Sunday, December 9, 2012

Confused When Purchasing Fresh Fish?

I enjoy eating and cooking fish but often have questions about what to buy when I shop at my grocery or seafood store. My grocery store doesn’t carry much variety in types of fish - salmon, flounder, tilapia and a few others but decisions about wild-caught or farm raised, fresh or previously frozen, organic and place of origin can be confusing. Restaurants and seafood stores may carry other varieties of fish whose names are unfamiliar to land lubbers and choosing what to eat requires some education.

The average American eats about 3.5 ounces per week of seafood. “Seafood” is a term that also includes shellfish. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that we increase our seafood intake to 8 ounces/week. Research has shown that consumption of an average of 250 mg per day of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish is associated with reduced cardiac deaths among individuals with and without pre-existing cardiovascular disease.

Because of the high demand for fish, some fish populations have been depleted. Large scale fish farming took off in the 70’s and tripled in size between 1995 and 2007 to address the demand for more fish at reasonable prices. Farmed fish are raised in controlled conditions in pens and fed pellets of food. This ensures year round availability of fish and lowers the cost. Wild fish are seasonal and may cost two to three times more. Wild fish often have a stronger flavor and can be firmer and less fatty due to diet variations and the need to swim in open waters.

How about contaminants? Wild ocean-dwelling fish are not likely to contain antibiotics like farmed fish and may contain fewer pesticides and environmental pollutants, but fish farming can control the water quality which may result in less pollution. Mercury is found in all fish. Certain large fish like shark, king mackerel, tilefish, ahi tuna and swordfish have higher levels and intake should be limited, especially by children and pregnant women. Mercury is a heavy metal that can affect fetal development and healthy growth in children. Mercury can also wreck havoc in adults.

By federal law, grocery and big box stores must include on the label whether a fish has been previously frozen or is fresh and its country of origin. For wild fish in the U.S. market, most come from the Pacific Ocean with fish from Alaska being greatly prized. Interestingly, Alaska salmon is often wild whereas Atlantic salmon is always farm raised. It is recommended to choose American farm raised fish which may be regulated more closely than farm raised fish from outside the U.S.

U.S. fish labels must also disclose whether color has been added to the fish. Wild salmon naturally develop a reddish-pink color from their diet. Farmed salmon are pale so farmers add carotenoids (a group of colorful antioxidants) to their fish pellets which gives the salmon color. The law requires that this fish is labeled “color added”.

Beware of an “organic” label on fish. There are no federal standards for organic seafood.

Seafood is a popular selection in restaurants and some specialize in carrying local wild fish. Some states require noting whether a fish is wild and the state of origin. No mention is usually made of whether a fish is farm raised. Ask your waiter about unfamiliar varieties of fish. Like produce, fish are seasonal and if you live near fresh or salt water, getting to know local fish may increase your appreciation of this aquaculture.

For most of us, adding more fish to our diet can improve our health. Fish can be found canned, frozen, dried or fresh and it all contributes to a healthy heart. After researching this article, I am feeling more confident about my fresh fish choices. I hope that it helps you too!

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