When Sea Plus Could Be a Minus

fish - cook for your life

Choosing healthy and environmentally safe seafood has become, surprisingly, a daunting task.  The negative impact of pollutants such as PCBs and mercury in seafood has been dogging the fish industry for years, but a report last spring in The New York Times highlighted a new, additional risk associated with seafood: The fraudulent labeling of some kinds of fish in restaurants and supermarkets.

According to The Times, the practice of substituting cheap often-farmed “imposter” fish for more expensive, wild-caught fish is alarmingly common. For instance, tilapia, a widely farmed fish, can easily be substituted for flounder, cod or sole because it is white and flakey. The Times went as far as calling tilapia the “Meryl Streep of seafood, capable of playing almost any role.”

This practice in the seafood industry is troubling, since fish is one of the healthiest forms of protein and nutrients. It’s lower in calories and saturated fat than red meat, and high in the omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack, and may help prevent certain cancers. Note, however, that some over-farmed fish, tilapia being among them, actually lose their natural nutrients and omega acids because of the way they are raised. 

When it comes to mercury contamination, smaller fish in the food chain generally are the safest. Mercury is cumulative, so sardines and herring, for instance, contain much less mercury than big carnivorous fish such as tuna, king mackerel, shark and swordfish. Salmon, on the other hand, although large, is low in mercury but carry some risk of PCBs.

Fishing Guides

When you’re trying to figure out what to buy, look for fish that’s been USP Verified, or tested by the U.S. Pharmacopeia for purity and potency. Unfortunately, these signs of fish safety are rare in fish markets or sections in supermarkets, though fairly common on fish oil supplements.

To help you figure out what to buy, there are two useful guides you can get online from the Environmental Defense Fund and from The Monterey Bay Aquarium. The Monterey guide also has a handy Seafood Watch app available for download on iPhones or Androids that you can take with you to the supermarket or restaurant. This online guide gives helpful, regional information on what to consider when selecting fish, exploring the health impact both for you and for the environment.

You can’t download an app from the Environmental Defense Fund site, but you can get a printable pocket guide. The site also offers quick reference guides to mercury and PCB contamination, as well as which fish are the most eco-friendly to eat. Both guides provide useful categories including Best Choices and Good Alternatives, as well as certain types of fish to avoid. Best Choices are plentiful, non-endangered species caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways. Good Alternatives are an option, but buyers are encouraged take note of the way they’re caught or farmed.

Fish to avoid are those that are overfished or caught or farmed in ways that harm the environment, the marine ecosystem, or the fish themselves. All fish that are starred in red on the site are ones that should be consumed in limited quantities, if it all, due to concerns about mercury or other contaminants. Note that The Times story also noted that many markets and restaurants mislabel endangered fishes, so buyers should beware of this practice.
For more information or to download your own app or pocket guide, visit:

Look ‘Em in the Eye

When choosing fish, one of the best things you can do is to pay attention and ask questions. An easy way to know if a whole fish is fresh is to look at the eyes, which should be convex, not concave. This indicates freshness. A fresh fish should not have a strong “fishy” odor either.

Because there is currently not a government-mandated standard for organic fish, the best way to avoid contaminants and pesticides is to know where your fish comes from and how it’s been raised. Educate yourself as to what the best choices are in your area. The two pocket guides we recommend will help with that. Read labels on pre-packaged foods. 

Look for reliable fishmongers near you, and form a relationship with them. Find out where their fish comes from. And finally, if you have the luck to live near enough to the ocean, get to know the fishermen who sell from stands at your local farmers’ markets, or who sell right from their boats. They generally have the freshest, highest quality, locally seasonal fish. But seaside or inland, it won’t take long to use what you have learned to get along swimmingly.

The Canned Alternatives

If you don’t live near fresh seafood or don’t have good options for buying fresh fish close to home, canned fish can be a healthy and tasty way to get the benefits of omega-3s and antioxidants. Canned salmon is an inexpensive and healthy addition to salads, sandwiches or pasta. Salmon burgers are a wonderful alternative to red meat burgers, and canned salmon can make a great taco or burrito filling along with black beans.

Canned sardines are another good option, rich in omega 3 oils. Sardines and avocado make a tasty topping for bruschetta; sardines with cucumbers, fresh herbs and arugula make a refreshing summer salad; and sardines with tomato sauce are a potent and tantalizing pasta topper.

Search our recipe pages for more ideas about how to cook fresh and canned seafood. 

Registered Dietitian Approved

There are many misconceptions about nutrition and cancer in widespread media. By using current scientific literature, plus recommendations of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the National Cancer Institute, and the American Cancer Society, our Registered Dietitian, Kate Ueland, MS, RD, and our team of editors work to help our readers discern truth from myth.

The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. Always consult your physician or registered dietitian for specific medical advice.

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