Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Without Humor I Will Not Survive Grad School, and Arguably Without Fish, Neither Will My Brain.

And now for something completely different....

During group time I mentioned that London (and the surrounding UK) are going to suffer a huge economic and cultural setback in direct concert with the death of the cod sources due to overfishing (The complaint group's was that London's food is too expensive.). I am no Amazing Kreskin with a preternatural sense of ocean lore, I am reading Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood, by Taras Grescoe (ISBN: 1596912251). I really can only make it through a few pages a day as frankly, the book pisses me off. It is amazingly well-written and researched, but the idea that this is all information any of us can have and yet the Charlie the Tuna and Gorton's Fisherman are cultural phenomena here infuriates the point where I have given up seafood for a month to see if I really miss it (It is not nutritionally necessary to humans to consume fish sources as long as nutrients are accounted for through other sources.). But that's another mess entirely. Here is an excerpt taken from the introduction of the book which will help give me focus in my search for sustainable and secure food systems. Please to enjoy....

I love seafood. And by seafood, I mean fresh-caught sardines as well as raw salmon tartare; piles of just-peeled coldwater shrimp and trays of raw flat-shelled oysters; sesame-oil-drenched jellyfish salad and deep-fried haddock; in fact just about any squirmy, wriggly, fishy, edible thing that comes out of the ocean. I have some almost every day.

Let me explain. Ten years ago I cut meat and poultry out of my diet and limited my flesh-eating to fish. I had read too many news items about growth hormones, factory farms, and antibiotics to feel good about a regular diet of steaks, burgers, and chicken; the alternative, organic meat, was expensive and at the time hard to find. (In the years that followed, as the mad cow scandal broke and it became advisable to treat salmonellosis-laden raw chicken in your kitchen as if it were a biotoxin, it was a decision I had no cause to regret.) Seafood seemed like a logical choice: fish not only had half the fat of beef but also seemed to be in endless supply. The oceans were immense and apparently inexhaustible. True, the cod fishery off Newfoundland had recently collapsed, but that, I figured, was a fluke that could be blamed on bad science, greed, and inept bureaucrats. The supermarket shelves were still piled high with canned tuna, the fast-food joints were selling bargain all-you-can-eat shrimp, and a fillet of Atlantic salmon was cheaper than it had ever been. There were lots more fish in the sea. There would always be lots more fish in the sea.

I quickly began to discover the advantages of being a piscivore, a fish eater. A seafood meal, after all, is one of life's great simple pleasures. Find a pier, a creek, or a fishing hole, dangle a hooked line into the water, and with a bit of luck (as well as a fire, some foil, and a wedge of lemon), you've got dinner. Centuries after agricultural societies replaced game and fowl with domesticated livestock, and venison and partridge became rarities reserved for the tables of the the rich, there are still hunter-gatherers going to sea—fishermen—who bring back a form of game that people of all classes can afford to eat. In most supermarkets, fish is the only real wild food, a product not created by industrial agriculture, that you are likely to find.

And human beings will eat just about any kind of seafood, no matter how daunting. South Americans enjoy the picoroco, a huge edible barnacle with a Krakatoa-shaped shell that conceals a golf-ball-sized sphere of glistening white flesh, as sweet as crabmeat. The French have figured out a way to make the reproductive organs of the cuttlefish, la pousse de la seiche, into a delicacy, and the Japanese long ago mastered the art of making the poisonous pufferfish into sashimi. More astonishing to me is the fact that anybody eats the hagfish, a lampreylike bottom-dweller that haunts abyssal depths two miles beneath the surface. Lacking a spine, a gas bladder, or even a jaw, it employs a rasping tongue to burrow into its prey. Marine biologists who find whale corpses on the ocean bottom often observe that the flesh of the dead giants is actually crawling—a grisly submarine puppet show courtesy of the thousands of hagfish writhing through the rotten meat. Threatened by a shark, the hagfish will excrete mucins from dozens of pores, choking its attacker's gills with gallons of rapidly expanding slime. (It then sloughs off the mucus by tying itself into a bow and squirming the knot down its body.) The hagfish gets my vote as the most repellent fish in the sea. Yet Koreans consider it a delicacy: they import nine million pounds a year and savor it as an appetizer after broiling it in sesame oil.

Entire cultures have built elaborate identities around the cooking and consumption of seafood. In a world of homogenized fast food and microwavable frozen dinners, seafood cultures serve as bastions of local tradition. To be Venetian is to have grown up with the taste of spaghetti alle vongole veraci (though the Lagoon's native bivalves have succumbed to pollution and must now be replaced with Manila clams). To be Japanese is to know the rituals of the sushi bar, the taste of seaweed-wrapped salmon roe, and the fact that the finest cut of the finest tuna you can order is called o-toro (though bluefin is now in such short supply that Tokyo's sushi bar owners are substituting other red-fleshed meat, like smoked venison and horse). And to have lived on the shores of Chesapeake Bay is to fetishize deep-fried clam strips, the taste of breaded and battered oysters, and all the pleasures of a shoreline-kitsch-drenched seafood shack (even if the crab in the cakes you are eating happen to be Asian swimming crabs, flash-frozen in Indonesia and air-freighted to Washington, D.C.).

