It’s important to feed your family fish as part of a healthy diet, but how can you be sure that you are buying safe seafood? Today, I’ll cover why you should eat fish, what the risks are and how to choose fish that you can safely feed your family.
Fish: A Necessary Part of Healthy Diet
Fish, particularly fatty fish, are full of omega-3 fatty acids, which contain ALA, EPA and DHA. These acids provide many of the health benefits that come from eating fish, which include:
- Fish is lower in saturated fats than other sources of omega-3 but still full of healthy fats.
- Omega-3s are great for memory and for keeping you sharp.
- They help you maintain good cardiovascular health.
- They also regulate clotting and can reduce inflammation.
- They reduce depression for women during and following pregnancy.
- Eating fish safely is a great way to promote prenatal brain development while you are pregnant, and helps your baby’s brain development after he is born when you breastfeed.
For a food low in calories and saturated fats, these are great benefits but there is a risk. Thanks to pollution, fish are exposed to toxic and problematic chemicals.
This particularly nasty toxic is, of course, linked to dangerous toxicity when too much is taken into the body. It can affect the immune system, nervous system, genetic and enzyme systems, and is a potent neurotoxin. It is very dangerous to developing embryos as well. Part of the problem is that it builds up in organisms and is stored in the fatty tissue of fish.
Waters polluted with pesticides like glyphosate can impact fish and have toxic effects on humans.
- Toxic Feed
Farmed fish may be fed with other fish that are contaminated with high levels of mercury or toxins. Additionally, overcrowded fish facilities can lead to diseases and other problems.
Another complication with seafood is the sustainability of the fish. Poor and destructive fishing practices harm the environment and may endanger the future of ocean wildlife.
PCBs, Dioxins and Fish
PCBs are a chemical that was outlawed in the 1970s in the U.S. but still persists in our environment. They were used to build places such as power plants and can seep into air and water systems. Dioxins are another contaminant that can be found in fish. The most common way to be exposed to PCBs or dioxins is by eating contaminated fish. Health hazards from exposure include:
- Autism was most recently linked to prenatal exposure to PCBs.
- Prenatal exposure can also cause low birth weight and pre-term labor.
- The EPA states harmful health effects from PCB exposure include with cancer, immune dysfunction, neurological dysfunction, endocrine disruption and reproductive problems.
- Dioxins can also cause reproductive and developmental problems, immune system damage, hormone disruption and cancer.
As you can see, it’s important to reduce your intake, particularly if you are pregnant.
Fish and Radiation After Fukushima
The 2011 nuclear meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan dumped radiation into the ocean. The question is, how safe is our fish after this event? The journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.) reported in February, 2016 that risk is minimal to humans who eat fish. The report states that “freshwater fish and ocean bottom dwellers near Fukushima have a higher risk of contamination with the radioactive chemical cesium than most other types of ocean fish in the same area,” however, that risk diminishes the further away the fish are from the meltdown site. There is a bit of controversy on this declaration. Some researchers complain that Japanese data collection standards are set too high. In other words, they should be searching for lower detection than they currently are to truly assess the contamination of local fish. That said, PNAS, as well as other experts, have claimed that you would need to eat 4000 pounds of tuna per year to see a 1% increase in radiation.
Safe Seafood and Healthy Fish Choices
But don’t stop buying fish altogether! You need to be proactive about which fish you choose to feed your family, how you prepare it and how often you serve it. There are basically a few considerations you need to be aware of:
- Freshwater Fish
At least one source claims that freshwater fish is healthier, suggesting it contains more calcium, and may be less toxic than ocean fish. However, the key with freshwater seafood is the safety of the water. Your best bet is to know where the fish are raised and if there are any EPA warnings in that area.
- Fish Hatcheries
Fish raised in hatcheries can use many different methods and, as mentioned above, overcrowding can be one of the problems. The more crowding, the more likely fish can be sick or raised in unsanitary facilities.
- Country of Origin
Different countries will have different standards for fish. For example, Norway had some big problems with its salmon in 2006, with high levels of dioxins and PCBs. Since then levels have been greatly reduced, however, The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) still refuses to add it to their list.
Basically, you should be aware of where your fish comes from and their laws regarding seafood, sustainability and inspection as well as the cleanliness of the local water.
How to Choose Safe Seafood
Selecting fish is also a matter of knowing how toxic the fish is versus how good it is for you.
