The question, "Is fish meat?" comes up as a hot topic almost every year. Ask a vegetarian, and they'll tell you that fish is meat. But during lent, Catholics do not eat meat, but fish are fair game. A pescatarian chooses fish and seafood as the only meat they'll eat. Why? What's up with fish getting separated from other types of animals?
Textbook definitions of the word "meat" include fish, but some religions and diets disagree.
Overall, the answer to this question is tricky depending on how you prefer to define this popular food.
The United States is not the only place where we can see this debate play out. At the end of the day, it may boil down to whether or not you view our aquatic friends as animals. We dove into many different points of view on the subject so that you can decide for yourself whether fish is meat.
Meat, fish, whatever categorization you prefer; it's important to know that consuming fish has benefits and drawbacks for everyone. Either way, here's what you need to know if you find yourself in an argument with a friend over this topic.
Definitions of Meat
The dictionary definition of meat states that meat is "the flesh of animals as used for food." (1) Operating from that definition, the question becomes whether or not fish is an animal. So, how does the dictionary define the word animal?
Scientists separate the animal kingdom into two groups: vertebrates and invertebrates.
Fish fall under the classification of a vertebrate, as they have backbones and a sensory nervous system that allows them to respond to their environment like mammals.
According to the American Meat Science Association, "meat is skeletal muscle and its associated tissues derived from mammalian, avian, reptilian, amphibians, and aquatic species commonly harvested for human consumption. Edible offal consisting of organs and non-skeletal muscle tissues also are considered meat." (2)
From a scientific approach, then, fish is meat, since fish are animals.
However, some believe that meat only includes the flesh of warm-blooded animals or land animals, such as poultry, beef, or pork.
Fish are cold-blooded, so they would not be considered meat under this definition. Because of their different habitat, fish are often separated from other types of meat in stores, restaurants, and dietary literature. This separation also plays a role in how people view these organisms as different.
The American Meat Science Association also includes definitions of lab-produced meat, which may soon be something that counts as meat.
Lab-made meat exists to address concerns of animal welfare, environmental impact, and sustainability in the production of animal meat. It's also possible that human demand will eventually become too much for meat production.
The meat is created with animal stem cells, a three-dimensional environment, a nutrient system, and a bioreactor. Since it is made with animal protein, experts question whether it can count as meat.
While there have been lab-made hamburgers and products from cloned livestock, there haven't been many attempts at cloning or artificially creating fish.
One species of fish, the Asian carp, has been cloned on record. This may not say anything about whether fish is meat, but it is yet another way that fish are left out of the party.
How Do Religions Classify Fish?
If you were raised in a Christian household where you celebrated Good Friday before Easter, then you may have heard that fish doesn't count as meat.
Some denominations of Christianity, such as Catholics, practice fasting on Fridays during lent in observance of the death of Jesus. Some people interpret the fasting rules as not being able to eat the flesh of a warm-blooded animal. For that reason, they eat fish instead of "meat" during lent.
People who practice Judaism follow specific dietary guidelines. The Torah permits foods from animals that have cloven hooves and chew their cud. In terms of fish, the Old Testament states to only consume fish with fins and scales. So, Jewish people avoid pork and shellfish.
Similarly, Muslim people have rules about consuming fish and animal products. Many choose to consume halal foods, which include fish with scales and no shellfish or crustaceans. Meat such as sheep, chicken, and beef are permissible if a Muslim person kills them and says a prayer. Meat from pigs is not permissible.
Lastly, people who practice Hinduism typically avoid meat and fish altogether. Many Hindu texts advocate for protecting all life forms, so followers of these texts are vegetarian and avoid poultry, meat, and fish. However, this practice varies between regional groups.
USDA and FDA Classifications of Fish
When it comes to the USDA food pyramid, the organization groups the food with all other sources of protein.
Since the original US food pyramid in 1992, the USDA categorized meat, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts together as protein choices.
In the most recent adaptation, now called "My Plate," the USDA does not provide examples of specific options for the recommended food categories.
Many FDA reports, such as the 2016 document Draft Food Categories and Draft Voluntary Targets for Sodium Reduction, separate meat and poultry from "fish and other seafood" in the categories. (3) Again, this distinction could simply come from a desire to separate land animals from sea animals. However, why is it understood that "meat" refers to land animals?
