The Best Fish to Eat (and the Most Dangerous)

The Best Fish to Eat (and the Most Dangerous)
By: Celeste Perron
May 18, 2011

We all hear, ad nauseum, that fish should play a big role in a healthy diet. They’re a good source of protein, are packed with essential fatty acids, provide a range of vitamins and minerals, and are low in “bad” fats (true regardless of whether you consider saturated fat or omega-6-laden vegetable oils to be the enemy).

And now that summer is almost upon us, I’m dreaming of fish tacos — though fish is a good idea all year, I tend to crave it most when the weather is warm. But the issue of which fish to eat seems to grow more complicated by the day. Many varieties of fish are being hunted to extinction, fish farms are hurting the oceans, many fish are contaminated with heavy metals and toxins like PCBs, and now we’ve got radiation from Japan in the water.

To help an eager pescavore sort out how to eat healthily and sustainably, I’ve tried to answer some of the most pressing questions:

What’s the healthiest fish to eat?

Although all fish offer some health benefits, salmon seems to take the superfood prize. It’s loaded with the omega-3s DHA and EPA, which boost cardiovascular health, improve mood and brain function, protect your joints, prevent macular degeneration and may help prevent cancer.

But, beware: About 80% of salmon in your supermarket is farmed, and farmed salmon, while cheaper, could do you more harm than good. A blog post by Mark Sisson explains why farmed salmon is a bad deal—fewer omega-3s plus a hefty dose of PCBs and other contaminants, plus red food dye (since farmed salmon is fed an unnatural diet, the flesh would be grey if not dyed a rosy hue).

Your best bet is wild, Alaskan salmon. Yes, it costs more, but if you can’t afford big fillets try buying smaller portions and putting it in omelets, pasta or tacos.

What are the safest and most eco options?

In general, fish that are low on the food chain—think sardines, anchovies and shellfish—are the least contaminated with toxins. Some other relatively safe and earth-friendly choices: Alaskan and California halibut, Alaskan salmon, Mackerel, California squid, Dungeness crab, and farmed shellfish. (This is according to a good fish/bad fish list put together for San Francisco magazine by Kenny Belov, an owner of Sausalito, CA restaurant Fish, one of my favorite places to eat.)

What about tuna?

Tuna is tricky—it’s packed with healthy fats but usually also packed with mercury (a potent neurotoxin that can build up in our bodies). Plus, in part because the past couple of decades have seen an explosion in sushi consumption, tuna are being stripped from the oceans at an unsustainable rate. So because of both health and ethical reasons, I try to avoid it.

If you do eat tuna, it seems that the best choices are Pacific albacore and US Yellowfin (if they are troll- or line-caught).

Which other fish should I avoid?

It’s a long list, unfortunately. See it on the Seafood Watch website and download one of their seafood guides—they have printable wallet guides as well as Iphone and Android apps, and do guides specific to various regions of the country. I have the guide on my Iphone and find it really helpful when I’m trying to make sense of the seafood counter.

Should I worry about radiation?

Probably not—that’s the consensus anyway, though of course there are dissenters. (This Mother Jones article explains.) I heard Andrew Weil speak at an event last week, and when somebody asked him about radiation dangers he said that the radiation seemed to not be affecting Alaskan waters, so at least we can eat fish from the far north without fear.

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