The world’s oceans, lakes, and rivers offer a cornucopia of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans. Yet concerns about industrial pollution, as well as ethical questions surrounding farming and fishing practices, abound for many seafood lovers. Faced with confusing options, you might wonder whether it’s even possible to make a good seafood choice — one that is nutritious and safe as well as environmentally responsible.
It is possible. In fact, many experts say the health benefits of seafood can outweigh the risks. It’s a matter of learning which fish to catch and which to release.
A Delicate Balance
The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat at least two 3.5-ounce servings of seafood a week, while the FDA recommends even more for women of childbearing age. (See “Fish Smarts for Pregnant Women”.) For most of us, redoubling our efforts would offer plenty of benefits, say health experts.
Seafood is an excellent source of protein (which helps build lean body mass), selenium (an antioxidant that fends off cell-damaging free radicals), phosphorus (to maintain strong bones), and iodine (a key ingredient in thyroid hormones involved in a healthy metabolism).
Seafood also provides fatty acids known as omega-3s. Increased consumption of EPA and DHA — marine-derived omega-3s that are more potent than plant-derived alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) — is associated with improved heart health and brain functioning, reduced risk of hearing loss, and optimal infant development.
“Omega-3s work their way into cell membranes in all our bodily tissues,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, a professor of nutrition at Penn State. “This makes cell membranes more fluid, which allows chemical reactions like those involved in regulating heart rate and reducing inflammation to happen more freely and quickly.”
But troubling reports about seafood safety lead many people to limit their intake. Mercury and dioxins from industrial sources that make their way into lakes and oceans are absorbed by sea creatures and stored in their muscles. Some fish contain levels high enough to pose serious risks to brain and nervous-system development in unborn babies and young children. High exposure to mercury is also associated with neurological problems in adults and an increased risk of diabetes.
Sustainability issues further damage seafood’s reputation. Some species are dwindling under harvesting pressures and techniques like bottom trawling — think clear-cutting the sea floor. Meanwhile, fish farms have earned notoriety (sometimes unjustly) as polluting, disease-spreading ocean feedlots.
To make the best choice, it’s important to strike the right balance. Our guide offers useful information about first-rate sources for your seafood favorites and explores some lesser-known options that hit the trifecta of nutrition, safety, and sustainability.
Seafood Favorites, Revisited
These seafood choices are some of the most popular in the United States, but they have their downsides. Learn how to be an informed consumer.
Americans eat about 4 pounds of this shellfish per person annually. By finding a good source, you can net plenty of health benefits, including omega-3s, selenium, and 30 percent of your daily requirement of vitamin D.
Buyer Beware: Most shrimp in the United States comes from Asian farms that may overuse antibiotics and employ forced labor, warns Ryan Bigelow, program engagement manager for Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. International wild-shrimp fisheries typically have high by-catch levels, nabbing bystander species like endangered sea turtles.
From a nutrition standpoint, know that shrimp is often bathed in a sodium solution to make its meat juicer, while sulfites (which may trigger migraines and other symptoms in people with sensitivities) are often used to prevent discoloration.
Smart Choice: Opt for domestic shrimp when possible. “There are generally much stricter regulations in America with respect to shrimp fishing and farming practices,” says Bigelow. North American wild-caught varieties include northern shrimp, pink shrimp, and spot prawns from the Pacific Northwest or British Columbia. White shrimp farmed in the United States, Canada, and Central America — especially from closed tanks that create less pollution — is another good option.
All varieties of fresh salmon, including farmed Atlantic and wild sockeye, provide more than the recommended 250- to 500-milligram daily dose of omega-3s. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, salmon has among the best ratios of omega-3s to mercury of any seafood you can buy.
Buyer Beware: Salmon-farming practices have improved, but antibiotic use is still a concern, says Roxanne Nanninga, a sustainable-seafood specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund. Salmon raised on fishmeal come with higher economic and environmental costs: A single pound of farmed salmon requires multiple pounds of wild feed. Meanwhile, less-expensive -vegetarian-based feed increases salmon’s ratio of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids to anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Additionally, offshore open-net pens can pollute surrounding waters.
Smart Choice: Choose a wild Alaskan salmon species like Chinook (also known as king) or sockeye. Salmon populations in Alaskan waters are healthy with no overfishing or notable contaminant risk. Feasting on krill and tiny crustaceans, wild salmon typically have a great omega-fat ratio. Consider vacuum-sealed packages of frozen fillets: “Flash-freezing shortly after catching results in little loss of nutrient quality,” says Nanninga.
While fresh tuna can be pricey, canned tuna delivers an affordable, nonperishable complete protein — offering enough essential amino acids to ensure healthy tissue growth. Other nutritional highlights include omega-3 fats (particularly in albacore), bone-friendly phosphorus, selenium, and niacin — a B vitamin that plays a key role in -energy production.
