to at last year’s global climate change summit in Glasgow.
It’s also important to note that the carbon footprint of different types of fish and seafood varies substantially. Here are five things to consider when working with your seafood supplier to choose the most sustainable choices:
- Avoid products with a notably high carbon footprint. Air-freighted farmed salmon, intensively raised farmed shrimp and fish like halibut and cod that are caught by bottom trawling (or dragging nets across the ocean floor) all have bigger carbon footprints than other kinds of fish and seafood – and other common proteins. While most rating and certification programs don’t “red list” particular seafood because of antibiotics, animal welfare or plastic pollution, they also almost never rate or certify these kinds as sustainable because of their impact on ocean health.
- Look for frozen, canned, super-chilled and cured products. All of these are much less perishable, which means they can be shipped using more energy efficient means. They can also last longer at your operation, which reduces food waste. Moving away from highly perishable, air freighted fish is a smart move during COVID, especially, when diner traffic is harder to predict.
- Create the market for antibiotic free (again). Just like food service has led the poultry industry, we can lead the seafood industry to a healthier future. Ask your seafood supplier for reasonably priced farmed varieties like salmon and shrimp, and let them know your preference is to always buy antibiotic free, which can create a dependable market for better producers. With fish and seafood, the health consequences of antibiotic resistance infections are the same, but they often occur in other countries where public health monitoring isn’t as advanced as it is in the U.S.
- Know where your fish comes from. Americans ate about $2B in fish and seafood caught illegally and in unregulated waters in 2019, according to the U.S International Trade Commission in its write up about illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Almost a third of fish and seafood is mislabeled, and that means that foodservice operators may be overpaying for higher priced items while receiving something else. Work with your seafood distributor to ensure there’s traceability back to the fishery or even the boat for everything you buy.
- Diversify your mix. Food service operators can help diners explore new flavors and reduce the footprint of their meal by expanding their offerings beyond these common choices and consider less popular varieties of both farmed and wild seafood, which often are also less expensive.
Helping diners switch from meat to fish for at least one meal a week is also critical because, if they don’t make the change, analysis from our research at Changing Tastes shows that the carbon footprint from Americans’ protein choices is poised to increase. Americans have reached the limits on smaller portion sizes, and most have decided not to eat manufactured meat alternatives after giving them a try during COVID. That isn’t to say diners aren’t interested in eating meals made with plants, but they want scratch-cooked foods, not manufactured replacements, while fish and seafood is now our top preference for replacing meat.
What diners know about sustainability and what you can teach them
Diners' concerns about ocean health and what’s in the fish and seafood we eat are making many diners — particularly younger ones and those who eat it occasionally – hesitant to follow through on their intentions to actually eat fish and seafood more often. Mercury and industrial pollutants, microplastics and antibiotics are now all top of mind for diners thinking about whether or not to choose fish and seafood.
Diners’ concerns are also helping the food service industry better define what sustainability for fish and seafood looks like and how ocean health and our health are connected. Food service operators can help diners be more confident about increasing their seafood consumption. Some facts to consider include:
- Antibiotic use in food production is a major public health risk. Most fish and seafood, including everything wild caught, are free of antibiotics. Better aquaculture producers are also working to reduce antibiotic use. There’s now antibiotic free farmed salmon on the market, and the U.S. government has stepped up inspections and rejection of imported shrimp containing antibiotics.
- Mercury is a real concern. It accumulates at the “top of the food chain” among a few carnivorous species that eat other fish and seafood The Food and Drug Administration has identified seven kinds as high in mercury: Shark, big eye tuna, swordfish, marlin, king mackerel and orange roughy, and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico. By not serving these varieties, it’s easier to help diners address their concerns about mercury.
- Plastic pollution has changed our oceans. We are still working to understand all the health and environmental impacts. Commercial fishing has been a major source of plastic pollution from discarded fishing lines, nets and other gear. But leading fishing companies are working to eliminate plastic waste and even pull it out of our oceans. You can ask distributors to help you buy from companies that are plastic neutral and also let diners know what steps you’re taking to eliminate plastic in your own operations.
Want a deeper dive? Helping diners not be afraid of the water, and urging them to give fish and seafood a second chance each week, are part of a new messaging platform Changing Tastes recently developed. The new messaging and marketing ideas, along with more market research, are available at www.changingtastes.net/more. These tools are aimed at helping restaurants and others in the food industry use fish and seafood to continue to lead on sustainability and better serve diners.