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Our national dish - what's in it?

Published:Wednesday | August 15, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Marsha N. Woolery

Jamaica's national dish is ackee and salt fish. Ackee, Sapida blighia, a fruit named after Captain William Bligh, who took the fruit from West Africa to Jamaica. Salt fish is a headless cod that is dried, then salted to increase flavour and shelf life.

In the Caribbean food group, ackee, although a fruit, is classified in the fats and oils group because the main nutrient present is fat. Ackee is more than 50 per cent fat, with the majority of the fatty acid being linoleic acid. Linoleic acid is an unsaturated fat that is also found in corn, sunflower and safflower oils.

According to the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute's (CFNI) food composition tables 2000, 100g (three ounces or nine arriles/seeds) of cooked canned ackee provide 151 kilocalories, 15.2g of total fat, 0mg cholesterol, 0g saturated fat, 270mg potassium and 240mg sodium. Although ackees are high in fat, it is the type of fat that is considered to be 'good fat', but nevertheless should be eaten in moderation.

Salt fish high in protein

Saltfish is classified in the Caribbean food group as foods from animals. It is high in protein, low in fat, but because of the processing is very high in sodium. According to the CFNI's food-composition tables supplement 2000, 100g (three ounces), cooked salt fish provides about 138 kilocalories, 32.5g of protein, 0.9g total fat and 400mg sodium.

The dietary recommendation for sodium is 2,400mg or one teaspoon salt per day for persons without high blood pressure or kidney or heart disease. Persons at risk of developing these diseases may have 1,500mg sodium or less than one-half teaspoon salt per day. Nutrition professionals recommend that persons with high blood pressure, kidney and heart disease avoid or limit the use of salt fish because of its high sodium content.

Soaking salt fish hardly helps

The practice of washing, soaking and boiling salt fish prior to 'cooking it up' does not necessarily reduce the sodium content significantly. Up to the early 2000s, research was being conducted on the relationship between ackee consumption and the development of prostate cancer in Jamaican men. There was no evidence to prove that ackee consumption was a contributing factor in the development of prostate cancer in Jamaican men.

Ackee, being a sponge-like fruit, is very absorbent, so it is recommended that during the process of preparing our national dish, the use of oil should be limited not only because of ackee's fat profile but because the oil used in cooking is absorbed into the fruit, thus increasing the fat content of the dish.

Jamaica is now 50. Let us endeavour to live well to be able to celebrate in 2062.

Marsha N. Woolery is a registered dietitian/nutritionist in private practice and adjunct lecturer at Northern Caribbean University; email: yourhealth@gleanerjm.com.