Buyer Beware: “Most canned white meat is from larger albacore tuna, which ingest more mercury in their diet than the smaller skipjack tuna primarily used as light tuna,” explains Nanninga. The Environmental Defense Fund recommends that adults limit their intake of canned albacore to three servings a month.
Tuna from foreign waters are often caught using methods that have high levels of by-catch, and “dolphin safe” does not mean other marine animals aren’t harmed. In addition, cans are typically lined with bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone-mimicking compound; high exposure to BPAs has been linked to a variety of health issues.
Smart Choice: Worldwide populations of skipjack tuna are in good shape, so swap some of the canned white tuna in your diet for lower-mercury light tuna. Seek out tuna in BPA-free pouches. Also, look for brands packed in water or extra-virgin olive oil instead of highly processed vegetable oil.
Widely available and affordable, tilapia provides a hearty dose of selenium. This antioxidant protects against cell damage and may counter some of the negative effects of mercury, says Kris-Etherton.
Buyer Beware: As a low-fat protein, tilapia is no omega-3 heavyweight. In fact, the grain-based diet of farmed tilapia tends to make its fat profile overly heavy on omega-6s, which most Americans consume too much of already. Looser tilapia-farming laws in Asia can mean unsavory practices like the use of banned chemicals and allowing untreated fish waste to enter the environment.
Smart Choice: Look for tilapia farmed in the United States, Canada, Ecuador, or Peru. “The closed-tank systems in North America have fewer environmental concerns, including fewer impacts on habitats than other types of aquaculture,” says Bigelow. Closed-tank systems also reduce the need for antibiotics and other chemical treatments often used to raise fish.
This member of the cod family supplies 20 grams of high-quality protein per 3-ounce serving, as well as B12, selenium, phosphorus, magnesium, and a decent quantity of omega-3s. The mercury risk in wild Alaska pollock is low, and the fish consistently earns high certification scores by the Marine Stewardship Council. “Populations of the fast-reproducing fish are healthy and are caught using midwater trawls, resulting in less by-catch risk,” explains Nanninga.
Buyer Beware: Representing the largest wild fishery in the country, Alaska pollock is the most popular fish people don’t know they’re eating. It’s often consumed breaded and battered (think fish sticks and fish-and-chips) or found in imitation crab meat. Such ultra-processing techniques can negate the fish’s health benefits. Note that Atlantic pollock is not as abundant as Alaska pollock, and it may be caught using techniques like bottom trawling or gillnets — a wall of netting that can entangle turtles and other aquatic species.
Smart Choice: To keep pollock’s nutritional benefits front and center, look for plain fresh or frozen fillets of Alaska pollock (also called walleye pollock or whitefish) instead of the breaded and fried versions.
Often overlooked, these five seafood choices are worthy of your consideration for their nutrition, safety, and sustainability.
These briny gems are a low-cost source of satiating protein, the antioxidant selenium, metabolism-supporting manganese, and must-have omega-3s. They also provide a good dose of vitamin B12, which supports a healthy nervous system.
Safety and Sustainability: Most mussels you can buy are farmed, which is a good thing in this case. “When suspended in waterways, the shellfish feed by filtering plankton, so they require no supplemental food and may actually improve surrounding water quality,” says Bigelow. In addition, mussels respond well to high-density farming and typically don’t require antibiotics.
Shopping and Prep: Buy about a pound of mussels per serving. Store in the refrigerator for up to two days in a bowl covered with a damp paper towel; mussels are sold alive, so never keep them in plastic bags. If necessary, debeard (remove seaweed and debris) just before cooking. To cook, simply place in a pot of steamy liquid — try broth, white wine, or coconut milk — and simmer until they pop open, about five to seven minutes. Discard any that don’t open.
Also known as giant perch or yellow perch, this meaty, butter-flavored, white-fleshed fish supplies solid amounts of omega-3s — up to 800 milligrams in a 5-ounce serving.
Safety and Sustainability: Two forward-thinking aquaculture ventures — one in Massachusetts, the other in Vietnam — have earned farmed barramundi a “best choice” rating from Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. The U.S. operation uses nonpolluting land-based tanks, while the Vietnamese operation practices low-density farming, reducing the need for antibiotics. Both operations test for mercury, PCBs, and other contaminants. Avoid wild-caught barramundi from Southeast Asia, as its fishery is poorly managed.
Shopping and Prep: The best place to find barramundi is in your grocery’s freezer section: Look for the brand name Australis on the package. Try it steamed, broiled, grilled, or pan-seared.
Canned salmon is usually a richer source of omega-3 fats and vitamin D than canned tuna, especially if you compare sockeye with light tuna. And though the pin bones in fresh salmon can be a choking hazard, they soften during the canning process and add bone-strengthening calcium.
Safety and Sustainability: Most canned salmon on the U.S. market hails from sustainable wild Alaskan fisheries; look for brands labeled “wild.” Like fresh wild salmon, canned salmon has a low mercury risk.
