Fishing is a big industry in the Northwest, but scientists say only about 30-40% of a fish is consumed by humans. Mostly the byproduct is thrown away or sold for pet food filler. At the Oregon State University Seafood Lab in Astoria, researchers are hard at work to change that with the help of a grant from a national food and agriculture research foundation. OSU Food Science and Technology professor Jung Kwon says she hopes the project proves it’s feasible to use fish byproducts into tasty food for humans, with the potential for both reducing food waste and helping with global hunger. She joins us as well as Tim Kurt, the Scientific Program Director with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, who says the potential for sustainable aquaculture has yet to be fully realized.

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The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. Can fish bones, heads, and skin, that are currently thrown away, be turned into ingredients for human food or dietary supplements? That’s one of the key questions that researchers at Oregon State University hope to answer using money from a recent grant. In a few minutes, we’ll hear from the grant making foundation, but first I’m joined by Jung Kwon, an assistant professor of food science and technology at OSU. Jung Kwon, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Jung Kwon: Thanks Dave. It’s my pleasure to be here.

Miller: What currently happens to large amounts of fish bones and heads and skin if those fish are primarily caught for their filets?

Kwon: Those typically are called byproducts from this seafood processing, they are primarily used to generate fishmeals currently. These fishmeals are typically used for feed for agriculture or livestock animals, or sometimes fertilizers.

Miller: So there are markets for this, either just to use to grow livestock or to grow food or to grow fish. What’s the idea behind using these byproducts not to grow other food, but for human consumption?

Kwon: Right, that’s really the key question under this project. The fundamental idea of this project is to target two big challenging global issues, which are nutritional insecurity for the human population, as well as environmental sustainability. These two issues are really interconnected if you think about it, because how we eat and how we produce food has such a fundamental impact to our health and our planet’s health.

Miller: Let’s take those one by one. In terms of nutritional instability, does it boil down to the fear that we won’t have enough protein to feed seven or eight billion humans as we go forward?

Kwon: That is correct. Currently, the estimation is about one billion people worldwide are suffering from food protein deficiency. In certain parts of the world, the issues are more exacerbated than others. And this will continue to worsen as the global population increases.

Miller: And then there’s the related version of sustainability, meaning the fear that in order to grow or create enough protein to feed those one billion people, we don’t want to do it in such a way that creates way more greenhouse gasses. So where do fish come in?

Kwon: Fish is one of the primary dietary sources for humans currently. But one of the challenges the seafood industry has is the processing of these fish and seafood products for human consumption, it creates the large amount of byproducts you are describing. Currently, the estimation is about only 30-40% of the raw material harvested is being utilized for human consumption, and the rest is ending up as a byproduct or discard that has a limited use and value.

Miller: If we’re talking about fish, some of the stuff sounds gross because we’ve been conditioned to think of it as gross, like fish guts and stomachs and organs. Other things people do eat, fish skin, fish heads, fish eyes. But when you talk about a large percentage by weight of what’s caught not being eaten currently by humans, how much of it do you think can be eaten after it’s processed?

Kwon: So what we are trying to do in this project is to answer some of the questions that you just asked, and to develop ways to maximize the use of specifically protein from this product. So in the project, we are trying to recover and purify protein from various seafood processing byproducts.

Miller: What are some of the possibilities for what you think you might then be able to do? The way I imagine this, and this is probably not accurate or way oversimplified, but I imagine putting a bunch of fish gunk into a blender, blending it up, and then using various chemical processes to extract the protein. First of all, is there anything like that?

Kwon: That is somewhat similar to what we are actually conducting. One of the initial steps will be actually mixing and homogenizing the various tissues that we have, and applying some methods that can extract protein from it.

Miller: Once you do that, what do you imagine some of the applications would be? You’ll have this processed fish protein, what do you think you could do with it?

Kwon: We are hoping to do a lot of things. One of the directions that we are trying to pursue is developing novel food products that contain this fish protein as a main ingredient, or other types of supplement products with high protein content and use the fish protein isolate as a supplementary protein. We are also considering the approaches to develop food aid fortification formulations, which can be used for humanitarian types of purpose.

Miller: Some kind of supplemental food, or pouches of protein that people could be given if they really need sustenance?

Kwon: That’s correct.

Miller: Four years ago we went to the OSU Surimi School, it’s basically a lab in Astoria, connected to OSU, where Jae Park, who created it, introduced us to noodles, fish cakes, pizza dough, and 25 other creations all made out of fish protein. Is what you’re talking about different from Surimi, or decades old technology?

Kwon: The current day Surimi is primarily produced from fish muscle, basically fish filet, which it’s not not considered as a byproduct that we are trying to utilize in our projects.

Miller: So you’re really focused on the stuff that humans are currently not eating at all, as opposed to just repurposing fish filets that people might eat in their most basic form.

