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Healthy Fish Choices Made Easy

What's the best fish for you?
What's the best fish for you?

Suggesting that people eat more fish is a “good news, bad news” situation. On the positive side, many types of fish are higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. More than a dozen large studies show that eating just one or two servings of fish a week can lower your risk of a heart attack by 36 percent and reduce your chances of a stroke by up to 40 percent. Researchers have even been able to connect increased levels of fish consumption to higher IQ test scores.

Unfortunately, there are also many concerns about fish ranging from mercury, overfishing and even the smell. To try and bring a little clarity to the situation, let’s examine the data.

Mercury is bad. One of the leading causes of mercury in fish, starts as exhaust from coal-burning power plants and factories. It drifts through the air, eventually settling in lakes rivers and oceans. Small organisms eat it and gradually it works its way up the food chain, rising in concentration as larger fish eat smaller ones. Eventually, it settles in the top predators like marlin, tuna and sharks.

Here’s what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says.

“For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system. The risks from mercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury in the fish and shellfish. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.”

Once a fish has mercury in it, there’s no way to get it out. You can’t simply get rid of certain body parts and cooking has no effect on its levels. But it may not be as bad as once thought. You can drastically reduce the amount of mercury you’re exposed to by avoiding the big fish and choosing smaller ones.

Shrimp and shellfish are high in cholesterol. While that’s generally true, it’s not as much of a concern as originally thought. The reason is that seafood tends to be low in saturated fat, which is the primary contributor to elevated blood cholesterol levels. People who eat shrimp and shellfish do see their bad cholesterol raise, but their good cholesterol goes up even more. The end result is their risk of heart disease actually drops. Just don’t dip every bite in butter.

Fish smell and people think they’re difficult to cook. Fix the first problem by choosing fresh fish. The fresher they are, the less they smell. Then select recipes with acidic ingredients like vinegar or lemon to cut the smell even more.

You can eliminate the cooking smell by using a “sous vide” cooker like the Anova. (“Sous vide is French for “under vacuum.”) You fill a pot with water, then drop the sous vide cooker in the pot to heat the water to a precise temperature. Next, you put the fish in a freezer-safe bag and squeeze out the air. The final step is to drop the bags in the water bath to cook. The sous vide cooker will sound an alarm when the fish is done. There’s no smell and it’s cooked perfectly through. 

Some fish, especially farmed fish may be higher in cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, an industrial pollutant) and dioxins. Fortunately, the risks appear to be minimal when compared to the protective effects of the omega-3s that fish have. Some researchers like Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston believe, “The benefits outweigh cancer risks by a hundred- to a thousand-fold.”

Some species are fished to the edge of extinction and many forms of fishing are harmful to the overall environment. Fortunately, there are two organizations, Seafood Watch and the Environmental Defense Fund Seafood Selector that provide more information. They rate fish into three categories from Best, Good and Avoid. I took their information and compiled a master list with over 80 of the most popular fish eaten in the country. I then eliminated any that weren’t a “Best” choice. The fish that remained come from “healthy, well-managed populations, and the fishing or farming methods used to catch or raise the fish cause little harm to the environment.” 

Then I removed all the fish that had moderate or high levels of mercury (as determined by independent lab tests.) Finally, I took out any fish that weren’t a good source of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. What remains is a list of 13 seafood choices you can eat without guilt. Here they are.

  • Abalone (farmed)

  • Arctic Char (farmed)

  • Catfish (farmed),

  • Crab (King, Snow & Tanner from AK)

  • Mullet (Striped US)

  • Pompano (US)

  • Salmon (AK & New Zealand)

  • Salmon (Atlantic wild)

  • Salmon (canned)

  • Salmon (Sockeye)

  • Sardines (Pacific Canada & US)

  • Smelt Roe (Iceland)

  • Trout (Rainbow US farmed)

If your favorite seafood isn’t in that list, don’t despair. You can download the entire chart and make choices for yourself, based on your personal circumstances. The chart is available below in EXCEL or Adobe PDF format.

Fish Chart in Microsoft Excel Format

Fish Chart in Adobe PDF Format

If you’re interested in even more detail, you can get it at the following places.

Seafood Watch

For SUSTAINABLE seafood information, you can download Consumer Guides for individual states or regions provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. They also make an APP that’s available for download. You can find all that: http://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations/consumer-guides

Seafood Selector

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Our focus: We achieve results by finding solutions that benefit people while protecting natural systems.


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