Harley Pasternak Blogs: The Best Fish to Buy

Harley Pasternak Blogs: The Best Fish to Buy
Harley Pasternak
Courtesy Harley Pasternak

08/21/2013 AT 03:00 PM EDT

To fish, or not to fish, that is the question.

Poached salmon, shrimp cocktail, crab cakes, raw oysters, tuna sashimi … yum!

I've always emphasized the health benefits of including seafood in your diet. Seafood is a great source of protein and healthy fat and it's rich in iron.

But when it comes to buying seafood, there is a great deal of confusion about what we should and shouldn't eat. And what we see written on the package – "wild-caught," "line-caught," "farm-raised," "organic" – isn't much help. How do we know what fish is the best?



Is "wild-caught" the magic phrase to picking a healthier fish? Not necessarily.

"Wild-caught" has become a buzzword in our seafood aisles, but what does it really mean? You may be surprised to learn that wild-caught fish is not really superior to farm-raised fish and is certainly not a surefire sign of a healthy fish.

Wild-caught fish comes from seas, rivers, and other natural bodies of water. Wild-caught is, in fact, usually the better choice when it comes to fish because it tends to be more nutritious due to its more diverse diet and natural habitat. There are some exceptions, though. Wild-caught fish tend have higher mercury counts than their farm-raised counterparts. Why? We have less control over the mercury in the wild than in a controlled, farmed environment.

Mercury makes its way to our table through nature's food chain: the plankton absorb mercury, the little fish eat the plankton, the big fish eat the little fish, and so on and so forth. The mercury accumulates into more dangerous levels as we go further up the food chain.

It would make sense then, that the largest and most predatory fish on the food chain are the biggest carriers of mercury: sharks, tuna, swordfish, and mackerel can contain about 10 million times as much methylmercury as the water surrounding them.

Fifty percent of seafood sold in the U.S. is now farm-raised, meaning it's sourced from tanks or man-made fisheries commonly anchored in coastal areas or other large bodies of water. Also called aquaculture, fish farming has gotten a bad rap for its widespread pollution, use of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides and diseased populations.

These facilities are rapidly replacing traditional wild fishing. The benefits for the producer and the consumer, however, are hard to ignore: farm-raised fish is cheaper, more controllable, and generally lower in mercury.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed mandatory country-of-origin labeling rules that were intended to inform consumers about where their seafood comes from and if it is farm-raised or wild-caught. However, thanks to ineffective labeling requirements and lack of regulation, the system became a big mess. The rules are riddled with loopholes and exceptions and have been notoriously inconsistent.

A 2006 Consumer Reports study found that about half of the salmon in supermarkets sold as wild-caught was frequently farm-raised. And a recent survey from the non-profit ocean protection group Oceana estimated that a whopping one-third of the fish bought between 2010 and 2012 was probably mislabeled.

What about "organic" fish? Unfortunately, there is no such thing. The USDA doesn't actually give its coveted organic stamp to seafood due to a lack of standards for organic aquaculture production. So, the products you see on the shelf that have been labeled "organic" have been certified not by the USDA, but through a 3rd party independent organization. The USDA has announced that they're working on a certification standard, but no word yet as to when that will materialize.

In fact, Oceana took 1,215 samples of fish from across the United States and discovered the following astonishing facts:

59 percent of the fish labeled "tuna" sold at restaurants and grocery stores in the U.S. is not tuna.

Sushi restaurants were far more likely to mislabel their fish than grocery stores or other restaurants. (In Chicago, Austin, New York, and Washington D.C., every single sushi restaurant sampled sold mislabeled tuna.)

84 percent of fish samples labeled "white tuna" were actually a fish called escolar.

The only fish more likely than tuna to be misrepresented was snapper, which was mislabeled 87 percent of the time, and was, in actuality, any of six different species.

With all of this confusion, perhaps we should just focus on the fact that seafood is healthy for you, regardless of its source. Some seafood is healthier than others. Low mercury seafood can be eaten regularly; higher mercury seafood can still be eaten, just less often.

And let's not forget, the country with the longest life span in the word (Japan), also happens to be the biggest fish eater in the world.

What kind of seafood do you buy? Tweet me @harleypasternak.

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