Why Americans Don’t Eat Seafood

Three reasons stand out above all others

Paul Greenberg

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Photo by Agto Nugroho on Unsplash

When you swim the seafood beat, certain notes get played again and again. Perhaps the loudest one of all is the lament of marketers throughout the nation that Americans don’t eat more seafood. Unlike many laments of people in marketing, this assertion turns out to be true. Over the course of the last century, in spite of the fact that we control more ocean than nearly any other country on earth, we have remained a country fixated on landfood. In all Americans eat over 150 pounds of beef, pork and chicken per year. Fish and shellfish, meanwhile have languished in the 10–20 pound range for pretty much the entirety of the last century (2020, the last year for which there’s data, Americans ate 19 pounds). This in spite of the fact that fish, compared to land-based protein sources tends to be lower in saturated fat, lower in overall calories per unit of weight, higher in omega-3 fatty acids and, here’s the kicker, generally speaking, resulting in fewer carbon emissions per pound of food consumed.

Source USDA

The question of the unconsumed American Catch has been on my mind for quite a while. Of course we shouldn’t expect Americans to scarf fish down like Icelanders who sit atop the Western world at 200 pounds per year. But the French who eat 75 pounds per capita are closer to the Western average. If one takes into account that country’s extremely low rates of death by cardiovascular disease (less than half of that of the United States) then one is inclined to take fish consumption seriously.

It’s also not just how little seafood Americans consume that is problematic, it’s also the kind of seafood we prefer that puts us in a bad spot. Whereas other countries trend toward creatures with overall higher omega-3 content, Americans fall back again and again on shrimp. Of the 19 pounds of seafood Americans ate in 2020 about a quarter of them were shrimp. Not only are shrimp arguably less than ideal in terms of omega-3 payload, they also tend to come to us from farms that have destroyed millions of acres of mangrove forest. Shrimp, like 80% of the seafood Americans consume are mostly imported.

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org