Kwon: That is correct.

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Miller: I imagine that one of the issues, a big one that you’re going to have to wrestle with, is commercial viability. In other words, it can’t cost so much to turn what’s currently a byproduct into a new product for human consumption, if the processing cost is too high to make it to make it pencil out for seafood processors. How do you think about economics when you’re starting with basic science?

Kwon: Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the things that we are focusing on in the project is the commercialibility, and how easily this method can be adopted by the commercial processors. So we are considering the economic aspects of the methods that we are using. And I think in the long term, this is something the seafood industry will be interested in, because it will at least be generating products that are higher in value than what it is currently.

Miller: In other words, and that’s one of the reasons why they gave matching money for this grant, is that’s their hope too, that they can actually in the end, instead of selling ground up fish bones for fishmeal for, I don’t know, I imagine pennies, they can still instead sell something for more. That’s their hope.

Kwon: That is correct.

Miller: Is it going to be challenging to get a fishy taste out of this fish protein?

Kwon: That is one of the challenges we are anticipating. And of course, that will be one of our focuses, to purify the protein as much as we can, and minimize any fishy odor and flavor that can be a limiting factor to use this product in our food products.

Miller: Because if this is going to go into a protein shake replacing protein from whey, people may not want it to taste like a Mcdonald’s filet of fish.

Kwon: That’s right. And some other ways is incorporating this material into products where fish flavor can be acceptable, such as fish bowls or some noodle products or soup products.

Miller: Jung Kwon, thanks very much.

Kwon: Thank you for having me.

Miller: Jung Kwan is an assistant professor of food science and technology. She’s based at OSU’s Seafood Research and Education Center in Astoria. Her lab recently received a grant to try to turn seafood byproducts into food for humans.

We’re gonna turn now to the organization that made that grant. Tim Kurt is a scientific program director with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. Tim Kurt, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Tim Kurt: Hi Dave, thanks for having me.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. How does this grant fit into the larger project of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture?

Kurt: Well, we do a lot of work on environmental sustainability, and improving the efficiency of food production. So this grant is a really important part of that. We have a number of other grants that are related to aquaculture production and improving nutritional security. So this really fits the overall portfolio and goals of the foundation quite well.

Miller: How much room do you see for innovation in aquaculture, which as we heard, could be related to what’s happening here?

Kurt: I think there’s quite a lot of room for growth in aquaculture. Broadly speaking, it’s a really diverse industry that covers a lot of different species. We have to remember that this is a sector that includes shellfish, like oysters and scallops, as well as finfish, like catfish in freshwater systems, but also salt water systems like Atlantic salmon, as well as shrimp, and even seaweeds. It’s a relatively small sector in the United States, but it’s growing rapidly. In fact, it’s the fastest growing food producing sector globally. And so there’s a lot of research needed and a lot of room for innovation.

Miller: Where do you think that the most growth is in aquaculture, the most potential for growth in the US?

Kurt: That’s a really good question. I think, really, if we could open up some of the offshore systems of waters of the US to aquaculture production for appropriately managed aquaculture systems, there’s huge potential for growth there. That’s where I think there’s really a lot of untapped potential.

Miller: Another way to look at the grant that we just heard from Jung Kwon is about reducing food waste. Are there other initiatives at the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research that really get at the question of reducing food waste at an industrial level?

Kurt: Absolutely Dave, good question. We have made awards related to drying of grains to reduce spoilage, we have awards that are related to actual harvesting of foods in the field to prevent a loss of those foods. So it’s not really the waste so much as the loss. And then we’ve done some work on understanding consumer behavior and food waste or loss at the consumer level as well.

Miller: And that’s something that you can figure out, consumer changes? Because I feel like once it gets to people’s refrigerators and things go bad or they buy too much, it seems like the game is already over.

Kurt: Yeah that’s part of the challenge, really, is trying to better understand what are some of the levers that we can pull to improve the efficiency of the use of those products, and reduce the waste, because as you probably know, those waste products actually are responsible for emissions when they reach the landfill.

Of course, there’s other opportunities, like composting and things like that. We’ve got some research in progress that will really try to uncover what can be done, and to take advantage of where that’s possible.

Miller: What are some of the other agricultural innovations you’re most excited about right now?

Kurt: Outside of this area, we have a number of different research areas right now. I’m heavily involved in a program that’s aiming to reduce enteric methane emissions from cattle. So that obviously ties into the climate topic. We have a very large program related to trying to use agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a large scale, called AgMission, that we’re really excited about. I have programs on antibiotic stewardship, but also a really interesting one on eggs where we’re trying to reduce the loss of eggs in the layer industry. So just a whole lot of different things. We’ve got a ton of exciting projects at the Foundation for Food and Ag Research.

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