Fish smarts for informed choices

Over the holidays we planned a Scandinavian-themed dinner that featured salt-cured salmon. I’ve never prepared cured fish before. It was an interesting process, one that’s been used for centuries to preserve fish and meat. A thick layer of a sugar-salt-spice mixture is spread over a raw salmon filet, which is then wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerated for 4 days.

While shopping for the salmon filet, I realized I hadn’t eaten fish for months. I’m not exactly on board with the official U.S. recommendations to eat 4 ounces of fish twice a week. Why does this recommendation exist?

Aside from the omega-3 fat content of certain types of fish, other foods can supply the same nutrients as fish. Like meat and poultry, fish is a high protein food and a good source of B12. Unlike meat and poultry, fish tends to be low fat and so is lower calorie. That’s important to many people, but frying fish defeats the purpose.

What about omega-3 fats?

As I noted, some fish are good sources of omega-3 fats. But which fish? Typically higher fat varieties are good sources:

  • salmon
  • mackerel
  • sardines (canned sardines are surprisingly high in omega-3 fats)
  • herring
  • bluefish (commonly available in the northeast US)
  • canned light tuna
  • Atlantic cod

Salmon is promoted for this exact reason. Unfortunately it’s impossible to predict the omega-3 fat content of any one portion of salmon. The omega-3 content varies by salmon variety and whether the salmon are wild-caught or farmed. And with farmed, it depends on what the fish were fed. If you eat two 4-ounce servings of salmon a week, you might get a reasonable amount of omega-3 fats, but you might not.

If you aim to get your omega-3 fats from food, you need to eat at least two 4-ounce servings of a high omega-3 fish every week. Week after week. If you don’t care for any of those fish listed above, or don’t have access to them or can’t afford them, you won’t be getting much omega-3 from food. Low fat white fleshed fish, shell fish and shrimp are popular, but have little omega-3.

Why not eat fish?

I want to be clear: there’s nothing dangerous about fish, although consumption of some species should be limited due to the potential for heavy metal content. The problem with eating fish is not related to the actual fish. It’s the fishing.

Global fish stocks are collapsing. Overfishing is at epidemic levels. There are close to 7.8 billion people on the planet, and many of them depend on fish instead of livestock for protein. Unscrupulous commercial fleets reel in up to half of the yearly catch. Fishing regulations are poorly enforced in many coastal areas. Ship operators underreport catch. Trawlers turn off identification electronics and illegally haul in vast amounts of fish, undetected. Satellites can now detect some of this activity, but if ships are far out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, not much can be done about them.

There’s another even more insidious problem: slave labor. Many illegal fishing operators employ what amounts to slave labor, recruiting desperate people to work, not paying them, holding them hostage on ships in the middle of the ocean.

Then there’s fish fraud. Cheap varieties of fish are sold as more expensive varieties. Because so many fish are white fleshed, it can be hard for even the most discerning buyers or chefs to identify the fraud. Are the pricey scallops you just bought really scallops? Recently genetic testing systems have been used to verify fish identify, but this is a new technology, not widely used yet.

What to do?

I love fish and I don’t want to discourage anyone from eating it. Just make smart choices. If you’re eating fish for omega-3 fats, you have to choose fish with significant omega-3 content. If sustainability is a priority, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website has plenty of detailed information about a wide variety of fish. You can search on type of fish, farming or catch methods, country of origin and certification.

The fish farming industry is becoming more responsible, focusing on environmentally sustainable practices. Farmed oysters are a notable success story. Added benefit: oysters are very high in zinc. Shrimp is very popular, but it may be the most problematic purchase. Shrimp production in S.E. Asia has been linked to unsavory practices like slave labor. The Seafood Watch website has 3 pages on shrimp; many of the sources are labeled “Avoid”. You can peruse labels in the grocery store, but restaurants are less likely to have information about origins of shrimp, let alone other fish on the menu.

My message: if you enjoy fish make informed choices. If you don’t care for fish, or eat it infrequently, don’t worry. You can get those key nutrients from meat or poultry, or in the case of omega-3 fats, from supplements.


Canned sardines are widely available and a very convenient way to eat fish that’s high omega-3. Here are a few ways to enjoy canned sardines:

  • Eat them as is, for a snack or as part of a meal. You might want to put them on a plate first, but they do make a handy on-the-road snack, straight from the can.
  • Spread them on toast. They’re soft and you can mash them down a bit, garnish with a squeeze of lemon juice, or a condiment like horseradish, hot sauce or mustard. A fresh tomato slice is also nice.
  • Make a sandwich with mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato.
  • Eat as a snack on crackers.
  • Add sardines to a tossed salad.
  • Add to a pizza instead of anchovies.
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