We’ve previously written about the health benefits of eating sardines, but thanks to the work of nutrition specialist Dr. Shakuntala Thilsted, the potential of these tiny fish (along with anchovies) will be unlocked to improve the overall health and food security of impoverished communities in developing countries.
Dr. Thilsted chose to focus on integrating small fish into the diets of developing nations because they are very nutrient-dense. Anchovies, sardines, and other small fish species are great sources of unsaturated fats omega 3 and 6, which are essential for brain health and play an especially important role in brain development for the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. Sardines also have low levels of mercury because they consume only plankton, making them an excellent source of these healthy fats for pregnant and nursing mothers.
Evidence suggests that anchovies and sardines can reduce inflammation in several organs and are rich in vitamin B12, a nutrient that most other food groups (barring meat) lack. Meat is absent in many impoverished children’s diets, making vitamin B12 deficiencies quite common for children in developing countries.
Dr. Thilsted saw an opportunity for anchovies and sardines to become an affordable, sustainable, and accessible source of nutrients for families across the globe and started working on finding culturally appropriate means of introducing them to the diets of the developing world.
In Bangladesh, Dr. Thilsted decided to use a common cultural feature of Bangladeshi homes—the backyard “homestead pond.” Bangladesh is a low-lying country, which leads many people to build their homes on raised earth. To acquire the dirt necessary to lift their home, builders dig a hole on the property which eventually becomes a pond, generally used to stock larger fish species.
To convince families of the benefits of using the homestead pond for anchovies, Dr. Thilsted had to break through the stigma associated with smaller fish, as most consumers prefer larger fish like tuna, salmon, or carp. She worked to help people realize that smaller fish grow faster than large fish, and produce more food weight because their bones, which are packed with nutritional value, are brittle enough to eat.
She developed programs to spread awareness of the dietary uses of small fish in the kitchen, and how they can greatly benefit small children. One of her recommended methods is drying the fish and pulverizing it into a powder that can be added to rice or porridge to significantly boost the nutrient value of the meal.
According to WorldFish Director Gareth Johnstone, “Dr. Thilsted’s work on nutrition, fish, and aquatic foods challenges us to think very critically about the scope of agricultural research and the urgent call to action to transform global food systems towards healthy and sustainable diets for all.”
For her efforts, Dr. Thilsted was awarded the 2021 World Food Prize, which is compared to the Nobel Prize but for food and agriculture.