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Various seafood products
Various seafood products
FAO/FIIU Photo Library

As with many animal products, fish and fishery products contain water, proteins and other nitrogenous compounds, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins. However, the chemical composition of fish varies greatly from one species and one individual fish to another depending on age, sex, environment and season.

Proteins and lipids are the major components whereas carbohydrates are detected at very limited levels (less than 0.5 percent). Vitamin content is comparable to that of mammals except for vitamins A and D which are found in large amounts in the meat of fatty species, especially in the liver of species such as cod and halibut. As for minerals, fish meat is a particularly valuable source of calcium and phosphorus as well as iron, copper and selenium. In addition, saltwater fish contain high levels of iodine.

Depending on their lipid content, which varies greatly from 0.2 percent to 25 percent, fish are classified as lean, semi-fatty or fatty. Bottom-dwelling ground fish such as cod, saithe and hake are common lean species. Fatty species include pelagics such as herring, mackerel and sprat. Some species store lipids in limited parts of their body tissues only or in smaller quantities than typical fatty species, and are consequently termed semi-fatty (e.g. barracuda, mullet and shark).

Breaded fishsticks
Breaded fishsticks
FAO/FIIU Photo Library

Fish lipids contrast greatly from mammalian lipids in that they include up to 40 percent of long-chain fatty acids that are highly unsaturated and contain five or six double bonds. This difference entails both health (anti-thrombotic activity of polyunsaturated fatty acids) and technological (rapid development of rancidity) implications.

Proteins are the second-most important fish constituent. These comprise structural proteins (actin, myosin, tropormyosin and actomyosin), sarcoplasmic proteins (myoalbumin, globulin and enzymes) and connective tissue proteins (collagen). Fish proteins contain all the essential amino acids and, like milk, eggs and mammalian meat proteins, have a very high biological value. In addition, fish proteins are an excellent source of lysine, methionine and cysteine, and can significantly raise the value of cereal-based diets, which are poor in these essential amino acids.

Fish also has a non-protein nitrogen (NPN) fraction made of water-soluble, low molecular weight, nitrogen-containing compounds of a non-protein nature. This NPN-fraction constitutes from 9 to 18 percent of the total nitrogen in teleosts, including trimethylamine oxide (TMAO), free amino acids, creatine and carnosine. Despite their low levels, the constituents of the NPN fraction play a major role in fish quality.

 
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