By Casey Barber, CNN
(CNN) – We all try to make healthier choices, but when it comes to fish, is one type really better than another? Nutritionally, there is no wrong choice when it comes to seafood as a food group.
“As an animal source, it has one of the lowest levels of saturated fat relative to protein,” said Lourdes Castro, registered nutritionist and director of the NYU Food Lab. In addition to being a lean protein, seafood is also rich in D and B vitamins and minerals like iron, potassium, and calcium.
Most importantly, seafood is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to the cellular makeup of our bodies and can support our cardiovascular health and immune system. Since the body cannot produce its own omega-3 fatty acids, all of our intake must come from the food we eat.
“Our diets don’t typically contain high levels of omega-3s,” said Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. Eating seafood twice a week is a surefire way to increase our intake of these basic fatty acids.
Surprise it’s salmon
From a nutritional point of view, salmon is the clear winner of the healthiest fish competition. “Fatty fish from cold water is a better source of omega-3s than other sources,” Camire said, and salmon is king when it comes to the number of grams of omega-3s per ounce.
The National Institutes of Health recommend that men consume 1.6 grams and women 1.1 grams of omega-3 fatty acids daily, and a 3-ounce serving of almost any type of salmon beats that rate. Alaska Chinook Salmon (also known as King Salmon), Coho Salmon, and Sockeye Salmon are three wild salmon species that have the highest omega-3 levels.
Wild or Bred?
Sustainability is the other part of the equation when it comes to calculating the healthiest fish – for personal health, the health of fish populations and the planet at large.
“Today there are environmentally sustainable sources on both the wild and agricultural side,” said Santi Roberts, senior science manager at Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Farmed salmon are not only farmed more sustainably than in the past, they also have the edge when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids. “From a nutritional point of view, game used to be superior to breeding,” said Castro. However, Camire said that as aquaculture advances, farmers can adjust the diet of their salmon to produce fish that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than their wild counterparts.
Sustainable aquaculture is also a proactive way for fisheries to address the effects of climate change. “There aren’t enough fish in the ocean to feed everyone based on the seafood dietary recommendations,” Castro said.
Camire agreed. “Wild is a sexy idea,” she said, but she questions how Alaskan wild seafood will develop over the next few decades. “If we feed billions of people and the climate gets warmer, we have to do something different.”
Other healthy alternatives and fish to avoid
Aside from salmon, there are other types of seafood that excel in terms of both personal health and planetary sustainability. Clams like oysters, mussels, and clams are relatively high in omega-3 fatty acids and are good environmental choices, according to Roberts.
Unlike finfish, clams do not need to be supplemented with food when raised in a farmed setting; they take all of their nutrients from the surrounding water. They can also filter out contaminants and make up for waste that gets into the environment, which Roberts says is often a problem with farmed seafood.
Camire also recommended US-farmed rainbow trout as a good alternative to salmon. “They don’t have quite as many omega-3s as salmon, but they’re related,” she said, and US fish farms must follow federal and state food safety regulations.
While tuna is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and an excellent nutritional choice, sourcing it sustainably is more difficult. Wild tuna stocks have been depleted by overfishing, and the fish itself can be high in mercury.
Nutrition and sustainability experts believe that we shouldn’t avoid consuming tuna entirely, but it does take some research to make sure you choose the most manageable option. “Avoid eating bluefin tuna until we see significant improvement in the management of these populations,” said Roberts.
If you’re looking to eat tuna, skipjack tuna and albacore tuna are almost as high in omega-3s and are the two types most commonly found in canned tuna. Roberts recommends looking for “pole and line trapped” or “troll trapped” on the label.
Sardines and mackerel are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but are no longer recommended as sustainable options due to concerns about overfishing of these species.
So choose wisely
When you are overwhelmed by seafood labels in the fish market, understandable. However, today, science and nonprofit apps and websites can help you make the healthiest choices.
Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s evaluation program, has been providing recommendations on how to buy seafood based on sustainability standards for two decades. Its system is simple – green is the best choice, red is an element to avoid – and covers both wild and farmed options from the world’s fisheries.
“It’s a dynamic and complex world – what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to do is simplify it, look for the green,” said Roberts.
The easiest choice for farmed seafood is to make sure it is truly farmed in the United States, which has stricter food safety standards than many other establishments overseas. “It’s safe to say that native seafood is the Cadillac’s seafood when it comes to environmental sustainability,” said Joshua Stoll, assistant professor of marine policy at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences.
Seafood Finder is a new directory from the Local Catch Network, a program to support local and community-based fish businesses (and of which Stoll is a member). Location-based search helps consumers find sustainable fisheries through multiple channels including local retail, CSAs and subscription boxes, or direct nationwide shipping.
As you are trying to reduce your impact on the planet while reaping the health benefits of fish, Stoll recommends that you think about seafood the same way you think about local products or meat. “It doesn’t just matter where you get your seafood from, but who you get your seafood from,” he said.
By sourcing salmon and other seafood from community fisheries and companies with sustainable farming practices, you are making the healthiest choice for everyone.
The CNN Wire
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