You know fish is good for you: It’s rich in protein, good fats and nutrients like selenium and vitamin D, that are vital for everything from brain and heart health to immunity. But concerns about contaminants in our waters — mercury, pollution and radiation, to name a few — may have you questioning which choices are healthiest or whether seafood is even safe to consume at all.
It’s smart to be aware of where your fish comes from, says New York City-based nutritionist Alissa Rumsey, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You should know the pros and cons of different varieties — East Coast versus West Coast, for example, or wild versus farmed. The most important thing to remember, however, is to keep eating seafood, period.
“Even a person who eats five times the normal amount of fish wouldn’t receive a dangerous dosage…only about the amount you’d be exposed to during a dental X-ray.”
“For almost any fish you can buy here in the United States, the benefits to your health are going to greatly outweigh the risks,” Rumsey says. Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer in America, she adds, and eating fish — especially fatty varieties like salmon, cod and sardines — can help reduce your risk. Still want the breakdown by region and type? Read on for the government’s official recommendations and our bottom line on seafood health and safety.
Should I worry about radiation?
In one word, no. The 2011 earthquake and damage to Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan sparked concerns that fish from the Pacific Ocean might contain high levels of radioactivity. But the FDA has been monitoring these levels regularly, and has found no evidence of increased amounts. “This is true for both FDA-regulated food products imported from Japan and U.S. domestic food products, including seafood caught off the coast of the United States,” states the FDA’s most recent position on the topic, from March 2014. “Consequently, the FDA is not advising consumers to alter their consumption of specific foods imported from Japan or domestically produced foods, including seafood.”
In fact, a study published in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences found that tuna caught off the coast of California in 2011 had trace levels of radiation, but they were less than you might find naturally occurring in a banana. Even a person who eats five times the normal amount of fish wouldn’t receive a dangerous dosage, the authors concluded — only about the amount you’d be exposed to during a dental X-ray.
What about mercury?
Mercury is a toxic metal that occurs naturally in the environment, in low levels. Concentrations have increased dramatically though in the last hundred years, thanks to man-made sources like power plants, waste incinerators, factories and mining facilities. In June 2014, the FDA and EPA revised their recommended fish guidelines for women who are pregnant or of child-bearing age, suggesting that they eat fish several times a week but limit their consumption of those high in mercury.
In terms of East Coast versus West Coast, mercury is an equal opportunist: According to the Environmental Defense Fund, all 50 states currently issue mercury advisories — 28 in freshwater lakes or rivers, and 19 in costal waters. Fish that are high in mercury include Spanish and Gulf mackerel, Chilean sea bass, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, and several fish found on both U.S. coasts, including shark, swordfish and bigeye and yellowfin (ahi) tuna. For a complete and up-to-date list of fish by mercury level, and a printable wallet guide, visit the National Resources Defense Council website.
So what’s healthiest?
Studies have shown that farmed fish — from both East and West Coast fisheries — contain more contaminants, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PBCs) and pesticide residue, which can be harmful. This type also tend to have more saturated fat. Until a few years ago, says Rumsey, farmed fish were considered less healthy and less sustainable for the environment. If you wanted salmon, for example, experts would only recommend wild-caught fish, usually from the Pacific Ocean. “The problem is,” she adds, “they’re not as readily available everywhere and they can be really expensive.”
The good news is that today, many farmed fisheries have cleaned up their acts. “The industry is working to make farmed fish a much more nutritious, sustainable option,” says Rumsey. “But each company will still have different practices, so it’s important to know or ask how the fish are raised.” You can also download a pocket guide or a smartphone app from seafoodwatch.org to help you make the smartest choices.
Is local always better?
Rumsey advises that buying from a local fish market has many advantages. “A lot of times you can talk directly to the fishermen and they can speak to their practices.” It also helps to know what types of fish are native to your region. Salmon, for example, is most prevalent in the Pacific Northwest, while lobsters live only in the Atlantic Ocean off the East Coast.
If you’re catching fish yourself, be sure to check local advisories on your state government’s website. These warnings put out by the individual states and compiled by the EPA will let you know if dangerous contaminants have been found in certain types of seafood in your area.