Is Fish Safe to Eat? No More Fears!
We aren’t eating enough fish! Well, actually I am. But on average, Americans eat waaaay less seafood than the recommended couple servings per week. Here’s the bottom line right at the top: Yes, fish is safe to eat! And it’s really good for you. Let me help you bring more seafood to the table.
Disclosure: I consult to the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC) because I love their products, their practices, and their commitment to sustainability. The contents of this post largely come from a few programs I’ve worked on and presentations I’ve made on behalf of NSC. I’m not paid to write this post. I’m doing it because I really want you to eat more fish and to feel good about your choices.
Find out more about why I love Norwegian seafood in My Fascinating Day on a Norwegian Fish Farm.
Is fish safe to eat? And other barriers to eating more seafood.
I’ve spent 20+ years working with people on their eating habits, so I’ve heard a few of their worries about eating fish. Before tackling those, here’s a quick reminder about why I’m a fish pusher (besides tastes and versatility). Fish is good for the brain, eyes, heart, and blood vessels. And it’s plenty nutritious too! Find out more about why fish is good for you.
Worry #1: Fish is too expensive, especially wild caught fish.
Don’t worry: Both wild caught and farmed fish are nutritious. In fact, farmed salmon has more of the critical omega-3 fatty acids than wild salmon has. Often frozen fish is cheaper than fresh, and canned fish is another terrific, less-expensive option. They all give you tons of nutrition and health benefits. Choose what fits your budget.
Worry #2: Fish is contaminated with PCBs and dioxins.
Don’t worry: Often when people ask me “is fish safe,” they really want to know about PCBs. While it’s true that fish do have these toxins, their levels have been declining significantly since new regulations and industry efforts were implemented over the last 4 decades. And it’s not just food from the sea that carries these compounds. About a third of our total exposure to PCBs and dioxins comes from beef, pork and chicken. Less than 10% comes from seafood. Even about one-fifth of our total exposure comes from vegetables.
Also consider that just because something is a hazard – like PCBs – doesn’t mean that it causes harm. PCBs are a hazard. So is a shark. So is the sun. But when exposure to the hazard is low, the risk is also low. A shark is a hazard, but my risk for harm is low when I’m looking at it through the glass of an aquarium. My risk is high when I’m swimming in open waters with a shark nearby. Likewise, the sun can damage my skin and cause skin cancer, but I lower my risk by wearing a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Not to mention that I hide my super pale skin under a beach umbrella! Eating a couple servings of fish each week is considered low exposure.
In Norway, officials monitor the amounts of nutrients and contaminants in their seafood. And you can see exactly what they find on their website. I think you’ll be impressed.
- Pro tip: To lower your risk even more, you can prepare your fish in ways to get rid of some of the PCBs and dioxins. Remove or puncture the skin before cooking to allow the fat to drain off because PCBs and dioxins are fat-soluble. Trim away the fat along the back and the belly, and cook your fish on a rack to allow the fat to drain away.
Worry #3: The mercury in seafood is toxic.
Don’t worry: In amounts too high, mercury is definitely toxic. The EPA and FDA have guidelines for consuming seafood for vulnerable people – pregnant women, lactating women, women who may become pregnant and children. These groups should avoid high-mercury fish (king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, and bigeye tuna). They should not avoid other seafood – specifically low-mercury fish that are also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, freshwater trout and sardines. And that’s because eating fish during pregnancy, lactation and childhood is associated with greater neurodevelopment in children.
What about men and women who won’t be getting pregnant? Should they also avoid these higher-mercury fish? Only if they eat lots and lots of seafood, but not if they’re sticking to the typical guidelines of a couple servings of a variety of seafood each week.
- Pro tip: There are no cooking techniques to reduce the mercury in our seafood, but having a diet with adequate selenium helps protect against the harmful effects of mercury. Read more about the mercury-selenium connection and find fish that have more selenium than mercury. A few choices are ocean fish like salmon, cod, grouper, snapper, and halibut.
Worry #4: Farmed salmon has colored added to it.
Don’t worry: Both wild salmon and farmed salmon get their orange-y pinkish color from astaxanthin, a cousin to beta-carotene. Wild salmon get in from their wild diet. Farmed salmon get it from their food. There’s no color added to the flesh ever.
Worry #5: I don’t know how to cook it.
Don’t worry: This is my favorite barrier to help people overcome! Fish is really very simple to cook at home, and it’s super versatile. At a recent NSC event, Chef Andy Tessier shared his favorite super simple way to cook nearly any fish fillet: season with a little salt and pepper and perhaps some lemon, cook it on the stove top in a little oil, then finish it in the oven. I love this idea! There’s no flipping the fish. No crying over broken fillets!
Here are a couple of the dishes we prepared at this event. I’ve got to tell you though, they were not as simple as salt, pepper, stove top, oven, plate. If you feel competent in the kitchen then definitely give something elaborate a try. Otherwise, see if you can get someone to make it for you.
I’ve been advising my patients to try different recipes by first thinking of the flavors they already enjoy. Then search online for something like this: “healthy fish recipes with lemon and capers” or “easy healthy fish recipes with Parmesan.” Give it a try. I think you’ll find plenty of things worth trying. And don’t forget about ready-to-eat tuna and salmon. I enjoy the ones from Starkist and Chicken of the Sea.
- Pro tip: Don’t forget about carryover heat. Fish, like steak and chicken, can get dried out and yucky from overcooking. Carryover heat is that heat that continues to cook the food even after you’ve removed it from the oven or burner. Take your fish off the heat just before it’s at desired doneness. According to the USDA, the safe minimum internal temperature for fish is 145°F.
And give these super simple, healthy fish recipes a try:
- Easy Baked Honey Mustard Salmon
- Fish with Lemon Basil Sauce
- Fish with Lemon Mustard Caper Sauce
- Foil-Baked Norwegian Salmon
Yes, fish is safe to eat! What your favorite, simple way to eat more seafood?
Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, is a Nutrition, Culinary & Diabetes Expert, Wellcoach®-certified health and wellness coach, Freelance Writer, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator. She's also the author of four books, including a best-seller. She's a nationally-recognized media expert in high demand for print and online interviews, as well as corporate and one-on-one nutritional counseling. Jill's philosophy is that nutrition science should be understandable, realistic and oh so delicious.
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Like most of my patients and clients, I lead a busy life. You probably do too. Fortunately, you don’t need weeks, days or even hours to start living better and healthier. This blog offers timesaving strategies and bite-sized nutrition and health information. Come by often for tips and inspiration to healthy living – no matter how busy you are. I am a registered dietitian nutritionist offering credible, practical nutrition advice to keep busy people healthy. Yes indeed, we can be both busy and healthy.