Shopping and Prep: Pink and sockeye are the species most commonly used for canned salmon. Both are nutritious, but sockeye delivers more omega-3s and vitamin D. Flavors and textures vary, so shop around to find a brand you like. Some provide no-salt options and BPA-free tins. Use the meat in salads, make fish cakes and chowders, or fork onto crackers for a high-protein snack.
This rich-tasting fish is a nutritional superstar, with 1 gram of omega-3s per 3-ounce serving and high levels of protein, B vitamins, and vitamin D — an elusive nutrient associated with lower cancer risk.
Safety and Sustainability: Atlantic mackerel is a smaller species than king and Spanish, and therefore has a lower mercury risk. Nanninga says adults and children can safely eat several servings of Atlantic mackerel a month. She adds that the wild Atlantic fishery in North America is well managed; the industry practices sustainable-fishing methods and cautious harvest limits, enabling schools to remain abundant.
Shopping and Prep: Work more mackerel into your diet by looking for ready-to-go packages of smoked fillets. The highly flavorful fish can be incorporated into salads, side dishes, and dips.
Long prized by recreational anglers, rainbow trout is one of the more affordable sources of good-for-you fats. A 3-ounce serving of trout also gives you about a quarter of your daily requirements for phosphorus, an important mineral for cell membranes and healthy bones.
Safety and Sustainability: Rainbow trout’s nutritional payoff comes with little contaminant risk, despite the likelihood that it was farmed. Bigelow points to land-based tanks and “raceways” employed by most North American trout farmers that, when used appropriately, cause fewer of the environmental woes that can plague open-water net pens in salmon farms.
Shopping and Prep: Rainbow-trout fillets are convenient (cook them like you would salmon), but consider purchasing whole trout if it’s available. Not only is it more affordable, but cooking the skeleton infuses the flesh with more flavor. (No need to be squeamish — whole trout is often sold already gutted.)
This appeared as “Great Catch” in the June 2017 print issue of Experience Life.
Savvy Seafood Shopping
Whether you’re at the fish counter or your favorite seafood restaurant, these tips will help you be a more confident consumer.
Skip the heavy hitters: Larger, longer-living predatory fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, orange roughy, tilefish, and overfished Bluefin tend to have higher concentrations of mercury.
Embrace the new: Think beyond farmed salmon and try varieties like lingcod and Acadian redfish. Eat These Fish! (eatthesefish.com) is a campaign launched by the Environmental Defense Fund to promote these and other well-managed domestic fisheries.
Opt for small fish: Don’t turn up your nose at herring, Pacific sardines, and anchovies. They might be small (and somewhat stinky), but they offer impressive amounts of omega-3 fats, protein, and vitamin D. And with short lives, they don’t accumulate many toxins like mercury. Canned sardines can elevate sandwiches and side dishes; anchovies dissolve into sauces and dressings for a shot of umami flavor; and pickled herring is great on crackers or as a fork-to-mouth protein-packed snack.
Don’t be fresh-obsessed: Much of the “fresh” seafood sold at supermarkets has been shipped frozen and then thawed for display at the fish counter. So the seafood you find in the freezer aisle can actually be a bit fresher than what’s sold as “fresh” and sitting around on a bed of ice for a day or two. Plus, frozen lets you use it when you want.
Embrace technology: If you’re standing at the fish counter flummoxed about how to make the most sustainable choice, help is within reach. Download the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch app (found at seafoodwatch.org) for up-to-date recommendations on planet-friendly seafood and sushi. Or text 30644 with the word “fish” followed by a space and the name of the seafood you’re considering. You’ll get the scoop from the Blue Ocean Institute, which has facts and sustainability ratings for dozens of species.
Shop close to home: With some of the strictest regulations in the world, U.S. fisheries have made considerable progress toward ending overfishing and rebuilding fish stocks. Further, when fewer countries are involved in the distribution process from sea to dinner plate (up to 90 percent of seafood sold in the United States is imported), there is less risk of mislabeling one species as another. (For information on just how common mislabeling is, go to oceana.org/our-campaigns/seafood_fraud/campaign.)
Surf the Web: People selling fish at the supermarket don’t always know how or where it was caught or farmed. In some cases, shopping for seafood online can make it easier to know exactly what you’re getting. Sites such as vitalchoice.com and fishex.com offer a bounty of nutritious, sustainable options like wild Alaskan salmon and sablefish, with reasonable shipping rates. You can also join a Community Supported Fishery (CSF) and receive a box of locally caught seafood weekly or monthly. Find one at localcatch.org.
Look for seals of approval: Labels from the Marine Stewardship Council, Wild American Shrimp, Aquaculture Stewardship Council, and Global Aquaculture Alliance indicate that seafood comes from reputable sources. Note that some farmed fish is being sold as “organic,” though U.S. Department of Agriculture standards are not yet in place.
Dine with care: Restaurant menus are notoriously populated by sketchy seafood options like imported shrimp and farmed salmon. But places participating in sustainability programs like FishChoice (fishchoice.com) verify that all of the swimmers on their menus hail from sustainably managed fisheries.