It’s the healthiest fish to eat, say experts


“As an animal source, it contains one of the lowest amounts of saturated fat compared to protein,” said Lourdes Castro, registered dietitian and nutritionist and director of the NYU Food Lab. In addition to being a lean protein, seafood is rich in vitamins D and B and minerals like iron, potassium and calcium.

Most importantly, seafood is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for our body’s cellular makeup and can help support our cardiovascular health and immune system. Because the body cannot produce its own omega-3s, all of our intake must come from the food we eat.

“Our diets generally don’t contain a lot of omega-3s,” said Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. Eating seafood twice a week is a sure-fire way to increase our intake of these basic fatty acids.

From a nutritional standpoint, salmon is the big winner in the Healthiest Fish competition. “Fattier cold water fish are a better source of omega-3s,” Camire said, and salmon is king when it comes to the number of grams of omega-3 per ounce.

The National Institutes of Health recommends that men consume 1.6 grams and women consume 1.1 grams of omega-3 per day, and a 3-ounce serving of almost all varieties of salmon exceeds this quota. Alaskan chinook salmon (also known as king salmon), coho salmon, and sockeye salmon are the three species of wild salmon highest in omega-3s.

Wild or farmed?

Sustainability is the other part of the equation when it comes to calculating the healthiest fish – for personal health, the health of fish populations and the planet in general.

“Today there are ecologically sustainable sources on both the wild side and the cultivated side,” said Santi Roberts, senior scientific director of the Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Farmed salmon is not only managed more sustainably than in the past, but it is taking a leap forward in terms of omega-3s. “From a nutritional standpoint, in the old days, the wild was superior to the breeding,” Castro said. However, Camire said that with advances in aquaculture, farmers can adjust their salmon’s diets to produce fish that have higher omega-3 levels than their wild counterparts.

Sustainable aquaculture is also a proactive way for fisheries to combat the effects of climate change. “There aren’t enough fish in the ocean to feed everyone based on the nutritional recommendations for seafood,” Castro said.

Camire accepted. “The wild is a sexy idea,” she said, but wonders how wild Alaskan seafood will fare over the next several decades. “When it comes to feeding billions of people and heating the climate, we’re going to have to do something different.”

Other healthy choices and fish to avoid

Oysters are quite rich in omega-3s.
Besides salmon, there are other varieties of seafood that make a difference in terms of personal health and planetary sustainability. Bivalves like oysters, mussels and clams are relatively high in omega-3s and are a good choice from an environmental standpoint, according to Roberts.

Unlike finfish, bivalves do not need to be fed when raised in a culture environment; they get all of their nutrients from the water around them. They can also filter out impurities and compensate for waste that enters the environment, which Roberts says is often a problem with farmed seafood.

Camire also recommended farmed rainbow trout in the United States as a good alternative to salmon. “They don’t have as much omega-3s as salmon, but they’re related,” she said, and US fish farms must follow federal and state food safety regulations.
Try this Salmon Recipe with Roasted Raisin Salsa
Tuna, although rich in omega-3 fatty acids and a superior nutritional choice, is more difficult to source sustainably. Wild tuna populations have been decimated by overfishing and the fish itself may be high in mercury.

Nutrition and sustainability experts don’t think we should avoid eating tuna altogether, but it does require research to make sure you choose the most manageable option. “Avoid eating bluefin tuna until we have seen significant improvement in the management of these populations,” said Roberts.

If you want to eat tuna, skipjack and albacore offer almost as much omega-3 and are the two most common species found in cans of tuna. Roberts recommends looking for the phrases “rod caught” or “trolled” on the label.

Likewise, sardines and mackerel are high in omega-3s, but they are no longer recommended as sustainable options due to overfishing concerns for these species.

How to choose well

If you’re overwhelmed by seafood labels at the fish market, that’s understandable. But these days, apps and websites run by scientific and nonprofit organizations can help you make the healthier choices.

Seafood Watch, the review program run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has been providing seafood purchase recommendations based on sustainability standards for two decades. Its system is simple – green is the best choice, red is an item to be avoided – and covers both wild and farmed options in fisheries around the world.

“It’s a dynamic and complex world – what we’re trying to do is simplify it, is look for the green,” Roberts said.

Clams are a good source of omega-3s and are a good choice for the environment.

The simplest choice for farmed seafood is to make sure it’s really raised in the United States, which has more stringent food safety standards than many overseas operations. “It’s safe to say that national seafood is the Cadillac of seafood when it comes to environmental sustainability,” said Joshua Stoll, assistant professor of marine policy in the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine.

Seafood Finder is a new directory from the Local Catch Network, a program designed to support local and community seafood businesses (and of which Stoll is a member). Its location-based research helps consumers find sustainable fisheries through multiple channels, including local retail, CSAs and subscription boxes, or nationwide drop shipping.

If you’re trying to reduce your impact on the planet and simultaneously enjoy the health benefits of fish, Stoll suggests that you think of seafood the same way you would local produce or meat. “It doesn’t matter where you get your seafood from, it doesn’t matter who you get your seafood from,” he said.

By purchasing salmon and other seafood options from community fisheries and companies with sustainable farming methods, you will be making the healthiest choice for everyone.

Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Branded Treats”; and editor of the site Good. Food. Stories.

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