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.
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, or 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.
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:
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.
The Basics of Salmon
- You DO NOT want farmed salmon, because
- the fish are eating unnatural foods like corn, which may also be genetically modified, and when fed fish (salmon are carnivores) they eat more fish than they ultimately feed you (bad for the ecosystem called earth, you included)
- fish may be treated with antibiotics (bad for everybody)
- the highly concentrated waste from fish farms pollutes the water (bad for the earth)
- they are tested high in cancer-causing PCBs and dioxin, and endocrine-disrupting (hormone) PBDEs, a flame retardant (bad for your health)
- the farms breed diseases that kill wild salmon (bad for the earth)
Therefore you want to buy only wild salmon, which is higher in Omega-3s anyway.
- All Atlantic salmon is farmed.
- All Alaskan salmon is wild.
Anyone feel like they’re in elementary Math class? If this, then this… Which salmon fits all the descriptions (and you can remember all this when you’re standing in the grocery store)?!
How to Remember What Salmon to Buy
Tricky! Since “Atlantic” and “Alaskan” start with the same letter, I had trouble remembering which was evil and which was preferred at first. Here’s how I remembered it:
Fish farming is illegal in Alaska, so I imagine pristine waters in the far north supplying my safe-to-eat salmon, swimming free (because they’re wild). I don’t think about the other “A” word. Just think “Alaska = wilderness = good salmon” and “wild = natural = good salmon”. When Gov. Palin ran for office, that helped me put a face to the pristine Alaskan legislation, and it actually helped me remember the good salmon!
I read this information everywhere…except here, where they tell us to “feel good about farmed salmon.” Poor Atlantic salmon farmers. No one is buying their product!
Added Bonus: Most canned salmon is “Wild Alaskan“, and it’s the least expensive salmon to buy, so that’s great news!!! (Click here for my salmon patties recipe with canned salmon.)
Research published by the Environmental Working Group (July 30, 2003) indicates that farmed salmon poses a cancer risk because it may be carrying high levels of carcinogenic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs have been banned in the US for use in all but completely closed areas since 1979, but they persist in the environment and end up in animal fat. When farmed salmon from U.S. grocery stores was tested, the farmed salmon, which contains up to twice the fat of wild salmon, was found to contain 16 times the PCBs found in wild salmon, 4 times the levels in beef, and 3.4 times the levels found in other seafood. Other studies done in Canada, Ireland and Britain have produced similar findings. For more on the nutritional differences between wild and farmed raised salmon, please see our article on this topic.
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.”
“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 list for sourcing safe fish, 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.
This post is part of a series on Sourcing Quality Animal Products…
Healthy Surprise Winner!
Out of 195 people and 622 entries, Alissa M. is the lucky winner of a Healthy Surprise Starter Box!!
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.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate with Vital Choice and will earn a 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.