Interestingly, the government inspection of meat from land animals is different than the inspection of fish and seafood. Before 2008, the FDA regulated fish and seafood under the Seafood Inspection Program while the USDA handled other meat food inspections. In 2008, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) proposed an amended Farm Bill, which redefined catfish so that it would fall under USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. The FSIS report explains: (4)
The Agency settled on two options for defining “catfish” after reviewing the legislative and regulatory history and scientific classification system. One option was a definition adopted by Congress in the 2002 Farm Bill that defined “catfish” to be only fish of the Ictaluridae family for marketing and labeling purposes under the FD&C Act. This is the current definition used by FDA in its seafood program. The other option was an order definition including all fish of the order Siluriformes. This definition was used by FDA prior to the 2002 Farm Bill, and would follow established scientific practice that defines “catfish” as all fish of the order Siluriformes.
The 2008 Farm Bill grants the Secretary of Agriculture the authority to define “catfish” anew for purposes of the 2008 amendments of the FMIA.
According to Congress, then, catfish belongs in the meat category.
Let's dive a little deeper into science. A member of the animal kingdom, most things we call the word fish fall under the Subphylum Vertebrata but are not mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians. The Subphylum Vertebrata includes two classes. In nutritional science, meat is mostly the muscle tissue of an animal, and it has high levels of:
Fish meat is a great source of protein, and fish meat comes from the muscles of fish. Since fish are mostly muscle, we consume almost the entire creature when we eat fish. Additionally, fish can bleed, breathe, see, move, eat, and digest food just like any other animal.
Some people get tripped on the term for fish meat. For example, when we consume cows, we call it beef. When we consume pigs, we call it pork. Fish animal flesh does not have a different name, much like chicken meat is just called chicken. In fact, fish and chicken are often isolated from other types of meat because they are not red meat. People on diets that avoid red meat may say they don't eat meat, which does not include fish or poultry in their opinions. However, a vegetarian (someone who does not eat meat) does not consume birds, fish, mammals, or other animals.
Fish Consumption in History
Fish has been part of our diet since the early days of humanity. But another reason for the separation of fish and meat could be due to religion and class. On the medical Christian calendar, meatless days expanded to Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Lent, Advents, and more. These days influenced the fishing industry in a major way. In 1547, Edward VI made fish fasting days law to benefit fishers.
Fish is also affordable. The days of fasting and only consuming fish and vegetables made sense during the Roman period because meat was a luxury for most common folk. In early history, fish (yes, even lobster) was more accessible than meat. The lower class made tasty fish dishes out of limited resources, eventually elevating the status of seafood. Many of the dishes we enjoy today, such as gumbo and paella, come from working peoples' attempts at using what they had on hand to make meals.
According to NPR, this history explains some of the choices of business owners today. Maria Godoy explains, "A few years before the Vatican relaxed the rules [on fasting], Lou Groen, an enterprising McDonald's franchise owner in a largely Catholic part of Cincinnati, found himself struggling to sell burgers on Fridays. His solution? The Filet-O-Fish." (6)
There are certain diets where people avoid animals or animal products for moral, ethical, or health reasons. Fish counts as meat to both vegetarians and vegans. Fish do have a central nervous system and feel pain like any other animals in the meat category. Pescatarians, on the other hand, still eat fish and avoid other types of meat.
Why? Some people follow a pescatarian diet for their health. Others will not debate that fish isn't meat, but they believe that the nervous systems of fish are not as complex as other animals, so eating fish is ethical. Most pescatarians consider all seafood to count as meat. Still, some people view the pescatarian diet as a type of vegetarian diet. The focus on plant foods is there, just including fish!
The term for pescatarianism came about in the 1990s. With seafood as the main source of animal protein, the diet consists of healthy fats, produce, legumes, nuts, dairy products, and whole grains. While there may be health benefits, these can vary. After all, it's possible to consume only fried fish sticks and junk food and be a pescatarian.
Ethical Reasons for a Pescatarian Diet
As we mentioned, some individuals become vegetarian or pescatarian due to ethical concerns. They may not want to support farms and companies with poor labor practices and unfair worker conditions for starters. Some factory farms exploit and underpay workers to maximize profits. Similarly, some vegetarians and pescatarian individuals protest farms with inhumane conditions for the animals where they are poorly fed and have a poor quality of life. The simplest reason is that the vegetarian or pescatarian individual does not want to kill animals to eat them. Some vegetarians and vegans believe that humans are not meant to consume other living beings.