Fish have shaped human history. From medieval times the vast shoals of herring that annually poured down from Scandinavia forged Dutch and English seapower and created the wealth of the Hanseatic League and thus the balance of power that drew the map of Europe. Fish are responsible for humanity's spread across the globe: the technology for curing cod allowed men to undertake long sea voyages, permitted the Vikings to raid England and France and settle Iceland, and brought the Basque whalers to the Grand Banks.

And there is increasing evidence that, were it not for seafood, we would not be human at all. Life began in the sea, about four billion years ago, and the ancestors of all mammals were fish that crawled out of the oceans and colonized the land 360 million years ago. Since the remains of the earliest humans were found in what is now African savannah, anthropologists have long believed that man's ancestors left the forests for the open plains, in the process evolving the upright gait that led to bipedal humans. But recent research on pollen records has shown that four million years ago such regions were not Serengeti-like plains at all but heavily wooded shorefront environment. Protohumans such as Lucy, like most of her kin, evolved close to the water.

These seaside roots may explain why our brains weigh twice as much as those of our closest early human relative, Homo habilis. Around two million years ago the hominid cranium started to expand, with an exponential growth spurt occurring about one hundred thousand years ago. Evidence from shell middens around early human settlements shows that this is exactly the time people started eating seafood in great quantities. Brain size is limited by the availability of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, one of the fatty acids found in omega-3 supplements), without which it is impossible for the body to build brain cell membranes. The only place this acid is abundant in the food chain is in fish from the world's oceans, lakes, and rivers. It is likely our seafood-rich diet provided the nutrients that make us the world's brainiest primate. Without fish, we might still be microcephalic apes, swinging through the trees.

For generations, mothers have known that fish is brain food. It turns out that forcing children to choke down cod liver oil—or its modern equivalent, a capsule of omega-3 fatty acids— is a very good idea indeed. The human brain is 60 percent fat, and the kinds of fat you eat determine what your brain cells are made of. At the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the protein in the Western diet came from nest-laid eggs, beef and milk from grass-fed cows, and other free-range animals, all of which have higher levels of omega-3s than their industrially farmed counterparts. Starting about 1960 an unplanned study in brain chemistry has been taking place, one whose subject is the entire population of North America and much of Europe. Around that time corn and soybean oils and grain-fed livestock, all of which are relatively low in omega-3s but high in the structurally similar omega-6s, became the dominant sources of fat in our diets. Both forms of omega fatty acids are essential for making cell membranes more liquid, but people who have high levels of omega-3s—sometimes called the happy acids—are less prone to depression, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease. Thanks to half a century of consuming cheap vegetable oils, the average cell membrane of an American is now only 20 percent omega-3-based fats. In cultures where fish is still a staple, such as Japan, the average cell membrane is 40 percent omega-3 based.

The results of this experiment may already be in. In 1998 a paper in the British medical journal the Lancet showed that major depression spiked in New Zealand, Germany, the United States, and other countries with lower rates of fish consumption, but declined in such seafood-loving cultures as Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. In Europe suicide is highest in such landlocked countries as Austria and Hungary (where per capita consumption of fish is, respectively, 25 pounds and 10 pounds a year) and lowest among seafood-eating Portuguese (125 pounds) and Norwegians (114 pounds). A researcher with the American National Institutes of Health has shown that a mother's consumption of omega-3s during pregnancy can predict her child's intelligence and fine motor skills. The children of women who had consumed the smallest amount of omega-3s, the study found, had verbal IQs six points lower than the average. Telltale signs of a lack of omega-3s include dry skin and dandruff, lifeless hair, brittle nails, and raised bumps on the skin. Perhaps most surprisingly, a lack of omega-3s seems to predict antisocial behavior: a daily dose of fish oils given to inmates in an English young offenders' prison reduced recidivism by 30 percent.

Nature's richest source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are ultimately derived from oceanic plankton, is wild-caught seafood. River fish such as trout have much lower levels, as do farmed fish, which are now often plumped up with vegetable oils. Though flaxseed oil is also a source of omega-3s, the human body is inefficient at converting it into DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), the latter of which is essential for cardiovascular health. Most national public health authorities now recommend having at least two meals of fish, especially such fatty species as mackerels and sardines, a week.

"There are no limits to Jeeves's brain power," Bertie Wooster once marveled about his fictional gentleman's gentleman. Author P. G. Wodehouse repeatedly had the clueless Wooster attributing his manservant's intelligence to his seafood-heavy diet: "He virtually lives on fish. If I had even half his brains, I would take a shot at being prime minister."

The evidence may be circumstantial, but I concur: if getting more omega-3s in my diet means lowering my risks of major depression, dementia, Alzheimer's, suicide, and ending up in prison, then eating fish is a no-brainer.
-from the Introduction of Bottomfeeder.

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