Go Fish

3 06 2011

By Matthew G. Kadey, R.D.

Her Sports + Fitness Tuna, salmon and other fish have become the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the grocery store. On one hand, there’s the remarkable health benefits of fish: Since the 1970s–when scientists discovered that fish-adoring Inuit largely sidestepped heart disease despite eating hardly any fruit and veggies–research proving omega-3 fatty acids benefit your heart and health has been piling up.

On the other hand, this protein-dense fare comes with two big caveats: Environmental toxins are turning certain fish into poison-on-a-plate, and the practice of over-fishing is rapidly transforming our oceans into ghost towns.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to binge on fish or avoid it altogether, just learn how to make smarter choices. Here’s how to sort through all the confusing messages out there and find the healthiest, “greenest” fish around.

Fish Tale: Eating any fish provides good-for-me omega-3 fats and rewards me with amazing health benefits.

Fish Fact: Not all fish are blessed with the same levels of omega-3 fats. Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, tuna, trout and mackerel have the most; white fish like cod, haddock, pollock, catfish, mahi-mahi and tilapia tend to pony up fewer of these superhero fats.

The Catch: You don’t need to consume a lot of fish to get the benefits. In The Journal of the American Medical Association, a study found eating just 3 to 6 ounces of fish per week, especially varieties rich in omega-3s, can cut the risk of death from heart attack by 36 percent and total mortality by 17 percent.

Plus, the marine-sourced omega-3s called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) have been linked to a reduced risk of vision loss, Parkinson’s disease, breast and kidney cancers, osteoporosis, inflammation (perhaps a boon to those with aching post-workout muscles), obesity, diabetes, stroke, depression and cognitive decline.

Smart Move: Take heed of the American Heart Association’s recommendation for at least two fish meals per week, with your sights set on the omega-3 rich versions. Just remember, any health benefits can be canceled out if the only fish that finds a place on your plate is battered and fried, therefore drowned in unhealthy fats and processed carbohydrates.

If you find it hard to eat that much fish, try contaminant-free fish oil supplements, such as those from Astavita (astavita.com), Carlson (carlsonlabs.com) and Nordic Naturals (nordicnaturals.com). Life’s DHA (lifesdha.com) provides algae-derived DHA for vegetarians.

Fish Tale: The fish in my local market are healthy for consumption because they are monitored for contaminants.

Fish Fact: Some fish are so full of mercury they could rock out in a heavy metal band, and these levels are monitored infrequently. Released through industrial pollution, mercury accumulates in waterways and then builds up in marine species as they feed. When we eat them, mercury can be deposited in our bodies, where it acts as a neurotoxin and can negatively affect our immune and cardiovascular systems, causing symptoms like unexplainable fatigue, memory loss, problems with vision, or hearing and coordination loss.

The Catch: Although nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury, not all contain dangerous amounts. In general, large, long-lived fish such as albacore tuna, king mackerel, shark and swordfish have higher levels since they’ve had more time to accumulate the toxin.

Smart Move: Get hooked on our low-mercury choices. Visit gotmercury.org, where you can measure your seafood-related mercury intake with a handy calculator.

Fish Tale: Tuna is one of the healthiest fish I can eat.

Fish Fact: Tuna can be dangerous. Cheap and protein dense, canned tuna remains a top fish pick for many Americans. We devour nearly 1 billion pounds each year.

The Catch: Not all tuna is created equal. According to FDA data and a study published by Rutgers University researchers, canned chunk light pink tuna has lower mercury levels than the solid white variant. That’s because white tuna comes from albacore, which is a larger fish than skipjack tuna, used most often to make the light variety.

What’s more, white tuna frequently exceeds a reasonably safe mercury level of 0.5 parts per million. Generally, bigeye (commonly referred to as ahi) and bluefin tuna have the most heavy metal while albacore, yellowfin and skipjack contain relatively less.

Oceana, a marine conservation group, recently tested yellowfin, albacore, bluefin and bigeye tuna samples from grocery stores in 23 different cities and discovered that average mercury levels were nearly double what existing FDA data suggests.

At sushi restaurants, the group found more than 30 percent of sushi tuna samples exceeded 1 part per million–the level allowed by the FDA for fish intended for human consumption. Similarly, in 2007 the New York Times reported that one-fourth of sushi-grade tuna (nigiri, maki and sashimi) scooped up from Manhattan restaurants had mercury levels high enough that the FDA could take legal action to remove the fish from the market.

When you consider that the FDA tests less than 1 percent of imported seafood and only a percentage of that number is tested for contaminants, it’s even more cause for concern.

Smart Move: Make your next tuna sandwich with light tuna and choose safer skipjack tuna steaks at the fish market. Or consider purchasing canned tuna from St. Jude (tunatuna.com) or Wild Planet (1wildplanet.com), both of which use sustainable fishing methods, such as troll fishing, and conduct in-house mercury testing to ensure very low levels. The Oceana report suggests mackerel or “saba” as a low-mercury sushi option.

Fish Tale: Farmed salmon is a healthy and eco-minded choice.

Fish Fact: Farmed salmon was once thought to be preferable to wild, since it doesn’t deplete natural stocks and is available year-round at a more affordable price.