Finally, there are environmental reasons for cutting out red meat and poultry. Farms contribute to a lot of land, air, and sea pollution, especially if they use certain chemicals and livestock raising practices. Some individuals also don't agree with using land to produce animal feed when that land could be left untouched or used to grow more food for humans.
However, there are still ethical concerns when it comes to eating fish. Fish farms can also have inhumane and poor environmental practices, and overfishing affects aquatic ecosystems. Resources are available, such as the Seafood Watch program from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, that help individuals find ethically farmed fish.
Health Effects of Fish
Fish can be an asset to any diet, depending on how you prepare it and what kind you eat. Generally, the two different types of fish are fatty and lean. Fatty fish contain important vitamins and nutrients as well as omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids benefit your mind and body. Several studies associate omega-3s with health benefits such as a decreased risk of cancer and heart disease (5). One study suggests that these fats can delay brain function that can happen as you age.
Fish is also rich in vitamin D. A healthy amount of vitamin D can lower your chances of developing dementia, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Many health experts recommend consuming fish twice per week.
Fish vs. Red Meat
So, why do some people cut out meat but include fish? Both food groups have benefits and drawbacks. We covered some of the health benefits of fish including its great source of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. Fish also helps you increase your levels of good cholesterol. Compared to red meat, one 2010 study found that eating fish and poultry led to a lower risk of heart disease than red meat consumption. (7) The American Heart Association recommends limiting red meat and your diet. However, red meat does have some positive health effects such as it being high in zinc, niacin, iron, and vitamin B12.
Adding Fish to a Veggie Diet
There are perks to adding fish to a vegetarian meal plan. Occasionally, individuals who avoid animal protein may find it challenging to get key nutrients in their body. For example, vegans may find it difficult to get calcium, zinc, and vitamin B12. Fish and seafood can provide variety as well as nutritional benefits and make up for some of those deficits. It is healthiest to prepare your fish on the grill or stove instead of deep-fried.
Different religious groups interpret the Bible in different ways. In the book of Leviticus, God gives directions for "living things" that a person may eat. God says that people may eat everything in the waters with scales and fins and any land animal with cloven feet that chew the cud. In the New Testament, Jesus made all foods clean. The Bible does not state any differences and claims both as animal flesh.
Yes. Operating from the definition that meat is any flesh of an animal, fish is meat to a vegetarian.
Poultry is a type of meat, as it comes from animals. Poultry is an umbrella term for domestic fowl such as ducks, turkeys, and chickens. Fish is not poultry, but it is the flesh of an animal, so most individuals consider fish meat.
Fish may not be considered meat to you, depending on your cultural or religious background. Scientifically, fish is meat because it is the muscle tissue of an animal. However, the meat from fish differs from red meat or poultry because the tissue is more delicate.
Food for Thought - Is Fish Meat?
Overall, there is a lot of debate about the definitions of meat and fish. Stemming from social classes, science, and the observance of religious holidays, fish often finds itself in a different category from the meat of land mammals, birds, and sheep. The answer to the question really depends on what you believe. Some don't believe that fish count as animals because of the way they look and where they live. However, fish do have nervous systems, digestive systems, and it's proven that they feel pain.
When individuals use the word "meat" in church settings, they often refer to only types of warm-blooded animals. When a vegetarian uses the word, they mean anything that falls under the scientific class of the flesh of a living creature. So, scientifically, the answer is yes. Fish is meat.
This debate may not matter in the grand scheme of dieting. Fish has many health benefits and a flavor profile that differs from other types of meat such as beef and chicken. When you make your food choices, you should aim for diversity on your plate to get all the vitamins and nutrients you need.
2) Boler, D.D. & Woerner, Dale. (2017). What is meat? A perspective from the American Meat Science Association. Animal Frontiers. 7. 8. 10.2527/af.2017.0436.
5) Sala-Vila, A., Guasch-Ferré, M., Hu, F. B., Sánchez-Tainta, A., Bulló, M., Serra-Mir, M., López-Sabater, C., Sorlí, J. V., Arós, F., Fiol, M., Muñoz, M. A., Serra-Majem, L., Martínez, J. A., Corella, D., Fitó, M., Salas-Salvadó, J., Martínez-González, M. A., Estruch, R., Ros, E., PREDIMED Investigators, … B (2016). Dietary α-Linolenic Acid, Marine ω-3 Fatty Acids, and Mortality in a Population With High Fish Consumption: Findings From the PREvención con DIeta MEDiterránea (PREDIMED) Study. Journal of the American Heart Association, 5(1), e002543. https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.115.002543
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