Do You Have to Go to Alaska to Find Safe, Healthy Fish? (Maybe)

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Minneapolis sustainable restaurant - salmon (3)

It’s a sad world when even catching your own fish in a lake a few miles from home doesn’t mean you have safe, nourishing food on your dinner plate.

Here in Michigan, pregnant women are told not to eat Great Lakes or inland lakes fish (or at least very rarely?) because of mercury concerns. Our toxic world makes fish perhaps even more confusing than meats that walk around on legs, especially because there are so many kinds of edible seafood and different rules for each species, it seems.

Sometimes farmed is safer. Sometimes you must find wild.

Sometimes you can only buy the fish when it’s caught in a certain country.

Sometimes you just shouldn’t eat it at all, even though at first glance the nutritional stats seem stellar.

The Kimball Story of Fish and the Search for Omega 3s

My husband claims he’s never liked fish.

Get his mother in the room, however, and she’ll swear up and down and all around that he happily ate tuna casserole as long as she called it "cheesy casserole," and even other fish, until he saw someone cleaning a freshly caught fish. (For those of you who have never known anyone who fishes, "cleaning a fish" is not clean at all. It means gutting it and cutting the head off and filleting the edible portions, and it’s kind of gross but totally fascinating to watch.)

The man knows when I had tuna at lunch when he walks in the door after work, so I’m not sure I buy that his mother could hide tuna of all things in a "cheesy casserole" and get it by him, but he also has trouble finding things that are front and center in the fridge, so I suppose it’s possible.

No matter whose story holds water, I can tell you that by the time I met him in college, things that swim in water definitely were not passing his lips.

Since the one time I tried cooking fish in college ended up mostly inedible (read: rubbery and tasteless), I was just fine with this.

Until his first lipids test.

His triglycerides were through the roof and HDL was low. With a family history of heart disease and early heart attack, we knew he was supposed to get more omega-3s, and the only information we had on that at the time was to take fish oil and eat fish.

Enter tilapia.

I began trying to get the poor man to eat fish in the name of health, and since tilapia is a very mild fish, I had decent success with this spicy fish seasoning sprinkled on thickly.

Then I found out that farmed tilapia, the only kind I’ve ever found in a store, is incredibly high in omega 6s, the opposite of omega 3s. I don’t remember his reaction to the fact that all that fish eating was in vain. I’m probably blocking it out.

  • Research from Wake Forest University shows that farmed tilapia, catfish higher in omega-6 fatty acids than lean ground beef, doughnuts. This “could be a potentially dangerous food source for some patients with heart disease, arthritis, asthma and other allergic and auto-immune diseases that are particularly vulnerable to an “exaggerated inflammatory response.” Right. Like my husband with Crohn’s. Unbelievable.
  • U.S. Farmed tilapia is “best choice” for the environment, says Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. However, only 10% of tilapia sold in the U.S. is farmed here. Read The Nourishing Gourmet’s thorough post on why tilapia is still not a good choice.

Back to square one.

We weren’t even taking fermented cod liver oil from Green Pasture yet (although that’s another way to get some omega 3s).

Want Omega 3s? You Know You Need Salmon

Since tilapia had been such a bust, I decided to forego trying to find another "perfect" mild white fish that had high omega 3s. We went right to salmon! Salmon is pretty well known for being high in omega 3s, and the rule is simple:

Wild Alaskan salmon = good.

Farmed salmon = bad. Atlantic salmon is always farmed. (I have detailed the problems with farmed salmon in a previous post.)

The only tricky part is that "Alaskan" and "Atlantic" both start with "A" so it’s harder to make a memory trick with the first letter.

Where to Find Alaskan Salmon

Vital Choice – An online ordering option, Vital Choice salmon is pricey, but it’s incredibly well-sourced and truly is excellent in taste and quality. We sampled some last summer and have thoroughly enjoyed it. I slice it very, very thinly and dredge it in St. Peter’s Spicy Fish Seasoning (less for the kids). My husband would like you to know that the King Salmon is less fishy than the sockeye or silver salmon, in case someone in your life needs that information.

Canned Salmon – Almost all canned salmon I bump into is wild Alaskan salmon, but don’t be complacent: I found some at Walgreen’s, of all places, that was sourced somewhere very far away, in Asia maybe. Yuck. The problem with canned salmon is that it usually contains BPA in the can linings. Sometimes you have to turn the other way and shop at Aldi or Meijer, counting your blessings on the affordable omega-3s and praying for protection from the BPA, but if you have the extra grocery cash, Vital Choice canned salmon is BPA-free.

