A look at food safety: fish, benefits of eating fish, additives, mercury, PCBs, what to avoid, how to handle fish for cooking
ARE FISH SAFE TO EAT?
I’m not particularly fond of fish – why should I eat it?
Fish and shellfish can be very good for you. They offer high-quality protein and other nutrients, are low in saturated fat and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are poly-unsaturated fatty acids, which can lower blood triglycerides and raise the level of HDL cholesterol (the good kind). Triglycerides are the principal form of fat found in foods. They are processed by the liver. Excess fat consumed in the diet is converted in the liver into triglycerides for storage as fat. High triglycerides are associated with heart disease.
Omega-3 fatty acids can help lower triglycerides, and may also help prevent blood clotting. Other studies indicate that Omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent hypertension (high blood pressure). They also aid in reducing the risk of cancer (especially breast cancer), vision problems, and arthritis. They also help maintain the circulatory system.
The American Heart Association recommends we consume a variety of fish and shellfish, 2-3 servings a week, to help prevent heart disease. A recent study of 11,000 heart attack survivors found that participants who took a 1,000 mg fish oil supplement daily – a 3-1/3 oz serving of broiled salmon – lowered their risk of dying of heart disease within three years, compared with the group which received no fish oil.
But is fish safe to eat?
As reported in the Montana Kaimin newsletter for May 9, 2005,
“Chile is asking the world what color they would like their farmed salmon. Farmed salmon is typically a white color in Chile, due to the lack of the nutrients and algae that colors [sic] salmon flesh raised in the north. Why should Americans care? Because 60% of the United States’ salmon is coming [sic] from Chile.”
Besides having a sickly color, almost all fish and shellfish contains mercury. How much depends on the type consumed. Fish also may contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxins banned in 1976 but still present in the environment. PCBs are harmful to various systems of the body, including the immune and nervous systems. Studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, high PCB levels in mothers were associated with low birth weight and learning disabilities. A study by the University of Albany revealed that Washington farmed salmon contained as much PCBs as those from Chile. The university stated that the results of this study indicated that eating more than one 8 oz. serving of salmon could deliver an unsafe level of PCBs. Since farmed salmon eat pellets made from their dead relatives, PCBs are endlessly recycled. And while mercury disappears from the body after a time, PCBs remain indefinitely, stored in body fat.
As of March 2004, the FDA has this to say about mercury in fish:
Avoid the following:
Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish – high levels of mercury
Use in moderation (no more than 12 oz. per week):
• Canned light tuna*
• Canned salmon
*Albacore white tuna contains more mercury. No more than 6 oz. per week is recommended.
Contamination also varies from state to state. You can check your state’s position here: http://epa.gov/waterscience/fish/states.htm.
Is wild fish safer than farm-raised?
Confusion reigns over this question. Logic would tell you that farmed fish would be safer, raised under controlled conditions, etc. However, farmed fish are often crowded, prone to disease (and fed antibiotics) and can escape and infect wild fish. Even they are high in mercury.
Salmon is a healthful fish, but farmed salmon eat pellets too, instead of the healthy diet they get in the wild. “Wild” food converts easily into omega-3 fatty acids, while pellets return less nourishment. Farmed fish are fed artificial colors to make them appealing. Farmed fish simply do not taste as good as wild fish. Too often, however, the average person has little or no access to wild fish, as they are increasingly difficult to come by.
Should pregnant women eat fish?
The EPA estimates that 8% of women of child-bearing age have high enough mercury levels in their blood to put their unborn children at risk for severe birth defects and neurological problems affecting language, movement and hearing, as the brains of unborn and very young children are still developing. More than 60,000 children are born in the US each year at risk for lifelong difficulties as a result.
However, study of 8,000 pregnant women in Denmark revealed that omega-3 fatty acids substantially reduced low birth weight and premature delivery. The women who ate 100 g of fish per week (in two servings) were three times less likely to deliver low weight babies than those who ate no fish at all.
To provide your baby with the best chance of a healthy life, eat fish or shellfish twice a week. But be sure you choose from among the varieties that contain the lowest levels of mercury:
• Halibut Average: 0.23 PPM
• Sablefish 0.22
• Pollock 0.20
• Canned Tuna 0.17
• Blue Crab 0.17
• Dungeness Crab 0.18
• Crab King 0.09
• Scallops 0.05
• Catfish 0.07
It is recommended that pregnant and lactating women eat fish because the omega-3 fatty acids aid in the development of the baby’s central nervous system and vision. After the baby is old enough to eat “adult” food, offer fish throughout childhood and teens.
What about sushi, is it safe for pregnant women?
In general, no. The reason is - parasites. We all know what a parasite is. It enters the body with the food we consume, and takes from our nutrients what it needs, leaving us deficient. Fish are subject to many parasites, including Anchor worms, fish lice, trematodes, eye flukes, black spots, thorny-headed worm, yellow grubs, tapeworms and other varieties.
How can I tell if the fish I buy harbors parasites?
Look for: spots or threads, black or white, tumors, anything that looks as though it doesn’t belong there. If you have caught the fish yourself, look for unusual behavior. If you see any, don’t take that fish home. But if you must, either freeze it before eating, and/or heat it thoroughly before eating. Pickling or brining may reduce the hazard, but will not eliminate parasites.
The best way to reduce your risk for parasites is to cook your fish thoroughly, and stay away from sushi or any other form of uncooked fish or shellfish.
I love fish! What can I do to make it safe?
Proper food handling is the answer:
• Keep seafood cold (32 – 38 degrees F. Use frozen fish within 1-6 months, and unfrozen within a day or two.
• Thaw and/or marinate the fish in the refrigerator; don’t leave it out for more than 2 hours.
• Wash hands carefully before and after handling fish.
• Use clean towels to scrub your work surfaces.
• Rinse in cold water.
• Cook until the fish is opaque (not transparent) and flakes easily. If you use a meat thermometer, 145 degrees F. is the optimum.
Use care when dealing with seafood, and enjoy!