How To Choose Seafood

Maybe your doctor told you to limit yourself to one serving of red meat per week.  Maybe you're looking for a way to satisfy your desire for meat on Fridays without really eating "meat" (you're Catholic and it's Lent).  You might be trying out the South Beach diet.  Or maybe you're proactively looking for a good way to improve your overall health by making smarter dietary choices.  Seafood is a good solution in all of the aforementioned scenarios and more. 

However, due to some of our industrial practices, we find ourselves facing the tragic pollution of our oceans.  As a result, seafood - an otherwise healthful food source - is becoming increasingly questionable.  Here are some tips for utilizing seafood's nourishing potential without incurring possible health issues as a result. 

Health benefits.  Before we address the potential downside to seafood, it's important to acknowledge the qualities that make seafood such a good choice for many of us.

  1. Omega-3 fatty acids.  Regularly consuming omega-3 fatty acids can lower your risk of coronary heart disease and cancer.  Research suggests that these fatty acids can reduce bad cholesterol while leading to higher levels of good cholesterol.
  2. Source of protein.  Humans need a good source of high-quality protein in order to maintain health.  Seafood provides that protein without some of the negative qualities of other meats.
  3. Low in saturated fat.  You can get the protein you need without the high saturated fat found in other animal sources. 

Now we must address the sad truth that certain seafood is becoming less safe for some of us to consume.

  1. Mercury.  As a consequence of industrial pollution, mercury is released into our waters, where it becomes methylmercury and accumulates in many species of fish and shellfish.  Too much mercury in our diet can impair brain development and cause cancer.

    Methylmercury levels tend to be higher in larger fish, because they've lived longer and have accumulated more of it due to their high position on the food chain.  Large fish like swordfish, bluefin tuna, tilefish and shark contain high levels of mercury, while smaller fish pose less of a mercury risk to us.

    Those of us who consume canned tuna should take note as well; this ever-popular seafood contains mercury as well, though not all types pose the same risk.  Albacore ("white tuna") in cans has a higher level of mercury than the "light tuna," which is made of a smaller kind of tuna. 

    To learn more about mercury levels in many specific types of seafood, consult the FDA's Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish.

  2. PCBs. Though they have been banned for quite some time, carcinogenic chemicals like PCBs and dioxins have accumulated in our seafood as well.  Additionally, we also have to be concerned about the levels of pesticides appearing in fish populations. 
  3. Pregnant women and young children.  The levels of methylmercury and other toxins in seafood have prompted the FDA and EPA to both issue warnings and suggest that young children and pregnant or nursing women, in particular, eliminate certain seafood from their diets altogether.  However, since the toxins can remain in a woman's body for more than a year, the suggestions also apply to women who are trying to become pregnant.  According to the FDA, these women and young children should refrain from eating swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel.  However, many consider this to be a reductive list, suggesting that young children and pregnant, nursing or potentially pregnant women should also abstain from consuming pike, marlin and certain tunas.
  4. Is farmed fish safer?  Not necessarily.  In fact, toxin levels have sometimes been higher in farmed fish due to feeding practices; some farmed fish are fed larger quantities of fish than they would consume in the wild, which causes greater accumulation of the toxins.
  5. What about local freshwater fish?  Toxin levels vary and your best resource for up-to-date local information is your local health department.  As a general rule, the EPA advises aforementioned women and young children to eat no more than one serving of freshwater fish per week. 
  6. The solutions?  Moderation and careful selection.  Though women and young children are at greatest risk, some seafood is contaminated enough to warrant limitation in all diets.  For larger species of fish (like tuna steaks and swordfish, and also canned white tuna), adults should limit their intake to one serving per week.

    You should eat other kinds of seafood more often (two servings per week or more).  Because these toxins accumulate through consumption, smaller fish pose less of a danger.  Catfish, flounder, cod and salmon, for example, tend to be far less contaminated than larger kinds of seafood, though Atlantic and Chinook salmon are falling under increasing scrutiny.  Shrimp is a healthy seafood choice, and now is a good time to grab some nutritious sardines as well.

    For a more complete perspective, please visit the links provided in the Links section to the right.

  7. Cooking?  Though there's no way to reduce the amount of mercury in seafood before you eat it, there are ways to reduce the amount of other pollutants you consume in the fish.
    • Remove the skin, outer layer of fat and innards.  By removing this fat, you are removing the toxins that are stored in it.
    • Try grilling, broiling or poaching your seafood rather than frying.  Not only is frying a less healthy cooking method anyway, but also that process locks the pollutants within your fish rather than letting them flow out through the drippings that would otherwise escape.

Seafood is still a very important part of a nutritious diet.  In order to ensure that we take proper advantage of the health benefits of seafood without the possible negative effects, we must educate ourselves on seafood safety and utilize up-to-date information on the quality of our commercial fish and shellfish.


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