This blog post is by Erica Melling, who has joined Fooducate as a summer intern.
Farmed. In recent years, it has become the “F” word of the seafood industry.
However, the issue is more complicated than you may realize and wild-caught fish may not always be the healthier, more sustainable choice. Gasp!
I admit I was skeptical at first too, but hear me out:
- Confusing Message #1: Eat at least two servings of fish per week for a healthy heart, but don’t eat too much because it may contain toxic chemicals.
- Confusing Message #2: Eat only wild-caught fish because its more sustainable, but our oceans can’t keep up with rising demands and overfishing is endangering fish species everywhere.
These are just a couple of the overwhelming messages thrown out there that leave us dumbfounded at the meat and fish counter, staring blankly at our choices. The worker behind the counter asks, “Can I help you with anything?” Inside we are screaming, “YES! Help me figure out what the heart-healthy AND environmentally AND non-toxic fish I am supposed to be buying?!” But we freeze and say, “Uh…One pound of uh…chicken.”
Fear not Fooducate readers! We hear your cries and are here to help!
Fresh fish are usually store-packaged and don’t have a food label for you to conveniently scan. So here are some tips to empower you to make the best choice. The factors that must be considered are:
- Levels of toxic compounds in the fish: PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), methylmercury, and other toxins are present in all fish to some degree, but the key is minimizing levels. Factors that increase these compounds include the amount of pollution in the fish’s habitat and the type of feed used in fish farming. Fish feed/oils that favor rapid growth are often high in these compounds.
- Sustainability: 75% of the world’s oceans are overfished causing a 90% decline in predatory fish populations since the preindustrial fishing era. This calls for alternative sources like fish farming, but questionable practices may promote disease, heavy antibiotic use, and parasite infestations–causing more harm than help to wild fish populations.
- Omega-3 content: the token selling point of fish is the higher proportion of unsaturated fat, specifically omega-3 fatty acids, compared to other protein foods like beef or chicken. Omega-3s are linked to increased immunity and reduced risk of chronic diseases like cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Read more about omega-3s in food products here.
What to do at the supermarket:
Thankfully, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has teamed up with health experts from the Harvard School of Public Health and Environmental Defense Fund to dive into these muddy waters for us. They have compiled a “Best of the Best” list of fish species that are sustainable, low in environmental contaminants and are good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. FINALLY!
- Albacore Tuna (troll- or pole-caught, from the U.S. or British Columbia)
- Freshwater Coho Salmon (farmed in tank systems, from the U.S.)
- Oysters (farmed)
- Pacific Sardines (wild-caught)
- Rainbow Trout (farmed)
- Salmon (wild-caught, from Alaska)
So is wild or farmed seafood better? There is no deFINite answer (sorry, I just couldn’t resist the cheesy pun). It depends on a wide range of factors from the quality of fish farming practices, the type of fish, and the waters it comes from. Stick to the list above and you can enjoy you seafood with a clear conscience and a healthy heart.
Want to learn more about these issues briefly mentioned above?
- Get the Monterey Bay Aquarium iPhone app to pick sustainable seafood
- Read the section on buying fish from Marion Nestle’s What to Eat
- TIME Magazine article: “Is Fish Farming Safe?”
- NY Times article: “Finding a Sustainable Way to Farm the Seas”
- CNN article: “Farmed or wild fish: Which is healthier?”
- NPR article: “Farmed Fish, Food Fish; Wild Fish, Few Fish
Erica Melling is graduating this Spring from Cal Poly University and will be attending the University of Houston Dietetic Internship in the Fall to become a Registered Dietitian. Passionate about the potential that food choices have to help reduce the risk of nearly every chronic disease, her career aspiration is to develop consumer tools and technology that empower the public to select healthier options in their day-to-day lives.