There’s no comparison with inexpensive store brand salmon. What you buy in the store is suitable for salmon patties, pretty much exclusively, but I love making a cold salmon salad (with homemade mayo, mustard, and pickles, exactly like I would do with tuna fish) from the Vital Choice fancy cans. I have also found good quality Alaskan salmon at Costco and can do the same thing, but it’s obvious that the quality is lower than Vital Choice. (The Costco brand is pictured in the photo above, Italian Salmon Crepe with Greens and Goat Cheese.)

Local Butchers – Start looking around and you may see local butchers or small grocers advertising line-caught fish or some such thing. That’s a good sign!

Big Box Stores – At our local Meijer, I bought some Wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon last week, on sale, and the brand was Icy Strait Seafood. I was hoping it was worth the rather significant chunk of change I spent – at least it stretches to three meals – and the website confirms that I’m happy with my purchase:

“Icy Strait Seafoods is a direct buyer and processor of Alaskan seafood…We buy from a select group of fishermen who bleed, dress, and chill their catch at sea, resulting in optimal freshness, longer shelf life, and high nutritional value for the consumer.”

What About Restaurants?

I used to consistently order fish when I ate out, because it was something I wouldn’t get at home. Now I ask "the question:"

Where is the salmon caught?

Almost 100% of the time, in a normal, unenlightened restaurant, the server will either proudly answer that it’s farmed salmon or disgustedly say that they have to ask the cook.

Sometimes the cook doesn’t know, and the rest of the time the server, with the pride of ignorance, announces that it’s Atlantic salmon or farmed salmon.

"Oh," I say briskly, "I’ll have the steak." Winking smile

I Hate Salmon

If that’s you talking in the green words above, here are some other options for safe seafood:

  • Check out the Super Green Fish List from Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch:  fish that are BOTH good for the environment and high in omega 3s. 
  • You can also download a regional safe fish list, which is really helpful for me in the Great Lakes State.  Tilapia is still on the happy list, but the omega 6s say otherwise.
  • Kimi has a great post on what considerations to take to choose safe, healthy fish.

What kind of fish do you eat? Do you have any tips on sourcing good fish?

This post is part of a series on Sourcing Quality Animal Products

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Out of 195 people and 622 entries, Alissa Martin is the lucky winner of a Healthy Surprise Starter Box!! Email me with your address for shipping.

If you’re not Alissa, you can still get gluten-free, healthy snacks delivered to your door: the coupon code KITCHENSTEW will take $5 OFF your purchase.

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Disclosure: I am an affiliate with Vital Choice and will earn commission if you make a purchase there starting with my link. They sent me free product for my review; I purchased anything else mentioned in this post. See my full disclosure statement here.

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30 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. says

    Not that this is much help for your husband, but I just read that sardines are really high in omega 3’s, are low in mercury because they are low on the food chain, and are at low risk of overfishing because they reproduce so fast. Good for me, not so great for your hubby as sardines aren’t exactly one of the easiest fish to eat!

    We’re lucky that our local co op carries smoked wild Alaskan salmon that is caught and smoked by some local guys who go up there each year. Honestly I haven’t checked what they carry otherwise- the smoked salmon is so amazingly good I save all my fish budget for it!

  2. kelley says

    I emailed several.places a few months ago.

    Trader joes brand of canned salmon is bpa free.

    Costco kirkland brand of in steel.cans and bpa free as well

    Both are half the price of the canned salmon at vital.choice.

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Wow, that is fantastic to know about the Costco (we don’t have a TJs nearby)!!! I saw a list of non-BPA cans recently, and there were so few listed. I am certain a bunch were missed! Yippee!
      :) Katie

  3. says

    Yeah, I tried to investigate the whole ‘best fish’ thing and no which way you turn, someone has something bad to say (farm raised causes harm to the environment; net caught causes turtles to get caught). Fortunately, my brother is a fishing guide in Alaska, so we have wild caught salmon and halibut. In fact, my husband is there right now with him and he told me to “clean out the freezer, babe!”. Then he said he wanted to move there, but that’s another subject entirely :)

  4. Tara says

    There’s also a “Seafood Watch” app you can download to your phone from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

