Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
17 Sep

Reader Response: Better Fish Choices

Thanks so much to everyone for their comments and emails on last week’s “Farmed versus Wild Salmon” post. The response, both posted and personal, was amazing. It’s what I love about doing the blog – getting you, our MDA readers, the information you want and the resources you can use. Keep those comments and suggestions coming!

I wanted to follow up on a few questions in particular. A number of folks, including David, wanted to know if you could tell how “wild” salmon was from the label. Also, what other kinds of fish would I recommend if salmon, for financial and/or personal environmental commitments, is off the table? Finally, readers like Brett were interested in knowing whether other canned fish like mackerel and sardines were necessarily wild and healthy alternatives.

First, let’s follow up on the issue of wild/half wild salmon. As I mentioned last week, the majority of “wild”-labeled salmon isn’t 100% wild. Most wild-caught salmon originate from hatcheries where they’re raised for the first half or so of their lives before being released into the wild for harvest later. Unfortunately, these fish are considered wild by regulating agencies, and no explanation is required for the “wild” label. Your best bet is to hone in on reputable companies that sell purportedly wild salmon and then grill their customer service staff to get information on the exact sources for their product. Follow the sales trail with gritty tenacity, and you have a decent shot of nailing down a good source for your consumer loyalty. (Talk about singing for your supper….)

As for other fish options, it depends how much of your decision is based on health and how much is based on sustainability. Sometimes the two categories (most healthy and most environmentally conscious) correlate, and sometimes they don’t. This is a health blog, but I know many of you out there (myself included) like to be informed on both fronts to make personal choices. The options in either case are extensive. While I’ll focus on health here, check out this resource (The Marine Stewardship Council, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch) for more details and lists on environmental sustainability in the fishing industry.

Some healthy fish alternatives to salmon include species that offer hefty omega-3 benefits (per ounce) and are still relatively low in toxins like mercury and PCBs. I’ll caution that the list is continually changing. It’s news that’s worth keeping up on, and these lists will help you do just that. (National Geographic Green Guide Fish tale) A list offered by the Environmental Defense Fund goes so far as providing both a handy guide on toxin load in different fish species and recommended serving limits per month. It even breaks it down into recommendations for men, women, older kids and young ones. A great overview.

As for those species that offer both high omega-3s and low toxin risk, here are some budget-friendly samplings: light tuna, anchovies, sardines, Atlantic herring, and Atlantic mackerel. These species are generally wild caught, and they give salmon a run for its money. Anchovies, according to some nutritional sources, offers more omega-3s than wild salmon (3.4 grams versus 3.2 grams per 6 ounce serving). Sardines and mackerel are close runners-up. Farmed rainbow trout gets a thumbs up from many sources on both these fronts. However, I’d recommend being very familiar with the particular practices of a trout hatchery before buying. You want to avoid the same/similar antibiotics, pesticides and other chemicals you find in conventional meats.

Finally, for those who love fish and want to learn more, I’d suggest picking up a copy of Fish Forever: The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood by Paul Johnson, seafood supplier to famous chefs such as Alice Waters.

Thanks again for your comments and questions.

svenwerk, snowriderguy Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Scientists Warn of Undetected Toxins in Wild Fish

Omega-3 Round Up:

Omega 3 to 6 Ratio

Omega 3 Daily Dose

Omega 3 Food Sources

Cooking Omegas

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Good post Mark. How do you feel about Tilapia? We eat a fair amount of Tilapia around our household… always wild.

    Son of Grok wrote on September 17th, 2008
    • Where do you get wild tilapia? All the tilapia I can find are farmed ones.

      Peter wrote on January 19th, 2015
  2. If you’re on a budget, Ling and Coley are a very cheap option here in the UK and taste pretty good. They are white fish, so no omega 3s, but cooked them in a coconut cream sauce, add some nuts and take some omega 3 supplements and you have all you need…

    Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later wrote on September 17th, 2008
    • A note on ling–

      We catch them often in the Gulf of Mexico, and they suffer greatly from overcooking, becoming dry, chewy, and tasteless. I cook them probably a third as long as I cook most fish. When cooked properly, they are flaky, and succulent, maybe my favorite fish in the Gulf, but almost everyone overcooks them, even experienced fish cooks.

