Mercury, PCBs, sustainability issues, steep prices, and even fraud—all behind the grocer’s fish counter. It’s enough to make our heads swim and our feet walk right past it, apparently. Americans aren’t eating nearly enough seafood. The USDA guidelines advise two 4-ounce servings of seafood a week, and the most recent data shows people are eating less than one of those on average.
“First and foremost, you should be eating fish,” says Kate Geagan, MS, RD, author of Go Green, Get Lean. “Don’t let fear take you away from the fish counter, because there are still great options.” Smarter seafood shopping can go a long way for your health—and your wallet. Here’s what you need to know:
Concerns About Seafood
This naturally occurring toxic metal ends up in seafood via industrial pollution that contaminates phytoplankton, the microorganisms that fish eat. Studies have shown that mercury poses a threat to babies’ nervous systems and brains. The FDA issued an advisory in 2004 for pregnant and nursing women and young children to avoid fish high in mercury, such as swordfish, shark, and Bluefin tuna. Common low-mercury options include shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.
Polychlorinated biphenyls are toxic synthetic chemicals that were banned in 1977 but remain a pollution concern in streams, rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. These chemicals build up in the fatty tissues of fish and they have been linked to cancer. A pregnant mother’s exposure to PCBs has been found to affect her baby’s birth weight, short-term memory, and capacity for learning.
Scientists estimate that as much as 90% of the large fish such as shark, swordfish, and cod have been fished out of the oceans. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program keeps close on tabs on fishing practices. Its website and smartphone app aim to make people aware of the most sustainable seafood options.
Studies have found that much of the seafood sold in restaurants and supermarkets is actually mislabeled. The conservation group Oceana did a two year seafood fraud investigation and found that one in three of their seafood samples were mislabeled according to FDA guidelines. Pretty fishy.
But Here’s Why You Don’t Want to Skip It
“I would say for most people, your risk of not eating fish is much bigger than the risks associated with eating it,” Geagan says. Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the U.S. (i.e., not mercury poisoning or PCB toxicity, FYI). About 600,000 people die of heart attacks every year in this country and for half of them it’s their first one. “Those people don’t get a do-over,” Geagan says. “But you can slash that risk by eating omega-3-rich fish twice a week.”
An ever-growing body of research supports that impressive statistic, showing that eating more fish is associated with less heart disease. Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, and albacore tuna are the richest in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Evidence shows omega-3s from fish decrease the risk of irregular heartbeats and lower blood triglyceride levels and blood pressure. All of which seem to add up to reduce risk of heart disease and heart attack.
But if the heart-healthy benefits aren’t convincing enough, know that evidence also shows the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is important for both brain development and function, too. “The brain loves DHA,” Geagan says. “Most of your brain cells are up to 50 percent DHA by weight.” This is key for infants and kids whose brains are still developing, she explains. Research has shown giving pregnant women and newborns fish oil supplements can increase a child’s IQ. And for adults, studies have linked DHA with the potential to protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s, though more proof is needed.
Simple Seafood Shopping Strategies
1. Shop around for trust.
Finding a fishmonger with a sustainability program you can trust is easier than you may think. And sustainable seafood doesn’t have to break the bank. Topping Greenpeace’s Seafood Retailer Scorecard just above Whole Foods is Safeway. But even stores like Target, Aldi, Trader Joe’s, Wal-Mart, and Costco passed the test. Check out the full list for more options. You can also try The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch smartphone app, which not only ranks different species of fish based on their sustainability but also the best restaurants and markets to buy them in near you.
2. Be acquainted with your best bets.
Study up on this list of your best seafood bets so you know what to ask for at the counter. “Know where you eat on the food chain,” Geagan says. “Plant-eating fish are planet-friendly. We want to eat low on the food chain. The smaller, lower fish are going to be lower in mercury and PCBs, but still pack that omega-3 fat.” She recommends the fish below, but if you don't see your favorite here, check out The Blue Ocean Institute’s list for unsustainable seafood and their ocean-friendly substitutes.
- Barramundi: “Barramundi is a sustainable sea bass that has that meaty mouth feel of a Chilean sea bass that people love.” This fish can synthesize omega-3 fats from plants, which is unusual—and sustainable.
- Chunk light tuna (over albacore white tuna)
- Norwegian Salmon: “Wild Alaskan salmon is great if you live in the west. That’s the gold standard, but we export a lot of that salmon to Japan,” she says. “There’s not enough in the marketplace for every American to be eating it. Norwegian salmon is listed number 1 in the world by the WHO for adhering to sustainability practices.” Look for Norwegian salmon or ask your fishmonger about it.
3. Find new budget-friendly faves.
If you think eating seafood twice a week is way beyond your budget, think again. “The fresh fish counter is expensive, but canned fish and frozen fish are some of the best protein and omega-3 bargains in the supermarket,” Geagan says. “There are all sorts of canned seafood being sustainably harvested in the Pacific Northwest: Salmon, tuna, sardines in BPA-free cans and cheap.” Check out these brands:
- Henry and Lisa’s frozen fish sticks, salmon burgers, fish nuggets, canned tuna and salmon
- Ian’s Natual Foods frozen fish sticks
- SeaPak frozen salmon burgers
- Sun Valley frozen smoked trout and salmon
- Vital Choice frozen fish and canned salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, Dungeness crab
- Wild Planet canned tuna, shrimp, sardines, and salmon