  5. Bebe says

    I always feel like a woman of extreme wealth when I say I live in Alaska and we fill our freezer every year with salmon and moose. I honestly gorge on salmon when the season begins… we had fresh salmon for dinner three times this week! Plus it got used for breakfast in fried rice with lots of scrambled eggs (from our free range flock) stirred in right before serving. (it was Cajun seasoned and blackened so it made a nice spicy addition to the fried rice, not fishy at all) It’s like a huge craving that needs to be satiated and I definitely give my body all it wants.
    I honestly eat very little seafood that comes from anywhere else besides Alaska but we scarf down king crab during the winter holiday season, either Christmas day or New Year’s day. It is expensive but oh so fabulous. Local shrimp, oysters, clams and scallops all hit our plates whenever available. I buy tuna from American Tuna, which is pole caught wild albacore from American Pacific waters. And I refuse to worry about BPA when coconut milk and tuna are the only things we eat out of a can.
    I’d like to give you a couple new ideas for ways to enjoy canned salmon, especially since that is the only salmon some folks have access to. First, I make a salmon gravy, highly seasoned and a bit spicy, (just like you’d make a sausage gravy) and serve it over biscuits or rice. If you are grain-free you could enjoy it over squash ribbons (like pasta) or cauliflower “rice” or grain-free biscuits. Second, add a little smoke flavor to the salmon and stir it into a mixture of cream cheese and sour cream, adding chives plus salt and pepper, or Cajun type seasoning for a fabulous smoked salmon dip that is perfect with anything from crackers and bread to raw vegetables, or as a filling in an omelet with some veggies like green onion, tomatoes, spinach, etc…
    Finally, I have successfully served salmon to people who said they thought they did not like it. There are things that you can do to avoid the strong fishy flavor that most are offended by: #1 is freshness; #2) the brown matter on the bottom of the fillet can be stronger tasting and can be easily sliced off with a sharp knife (but please feed it to your dog or cat rather than throw it away!); #3) cook it until just barely done (opaque and easily separated into flakes); #4) season it well with highly aromatic seasonings like fresh citrus, including the zest, with lots of black pepper and good salt, spicy Cajun or Mexican seasonings, generous amounts of butter, olive oil or coconut oil (to keep it moist during cooking and flavor it sumptuously). Also, if you eat a small bite of fish accompanied by the rest of your meal components the flavors meld and you avoid the “just fish” flavor that might take some training to get used to (which is probably how your MIL got away with serving tuna in her casserole!) We also love to flake leftover cooked salmon on top of a big green salad and slather in homemade dressing for a light lunch or dinner. Or make a casserole with cooked potatoes and salmon, covered in a flavorful white sauce and topped with a mixture of mayo, mustard and grated cheddar with a splash of worcestershire before baking.

    • Casey says

      Nice to hear from a fellow Alaskan! I haven’t found many like minded people around my neck of the woods since starting a WAPF/Primal lifestyle, so I am really excited that I stumbled across your comment! I have been stoked all week that its salmon season, as we’re heading out to the river for a week long fishing trip next week! My husband is a lifelong Alaskan who grew up on moose and salmon and he gets bored of salmon quickly, so I can’t wait to try your gravy recipe on him :) Thank you!

  6. Linda says

    I love fish and I don’t eat enough of it. I am one of those who is continually confused about what to get. I have heard the farmed fish are fed gmo stuff so I don’t want to take a chance on it. I haven’t had fresh salmon in so long! All I can afford is canned. It is Alaskan wild caught but I am sure the cans have BPA in them.

    I have heard about Vital Choice and I am wondering how much shipping is. Since I already order other things online, I don’t want to start with another. There is always that shipping charge, you know. I will look for canned salmon at Trader Joes since that is BPA free. Let me just say I wish I could eat wild caught shrimp, scallops, mussels, salmon, etc every week!

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      So true about shipping – VC has free shipping on $99 and over, so I’d just stock the freezer a bit and make sure my order was always that big.
      :) Katie

  7. says

    Our family aren’t big fish eaters, but do take CLO. :) I love salmon now and then, tuna I enjoy in a casserole some times. But my favourite is trout! You can find localish trout in our stores some times.

  8. Olivia says

    I’ve always only purchased wild Alaskan Salmon. But now after the Fukushima disaster I haven’t bought an ounce of fish. Am I being paranoid?

  9. Holly says

    Linda, VC offers free shipping on orders of $99 or more.

    To help save up for an order of that size, you could ask for VC gift certificates for Christmas/birthdays. Their sampler pack has like 9 of their canned fish products at a good price. The canned fish is also sold in 6, 12, or 24 packs, with the 24 packs being 20-23% less per can than the 6-packs.

    Sign up for their newsletter, where they’ll occasionally offer 10% off codes as well. Once or twice, I’ve even seen 15% or 20% off.

    VC is so flavorful and satisfying; it’s wonderful just flaked over half an avocado, but also stretches very well in a pasta salad or fried rice.

    Hope this gives you some ideas on how make the most of your budget if you decide to give VC a try.

  10. Hannah R says

    I seen that you would rather order a steak than farm raised fish. Do you feel that the hormones and antibiotics are the lesser evil? I have PCOS so I usually order fish when eating out. My job requires lots of travel and so I eat out almost daily. Would you suggest I also order steak, or would chicken be better?

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Tricky one. You might want to look into some restaurant guides to find places that source their food well – it would be worth it if eating out that often.