      Jen wrote on November 4th, 2013
  3. I love Tilapia. It is cheap and easy to find. I like to pan fry mine in butter with some sliced yellow squash. A liberal dose of salt and pepper, topped with 2 fried organic eggs is a perfect dinner for me. OH! and don’t forget the fish oil supplements like Methuselah said!

    Simon32 wrote on September 17th, 2008
  4. I used to eat loads of Tilapia while I lived in Texas. Made for great fish tacos. Mackeral is great, though, especially smoked mackeral – a fillet of that is a meal in itself!

    monica wrote on September 17th, 2008
  5. tinned sardines, small so low in mercury, the ones in tomato source taste great, very cheap, high omega 3, contain edible bones for calcium, good dose of vit-d, 20g protein per small tin, low carb, prep time=8 seconds, i think they are possibly the best all round food ever.

    JC wrote on September 17th, 2008
  6. I just read an article on tilapia and omega 3 & 6s.
    link below…
    Mark, what do you think?

    Sheri wrote on September 17th, 2008
  7. Nice article, Sheri.

    It just goes to show that it pays to dig deep to find answers. As the article touched on, people think fish is a good healthy protein choice. But it is more nuanced than that. You have to be aware of which varieties are best and the conditions in which they are raised.

    If you like tilapia make sure it is wild and then still supplement with omega 3s.

    Mark Sisson wrote on September 17th, 2008
  8. Thank you for the link Sheri. Very interesting. It was written on farm raised tilapia though. What about wild tilapia? It sayas at the end of the article that Wild Tilapia is a “better” choice. But is it a “good” choice? I hope so :-/ What are others thoughts?

    Son of Grok wrote on September 17th, 2008
  9. Simon Fellows wrote on September 17th, 2008
  10. About the misleading wild label for salmon: I’m glad I live in the Pacific Northwest where I can buy my salmon at the farmers market from the folks who caught it, and ask them directly how wild it is!

    Food Is Love

    Huckleberry wrote on September 17th, 2008
  11. Great post, very informative. I wish it wasn’t so hard to find decent food, playing 20 questions with a supplier to find out how the food has been grown/raised feels a little overwhelming to me. But I guess we have to seek it out if we want to know, no one else is going to look out for us.

    Heather wrote on September 17th, 2008
  12. Having suffered from near dementia, fatigue, etc. by age 48 due to mercury toxicity (primarily from dental amalgams), I now feel that any exposure to this substance is too much.

    Mercury is a cumulative poison. It finds any place in your body to set up house, the brain being a favorite spot,and accumulates there over time and additional exposure.

    You may not notice a problem for 30+ years, then find yourself forgetting your long-time neighbor’s name – and it’s downhill from there. Some people become incapacitated within a couple of years, or maybe a decade, of exposure such as amalgams or frequent fish consumption.

    Luckily, IV chelation can remove most of it, but it takes years of treatments, and some permanent damage is inevitable. Chelation is FDA approved for lead poisoning, but it also works for other heavy metals (including aluminum), all of which can cause brain and other organ dysfunction.

    So how many servings of tainted fish is safe over a lifetime? If you ask me – none! I get my omega 3’s from certified toxin free capsules.

    George wrote on September 17th, 2008
  13. I loooooooove mackerel. Probably better than salmon, though I can get really great salmon and finding good fresh mackerel is a little harder.

    But for a quick craving, all I need is a sushi joint and an order of “saba”. Yum.

    Andrea Lin wrote on September 17th, 2008
  14. As much as I feel I have a handle on many food issues, fish & seafood I haven’t been able to grasp as well. Between the health and environment issues and the 20 questions game, my mind goes into overload mode at the fish counter. So even though I like fish and think it can be a good food choice, I don’t eat is so often anymore. I have a better grasp of my options with grass-fed beef and bison.

