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The Future

Are Jellyfish the Food of the Future?

People have eaten jellyfish in several Asian countries for centuries. But this gelatinous marine animal still hasn’t made its way into the Western menu.

If you have spent time by the coast or around rivers, you have probably seen, felt or even been stung by jellyfish. They come in a range of shapes, sizes and colours, and many of them are entirely edible. Yet, many countries and cultures still don’t consider them a part of the culinary repertoire. But with limited global resources and a growing demand for food, it begs the question - should we be diversifying our diets to include jellyfish?

What are jellyfish?

Known for their gelatinous, umbrella-shaped bodies and trailing tentacles, jellyfish are marine animals belonging to the biological phylum Cnidaria. Some species - particularly those belonging to the Rhizostomeae order - form the basis of popular dishes in several Asian countries.1 Jellyfish are also low in calories, with an average of less than 20 Kcal per 100g serving, varying between species.2 In terms of their composition, jellyfish are fairly simple creatures - containing primarily water and protein, with minimal sugar and no detectable crude fat or cholesterol. Jellyfish are also rich in minerals such as sodium (Na), calcium (Ca), potassium (K), and magnesium (Mg) - although, when processed, they lose most of these salts.2 Some species also seem to have remarkable antioxidant abilities.3

The type of protein found in jellyfish is mainly collagen - which is not a complete protein, but is important for skin, joint, and bone health.

Where are jellyfish currently eaten?

For over a thousand years, China has commercially exploited jellyfish as a food source, and the harvesting and consumption of certain jellyfish species remains popular in the country and across Southeast Asia. However, the jellyfish industry has only become a commercial fishery in the past couple of decades, with countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines learning traditional processing techniques from northern China. Today, the jellyfish industry represents a multi-million-dollar seafood business in Asia, with the animals often being processed into a dried product and then utilised in various dishes, like salads, sushi and noodles.1,2 More recently, countries from other regions of the world, like Mexico, Ecuador, and the USA, have also developed jellyfish fisheries, mainly exporting to the primary consumers in Asia.4

We may see more jellyfish, but should we use them?

While jellyfish play an important ecological role as a food source for dozens of other marine animals, local communities and scientists worldwide are raising concerns about an increase in jellyfish blooms.5 Jellyfish blooms are large and sudden increases in the animal’s population density in a specific area of a body of water. While periodic fluctuations in the abundance of jellyfish populations are natural, blooms seem to have been increasing in many coastal areas, with human activities being the suspected culprits.6,7

For example, ocean ‘dead zones’ associated with excess nutrients leaching into waterways from human activities have been linked to a rise in certain jellyfish blooms. Overfishing has also eliminated jellyfish predators and competitors, leading to increases in specific jellyfish populations. Water temperatures, expected to increase in the coming decades due to climate change, may also impact the abundance of some jellyfish species, leading to their decrease in some regions, like the tropics, and an increase in temperate-boreal populations.8

Jellyfish blooms can lead to decreased tourist revenue due to beach closures and potential harm to swimmers, power disruptions caused by clogging cooling intakes at coastal power plants, damage to fishing nets and contamination of catches, disruption of acoustic fish assessments, mortality of farmed fish, and a decline in commercial fish abundance due to increased competition and predation.9 For example, some data suggests that increasing jellyfish blooms in the Mediterranean are negatively affecting certain species of commercially important fish, like sardines and anchovies, due to the jellyfish eating the fish larvae and juveniles.10

It is important to note, however, that while some scientists have warned about the possibility of a transition from a fish to a jellyfish ocean in some areas of the world, others argue that we do not have enough evidence to support an increase in jellyfish blooms, due to the lack of reliable long time-series data of jellyfish populations.5,11

Regardless of whether jellyfish blooms are increasing, they frequently occur in coastal areas like the Mediterranean. And when they do, they can present a number of challenges to local industries like fisheries and tourism.

Will we see jellyfish on the Western menu?

With climate change and the ongoing impacts of anthropogenic activities on the environment, scientific research and international organisations are urging us to change global food consumption patterns towards more sustainable behaviours.12 With the perceived increase of jellyfish blooms in certain parts of the world and their potential adverse effect on marine ecosystems, some see incorporating jellyfish into the Western diet as part of that change.13

However, the commercial exploitation of jellyfish in Western countries faces substantial challenges. Jellyfish is still an unfamiliar food for many, and it’s likely that people would be reluctant to incorporate this unknown ingredient into their diet.13 Would you feel completely comfortable sitting down to a bowl of jellyfish salad on your lunch break?

Furthermore, many Western countries lack national safety and quality standards for jellyfish foods and have a limited understanding of jellyfish fishing methods, as well as the handling and stabilisation protocols needed to adhere to food safety standards.14 For example, in the EU, according to the European Regulation 2015/2283 of 25/11/2015, jellyfish are considered “novel foods” coming from traditional foods in a third country.15 This means that while they are enabled to be commercialised, they must first follow specific rules and meet specific safety standards before they can be sold legally. As of writing this article, jellyfish as food has not yet been authorised in the EU.16

It is also important to note that only some jellyfish species are edible and that their populations exhibit significant variability in abundance from year to year, posing additional challenges to investments in infrastructure for establishing new fisheries.

With this in mind, the unlocking of new avenues for integrating jellyfish into Western cuisine appears to hinge on the advancement of processing technologies that can help jellyfish products crack into new Western markets. To grow these new markets, we need demand - which comes from better knowledge and public normalisation of jellyfish as a food source.

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