      For me, fish can be a gamble as far as whether I’d enjoy it, so my call to go with the abx-laden steak instead of farmed salmon is just for taste enjoyment. I’m guessing steak and chicken are equal evils when eating out. Sigh. Nothing is easy, is it? I usually at least make sure I’m getting whole foods when eating out, when possible – skip the bread, eat the meat and veggies, try to avoid industrial oils (unless I’m indulging in French fries, and then I just cringe and enjoy it without engaging my brain). 😉 Chipotle is one example of a chain that does quite a bit with sourcing their meat well. I know the pork is a good source, but I forget which one of the beef or chicken is and which is not yet…worth looking into! Plus Mexican is easy to avoid bad grains, just get the “bowl” option over rice or whatever.

      Good luck!
      :) Katie

      • Hannah R says

        Thanks Katie,
        I will have to look into it. The problem is that i usually don’t pick the restaurant, my hosts do. I do my best and ask God to help me have wisdom.

  11. says

    I live in Seattle so wild salmon is plentiful here and not too expensive. Found a restaurants at one of the Native American casinos that cooks it traditionally and it is the best salmon I’ve ever had. They boast that its fresh and local or from Alaska. So delicious.

  12. Rachel says

    I recently asked my doctor about taking fish oil. She said I need to be careful to make sure that I find a company that is trustworthy and filters out mercury content in the oil. Does either Green Pasture or Vital Choice do that?

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Yes, I know both companies are absolutely meticulous on quality. I don’t have the links to share, but I’m guessing you can get reports from either website on mercury and other contaminants. I do very much trust both companies! :) Katie

  13. says

    Does anybody else get depressed over the fact that every time you turn around another food is not good for you? Here I was thinking I was doing OK by getting my family to eat tilapia (at least it’s some kind of fish, right?)and now it’s not good for you too?

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Here here! I SO am with you on that one! In fact, I have this document called “things that are ticking me off lately” and it’s full of all that stuff. If I followed all the instructions on food I read, I’d eat nothing but vegetables – and not even all of THEM! Grrrr….totally depressed. I could NOT BELIEVE when I found out tilapia wasn’t all that good for us, and it still gets in my craw every time I see it go on sale for $3.50/lb at Meijer. So yeah…it’s depressing. Let’s shake our fists at the sky together and let loose a primal yell, ok? 😉

      At least we can still eat…well….there’s got to be something we can still eat, right? Maybe green beans or something?
      😉 Katie

  14. Lisa says

    Interestingly enough one of the most important parts of controlling your triglycerides is controlling your carbs. I have high triglycerides, and I am nearly vegetarian (pickyness, not a lifestyle choice.. working on it!) and rarely eat fatty fried stuff. I was stumped and my Dr told me that reducing my (admittedly really massive) carb intake, exercising, and dropping some weight in general would really help lower my numbers. I read up on it and I was really fascinated that carbs were such an big part in what I always considered a “fat” issue. I was panicking because I was just learning about how ones body needs real healthy fats and I was afraid I would have to give up good grassfed butter! Controlling my carbs wont be easy but I know I need to do it for many reasons

  15. casey says

    the best is when you go to ‘clean’ the fish and discover it’s still alive! My poor mother was cleaning fish once and we heard a scream, turned out jsut as she was about to start filleting she saw the gills move.

  16. G. G. says

    I think the Whole Foods Brand Sockeye Salmon may also be BPA free, I’m not sure how to tell, but I’ve always had the impression that it’s the same source as Trader Joes, except for the label. The cans, until recently, seemed identical.

    Recently, however, Whole Foods changed the label style on the Whole Foods Brand Sockeye Salmon and I noticed that the top of the can is no longer stamped “Alasaka Salmon USA.” The paper label still says it’s wild Alaskan Sockeye Salmon. I’m not sure what to make of that.

    I believe Alaska works hard to control its fishing industry and guarantee the quality of the fish, hence the stamp on the can for authenticity. Whatever the explanation, Whole Foods seems to have changed their source for the salmon, which also make me wonder if they’re just looking for something cheaper and perhaps lower quality.

    The price recently went up at both Whole Foods and Traer Joe’s. Before they were always the exact same price to the penny. Now Trader Joe’s is more expensive (but still stamped “Alaska” on the can itself). So perhaps Trader Joe’s is higher quality now. It’s confusing to figure out.

    That aside, I tried the Vital Choice a couple times and was not blown away, like most people. I by far like the Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Sockeye salmon much more (which are very similar if not identical, as I said). They’re more fatty, while still seeming very high quality. Every other brand (Think Pink, Raincoast, Crown Prince, Bumble Bee, Wild Planet, Redhead) seemed way inferior in both taste and quality.

    To me Vital Choice is super super lean. It’s sort of like having a hamburger with super lean high quality meat. It can be way too dry. You need some fat in there.

    Anyway, that’s just my preference. I have no doubt about the quality of Vital Choice, but it’s hard to justify the more than $6/can price when I don’t like it as much.

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