Times change. Carnivorous in nature, salmon that are farmed are often fed large amounts of contaminated fish, causing them to carry around more toxins (PCBs, dioxins) than their wild counterparts. In fact, a 2004 study in the journal Science warned that farmed salmon contains upward of 10 times more contaminants. While these levels remain below what is considered dangerous to human health, the environmental issues concerning farmed salmon cannot be brushed aside.
Concentrated waste from offshore fish pens that pollute surrounding waters and the spread of diseases to wild populations are a few reasons why environmental watchdogs continue to give farmed salmon the thumbs down.

The Catch: Not all farmed fish is bad. Tilapia, catfish, arctic char and barramundi are greener farmed fish than salmon because they are often raised in a manner that doesn’t sully surrounding waterways.

Smart Move: Salmon is just too healthy to give up. If the budget allows, select wild Alaskan salmon over farm-raised Atlantic salmon.

Wild Alaskan salmon is low in contaminants, much more flavorful and certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Is your neighborhood light on fishmongers? Try FishEx (fishex.com) for home-delivered Alaskan king salmon that are bursting with flavor and omega-3s. Also, canned salmon is often sourced from wild Pacific salmon making it a wise, budget choice.

Fish Tale: If salmon is labeled organic, it’s healthy.

Fish Fact: Some salmon are sold as “organic,” defined by wholesalers and restaurants as farmed salmon, raised without antibiotics in a cleaner environment.

The truth is that fish can’t be certified organic in the United States.

The Catch: The USDA rules governing organic foods don’t cover fish. So what gives? Most fish that are labeled organic are certified by other countries or third-party agencies, and those groups use varying criteria that may not meet rigorous American government standards.

Smart Move: With no USDA regulation standards in place for organic salmon, stick with wild Alaskan fillets for now.

Fish Tale: Shrimp are generally a safe option, but not necessarily as nutritious as fish.

Fish Fact: Shrimp are nutritional powerhouses full of low-calorie protein and vitamin D, but not all varieties are equally safe or environmentally friendly.

The Catch: Most of the shrimp we consume is imported from countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia, where shrimp farms are doused with chemicals and were created by clearing huge acres of coastal mangrove forests, vital ecosystems. Plus, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, wild shrimp fishing operations abroad often take in large amounts of unwanted bycatch, including endangered sea turtles.

Smart Move: With stricter and improving environmental standards, North American farmed and wild shrimp are your best choice. Consider supporting Texas-based Harlingen Shrimp Farms (harlingenshrimp.com); its use of wetlands to recycle pond water and commitment to improve discharge water quality earned it the Environmental Stewardship Award.

Fish and Pregnancy A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that up to one in 10 American women of childbearing age have mercury levels that could put their babies at risk. Levels were most worrisome in women with the highest fish intakes.

Mercury is especially dangerous to unborn babies’ and young children’s developing brains and nervous systems. Harvard researchers recently determined that mercury exposure from seafood during pregnancy reduces cognitive scores in children at age 3.

Women of childbearing age should be particularly concerned about their mercury levels, as it can be passed through the placenta during pregnancy and when breastfeeding. Because mercury can take more than a year to leave your body, if you’re considering becoming pregnant, opt for seafood with little mercury risk well in advance.

SEAFOOD SHOPPING LIST Use this list to steer away from species that are high in toxins or are being over-fished. To learn more, read Paul Johnson’s Fish Forever: The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood.

These fish have low toxin levels, are good for you and are harvested in an environmentally sustainable manner.

  • Wild Alaskan Salmon (fresh/frozen/canned)
  • Sardines
  • Oysters (farmed)
  • Catfish (U.S. farmed)
  • Tilapia (U.S. farmed)
  • Trout (farmed)
  • Arctic Char (wild and farmed)
  • Mussels (farmed)
  • Atlantic Mackerel
  • Shrimp (U.S. farmed)
  • Striped Bass (U.S. farmed)
  • Herring
  • Pollock
  • Anchovies
  • Bay Scallops
  • Clams (farmed)
  • Caviar (farmed)
  • Skipjack Tuna (pole-caught)
  • Barramundi
  • Crawfish (U.S. farmed)

Limit your consumption to a couple times per month as these fish may have elevated toxins or are in danger of being over fished.

  • Canned Chunk Light Tuna
  • Yellowfin/Albacore Tuna
  • Lobster
  • King/Snow Crabs
  • Squid
  • Pacific Sole
  • Mahi-Mahi
  • King Crab
  • Sea Scallops
  • Pacific Cod

When possible, avoid these fish. They have high toxin levels and are harvested in environmentally damaging ways.

  • Farmed Atlantic Salmon
  • Shark
  • Grouper
  • Orange Roughy
  • Chilean Seabass
  • Marlin
  • Swordfish (imported)
  • Bluefin Tuna
  • Pacific Rockfish
  • Red Snapper
  • Tilefish
  • American Eel
Matthew G. Kadey is a Canada-based dietitian and freelance writer who finds nothing fishy about tossing catfish on the barbie. Find him at wellfedman.com.
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