I’ve written two Think Pink, Live Green columns on fish: Fish: Landing the Healthiest Choices
and Salmon and Tuna: How to Make the Healthiest Choices of These Popular Fish.
To recap, you might have heard mixed messages about fish. One news report says that fish is good for you because it can reduce the risk of heart disease and promote brain development. But then someone on a talk show says some types of fish contain high levels of mercury and other contaminants such as dioxins, hormonally active ingredients, and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). PCBs (which were banned in the United States in 1979) are man-made chemicals used in flame retardants, dyes, and plastics. PCBs can cause cancer in animals and affect the immune system.
No expert has called for us to stop eating fish. With careful choices, we can make sure we’re getting all the benefits of fish without blowing our budget.
(I can’t resist slipping in a joke: What kind of fish has two knees? A two-knee — tuna — fish. Hee hee.)
Canned and jarred fish
Fresh fish can be expensive and little daunting to cook. Many of the best fish to eat are available in cans. Canned salmon, for example, is usually wild Pacific salmon, which is low in contaminants and high in omega-3 fatty acids. Canned sardines and mackerel offer these same benefits.
And while canned fish is more convenient and costs less, a lot of it comes in cans that are lined with a resin that contains bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is a weak synthetic estrogen that helps protect food from the metal taste of the can. It sounds like a good idea, but this hormonally active chemical can get into the food that’s in the can, which isn’t good. Extra exposure to hormonally active chemicals may cause cells that are sensitive to hormones to grow. The obvious example is hormone-receptor-positive abnormal breast cells. An occasional can of fish is no big deal, but if you’re making lunch and dinners with generic canned tuna on a regular basis, you might want to make some changes.
With more people asking for BPA-free cans or glass-jarred fish, more options are becoming available. Some seafood companies seem to be moving to BPA-free cans more quickly than others. The Vital Choice and Wild Planet food companies offer tuna, salmon, and sardines in BPA-free cans. These brands are more expensive than the most popular canned fish brands. Vital Choice can be purchased only online. Wild Planet’s website shows the national grocery chains where their products are available, in addition to offering online ordering (click Wild Planet Retailer List for stores in your area).
Research has shown that it costs about $3 per week to eat the amount of fish — 6 ounces per week — that provides the recommended amount of omega-3 fatty acids. To keep costs down, this 6 ounces can be a combination of salmon, tuna, anchovies, and sardines. (If you had 6 ounces of only salmon, for example, it would probably cost more than $3.)
If these options put canned fish out of your price range, you might want to consider eating herring — also high in omega-3 fatty acids — which is available in glass jars and is usually less expensive than canned fish.
Smoked fish and caviar
You may be wondering if smoked or dried fish is an alternative. While they might be tasty, they’re not as healthy. Salt-cured, pickled, and smoked foods have a lot of salt and nitrates, which may contribute to high blood pressure.
Sadly, the same salt warning is true for caviar. Because it’s cured, almost all caviar is very high in sodium.
Fast food or frozen fish
Fast food fish or frozen fried fish may be inexpensive and convenient, but probably isn’t your healthiest choice. Fried fish may be made with trans fats and is usually white meat fish (cod or haddock), which is much lower in omega-3 fatty acids. And most fried fish is breaded or has some sort of coating on it, which adds extra calories.
Fish oil capsules
Fish oil capsules are a supplement, not a substitute. Fish offers a lot of nutritional benefits besides omega-3 fatty acids, including protein, vitamin D, and selenium. Fish oil capsules by themselves aren’t going to give you all that. However, it’s fine to supplement your fish consumption with fish oil capsules. To ensure that your brand meets standards for purity, check out the Environmental Defense Fund’s report on fish oil supplements.
Other omega-3 fatty acid sources
Flaxseed, canola, soybeans, walnuts (and their oils), and leafy greens have a type of omega-3 fatty acid that our bodies covert to the type found in fish. Still, this conversion isn’t very efficient and the benefits are less clear compared to the benefits of getting omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish. Interestingly, women’s bodies — especially during pregnancy — convert plant omega-3s more efficiently than men’s.
I hope these tips help you get more healthy fish into your diet without breaking the bank. If you have some good recipes for fish, please share them! I need all the help I can get.