    Also, after reading Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kulansky), I’ve had pangs of misgivings about being on the consumer end of modern fishing industries, even those deemed ok (for today, but what about tomorrow?). Between how dangerous it is for the workers, to the shifting regulations that are often manipulated and flouted, to the environmental destruction, the huge scale of modern fishing worldwide is changing the ocean’s fishing stock at an escalating pace. My instinct is to back off fish and seafood, at least most of the time, to ease the pressure on on fish stocks. While fish can be a great food, it isn’t essential.

    Which brings me to the issue of omega 3s. Lately I’ve become more persuaded that massive amounts of Omega 3s aren’t necessarily needed, *if* omega 6 consumption is low enough (it’s high in the Standard American Diet and many “healthy” diets due to high grain & soy consumption, grain-fed livestock, and PUFA vegetable/seed oils). High consumption of PUFAs in general seems to be very problematic for inflammation, cancer, and CVD (& other modern diseases). Perhaps it’s better to get the ratio of 3:6 right at lower levels (by avoiding PUFAs from grains, grain-fed livestock and industrial vegetable/seed oils) than to try to balance the ratio at higher consumption levels.

    The very foods that increased in consumption during the 20th century have much higher PUFA content, replacing traditional foods that naturally had lower PUFA content, at the same time diseases of inflammation and impaired immune function rose to ever higher levels. Industrial vegetable/seed oils in liquid or hydrogenated form (cottonseed, soy, corn and others seeds replaced low PUFA beef tallow, butterfat, and moderate PUFA lard. Grains and many seeds are high in PUFAs. Additionally, consumption of animal products with naturally higher PUFA content went up (chicken and turkey) as consumption of lower PUFA animal products (“red” meats like beef, lamb, and pork, etc.) went down. Plus most livestock went from pasture and/or range eating with only a small amount of grain supplementation to confined and/or indoor environments with high grain consumption, further bumping up the natural PUFA content in the tissues. So perhaps high omega 3 consumption seems great, in the context of a still high omega 6 consumption pattern, but isn’t needed in a more traditional pattern. I’m still working through this, though, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of current data on this, mainly historical data with non-industrial populations.

    Anna wrote on September 18th, 2008
  15. I seriously doubt if most people can find wild tilapia in the United States. Virtually all frozen tilapia is imported from China (and farmed), and this represents most of the market. Most fresh tilapia is imported from Central America. All of this is farmed. Wild tilapia live in Africa, and unless your fishmonger shows that Africa (usually Uganda) as its source, its more likely to be farmed.

    Farmed tilapia are just piscine chickens.

    Scott Hanson wrote on September 18th, 2008
  16. “Farmed tilapia are just piscine chickens.”

    Love that description, Scott. Same shape as boneless chicken breasts, too, and about the same amount of excitement to eat (none). Come to think of it, when my son was younger, he called just about any light color flesh/meat “chicken”. We thought it was cute, but guess he was on to something.

    I think you are right about the farmed tilapia, too. I’ve never been aware of wild tilapia, only farmed.

    Anna wrote on September 18th, 2008
  17. fishing wrote on September 9th, 2010
  18. What about alaska pollock?

    bert wrote on October 8th, 2010
  19. I used to eat tilapia until I heard their diet is primarily… poo. Go ask your butcher.

    Brian wrote on March 19th, 2011
  20. I’m aware this is a seafood post. However, considering omega3-6 ratios, am I courting disaster eating regular pork too often (4 times per week). I’ve been eating alot as of late. Any advice would help.

    marc wrote on April 11th, 2011
    • Eat less pork? Coincidentally(?), salmon is high in omega 3’s. So is cod liver oil if you need a supplement.

      Summer wrote on November 16th, 2012
  21. Just a quick question for all you people saying “skip the fish and take the supplement.” Where do you think the omega 3’s come from to make those supplements? You have no idea do you.

    Mindy1986 wrote on July 4th, 2012

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