Dr Annalien Dalton with the right food to help children become more astute - a paste made from the heads of stockfish on bread.
The days where fishing trawlers jettisoned the heads of fish back into the sea, or used them as crayfish bait are probably over.
Research has found that the consumption of stockfish heads has helped children improve their short-term memory, their ability to spell, as well as reduce classroom absenteeism because of a boost to their immune systems.
Dr Annalien Dalton of the Unit for Dietary Illnesses at the Medical Research Council developed a stockfish head fish paste, to be enjoyed on bread, as part of her doctoral thesis. Strict microbiological testing was conducted during the production of the paste to ensure it was safe for human consumption. Sensory tests showed that it was flavourful and that the children enjoyed it.
In a controlled study this paste on bread was given to Grade 1 and 2 learners in a Northern Cape town over a period of 104 school days. Blood samples were taken from the children before and after the study and standardised tests to determine their short-term memory, spelling, reading, recognitory skills and discriminatory ability were recorded.
The tests among the experimental group of learners revealed an improvement in their cognitive skills, and they had a lower rate of absenteeism as a result of an improvement in their immune systems. An increase in the omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid levels was also noted among the target group.
Dr Dalton, who has just received her PhD in Food Sciences from the University of Stellenbosch's Department of AgriScience, used this research as part of her doctorial studies.
She explained that the alpha-linolenic and linoleic acid from the omega-3 and omega-6 long-chain fatty acid classes were essential fatty acids, which the human body cannot produce naturally. It has to be derived from food intake, which is then converted into longer-chain fatty acids.
According to Dr Dalton it is vital to have these two fatty acid classes in the right proportions in a person's body. Ideally there should be one omega-3 fatty acid to approximately four omega-6 fatty acids.
Unhealthy western eating habits, as well as malnutrition in poor rural areas results in an imbalance in the two classes of fatty acid, which leads to a malfunction in certain biological processes in the body.
She stated that processed foods and the excessive use of cooking oils such as those derived from sunflowers were the major perpetrators in the Western diet that led to this imbalance. Research in the United States of America showed that the imbalance was as high as 1:40.
Alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid, is in the body converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Previous research has already shown that shortages of these two polyunsaturated long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are linked to other illnesses such as Alzheimer's, rheumatic type arthritis, heart ailments, Attention Defecit in children and a weak immunity system.
Taking into consideration that some people and especially elderly folk find difficulty with the conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to EPA and DHA, it is better to consume these two polyunsaturated long-chain fatty acids directly. According to Dalton, these two poly-unsaturated long-chain fatty acids are more common in oily fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel. The heads of stockfish also contain reserves of these specific fatty acids.
"It is terrible to think that such a rich source of amongst other EPA and DHA is being wasted. A fish meal made from the heads of the fish can be successfully used to enhance existing school feeding programmes. It can also be of invaluable help to HIV patients who specifically experience problems with their immune systems," said Dalton.
This fish meal can be used in various products and even served as such in a number of ways, like in a sauce on maize meal, bread or rice.
Dalton said the government and possibly the Department of Education should seriously investigate the use of fish heads as a cheap food source, which can also be a rich supply of protein, calcium and the long-chain polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.