- Fish that are lower in mercury include salmon (wild caught Alaskan is best), responsibly sourced shrimp, Pollock (light canned), tilapia, catfish (not imported) and cod.
- Fish to avoid due to toxicity include Gulf of Mexico tilefish, shark, swordfish, marlin, orange roughy, and king mackerel, especially when pregnant. Limit albacore white tuna to no more than 6 ounces per week.
- Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna are in danger of disappearing, so avoid these fish to protect ecosystems.
- Tilapia has caught some heat lately as well so you might want to skip this one since it’s not as rich in omega-3 as other, safer choices. Tilapia imported from China and Taiwan has been upgraded from “avoid” to “good alternative” but is still subject to concerns about waste, while U.S. and Ecuadorian sources are given a good rating from the EDF.
- Eating lower on the food chain reduces your exposure to mercury. Sardines and anchovies are excellent choices as they are high in both EPA and DHA and low in mercury.
- The Mayo Clinic recommends you limit your salmon consumption to:
- Canned Pacific salmon up to twice a week
- Fresh or frozen wild Pacific salmon up to twice a month
- Fresh or frozen farmed Atlantic salmon up to once every 2 months.
- Due to PCB contamination, the Environmental Defence Fund recommends that you:
- Avoid Bluefin tuna, although men can eat ½ serving per month.
- Eat rockfish in no more than 2 meals per month.
- Eat sole and rainbow trout in no more than 3 meals a months (less for children). Keep sole to 2 meals for kids under 11, and the trout to 2 for kids 5 and under.
Is Shellfish Safe and Healthy Too?
Shellfish often gets a bad rap, but it too has health benefits.
- Shellfish is low in fat and calories.
- Most are low in cholesterol with the exception of shrimp.
- Shellfish is a source of protein with the exception of oysters.
- It’s not as rich in omega-3 as fatty fish. Oysters and blue crab are better options for this important nutrient.
- Mussels are rich in protein, omega-3, selenium, iron and vitamin B-12.
However, shellfish sometimes absorbs contaminants in the ocean faster than other fish, such as bacteria (think salmonella). Cook well and eat as fresh as possible since it spoils quickly.
Additionally, shrimp has its own possible danger. Imported shrimp may contain toxic antibiotics, such as nitrofuranzone, a known carcinogen. Overseas packaging plants can also be very unsanitary. Try to limit your shrimp purchases to responsibly sourced wild shrimp.
For lobsters and crabs, be sure not to eat the green tomalley, or liver, in lobsters or the “mustard” in blue crabs. These can be higher in PCBs and other toxins than the other parts of the fish.
Where To Find More Information on Safe Seafood Choices
Whew! That’s a lot to take in. What’s a mom to do? Basically, you should be looking at the source of your seafood, watching updated information and reports from those who keep a keen eye on the seafood industry and avoiding the most toxic seafood.
Make the best choices possible when buying seafood. Ask questions from your provider as well. Here are some tools that can help guide you in selecting the safest and healthiest fish for your family.
- Read Environmental Working Group’s Consumer Guide to Seafood, which will tell you how much seafood you can eat, depending on your age, if you are pregnant, if you have heart disease and more. Also check out their Seafood Calculator to figure out what choices are best for you.
- EDF’s Seafood Selector can help you select the healthiest, most eco-friendly fish and sushi options.
- Seafood Watch lets you search safe seafood recommendations by fish or sushi name.
- Rodale Organic’s Farmed vs. Wild Fish Guide has a list of what fish to buy farmed and what to buy wild.
- If you love shrimp, read Consumer Report’s 8-page safer shrimp guide for everything you need to know from sourcing and buying to cooking.
- For more details on what fish to eat and how often, download the Physicians for Social Responsibility’s PDF report, “Healthy Fish, Healthy Families.” It covers pregnant women and children as well.
- Look for proper labeling. Whole Foods Market labels fish they sell with yellow and green lights. You can also look for the Marine Stewardship Council label, or use their seafood product finder.
- Vital Choice is vendor of wild seafood and organics that also tests their fish for radiation. Learn more about why they think several varieties of Pacific fish are safe.
Seafood does a world of good for your body is essential to building the minds of our children. Making safe choices and knowing how often to purchase fish is an important way to show your family that you love them.
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