What kinds of fish are good for you AND the environment? Nutritionist Lea Basch breaks down the pros and cons of farmed and wild fish.
How often have you stood in front of the fish counter at the grocery store trying to figure out which fish to buy that's good for you AND the environment?
Both farmed-raised fish and wild-caught fish have pros and cons. The key is to weigh the positives and negatives and make educated choices that you can live with and line up with your health needs and values.
Read More: 13 Types of Fish to Avoid
Wild-caught fish are often healthier, with less contamination from man-made toxins because they feed on a natural diet of smaller fish and algae and come into contact with less bacteria and parasites. The downside is that many larger wild fish are high in mercury, and poor fishing methods can harm the ocean habitat and result in overfishing.
Mercury is a naturally occurring toxic metal existing at low levels in air, land and water that enters streams, rivers, lakes and oceans primarily through rain and surface water runoff. It's converted by bacteria to methylmercury, a form dangerous to humans.
The only way to limit mercury from wild-caught fish is to avoid larger fish that have eaten smaller mercury-containing fish. So avoid king mackerel, swordfish, marlin, bluefin tuna and orange roughy.
Farm-raised fish can have more contamination from toxic industrial chemicals, such as PBCs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and dioxins. They're often raised in crowded conditions and contain higher rates of bacteria, pesticides, artificial coloring, antibiotics and parasites. The good news is that many farmed fish are now grown in a way that's better for the environment and healthier for us.
Read More: Are Omega-3 Supplements Worth the Money?
Because of the growing demand for fish and the potential for our oceans to become depleted, in the future we will all be eating more farmed fish. A little over half of our fish supply is farmed now, and by 2030 the World Bank estimates that nearly two-thirds of seafood will be farm-raised.
With consumer and environmental agency encouragement, it is hoped these healthier methods will become more prevalent. The best bets are closed systems that recycle and treat the water and don't contaminate nearby wild habitats.
Questions to ask and things to look for when shopping for fish:
- What country is the fish from? Some fish are farmed or fished sustainably and are healthier in one country than in others. Look for the C.O.O.L. (country of origin labeling).
- If wild, look for a Marine Stewardship Council label (MSC) label or sustainable label.
- If farmed, look for labels that include words like organic, responsibly farmed, certified sustainable, farmed responsibly, ASC Certified or best aquaculture practices certified.
- "Fish fraud" is a thing, meaning you may not be getting the fish that is advertised. Find out what the red flags are.
- How healthy is the fish based on omega-3 fat content, mercury and contaminants?
Wild-caught choices that are high in omega-3 fats and low in mercury:
• Wild salmon (Pacific Northwest and Alaska)
• Halibut (Pacific)
• Anchovies (Adriatic Sea)
• Sardines (Pacific)
• Mackerel (Atlantic)
Wild-caught choices not as high in omega-3 fats, but still low in mercury:
• Wild shrimp and prawns from the U.S. (avoid imported)
• Canned light tuna and skipjack tuna (contain a third the mercury compared to chunk white or albacore)
• Sea scallops (U.S. and Canada)
Farm-raised choices that use healthy systems:
• Tilapia from the U.S. or Ecuador (avoid imported from other countries)
• Arctic char (worldwide)
• Oysters (worldwide)
• Mussels (worldwide)
• Clams (worldwide)
• Rainbow trout (all, U.S.)
• Halibut (Atlantic)
• Coho salmon (worldwide)*
• Bay scallops (worldwide)
A note about salmon: Farmed Atlantic salmon (excluding coho salmon) are usually a bad choice. They're higher in fat, calories and inflammatory omega-6 fats because of the grain-based diet they are often fed. But more and more sustainable salmon farmed in the U.S., Canada and Denmark are raised in recirculating aquaculture systems, which is much healthier.
So the question of what kind of fish to eat and buy isn't as simple as wild-caught or farm-raised. In our world of dwindling resources and increased focus on healthy foods, making good seafood choices can be complex and challenging. Stay informed of the latest developments, and buy responsibly for yourself, your family and the environment.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you eat farmed or wild-caught fish? What are your reasons for eating either type? Do you think it's important to choose food that's good for you AND the environment? Leave a comment below and let us know!
Lea Basch, M.S., RD, is the registered dietitian for The Tasteful Pantry. Lea has been in the nutrition industry for more than 30 years. She is a diabetes educator and focuses now on gluten-free diets and food intolerances.
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