Your Summer Guide to the Healthiest Sustainable Seafood: A List of The Best Fish to Eat & How to Cook Them | Feed Me PhoebeDuring The Wellness Project, one of my hardest challenges was deciding what food rules to live by. And I quickly learned that devising those healthy hedonist parameters for the land was a lot easier than doing so for the sea.
Choosing seafood that is both healthy for you and also poses limited environmental risk is a tricky business–even more so than sourcing sustainable meat. For starters, you have to weigh a lot of components: mercury, omega 3 ratios, the varying quality of farming practices, the scarcity of what’s in the wild, and simply knowing how the hell to cook the species you’ve never heard of.
I’ve been lucky to get a lot of practice trouble shooting the latter during my summers on Martha’s Vineyard. And since August is probably the month when you’re most likely to step outside your seafood comfort zone, I thought it would be an opportune time to take on a #summerseafoodchallenge and dedicate a few weeks on the blog to talking about the best fish to eat and how to cook them.
A few weeks ago, when I returned to my favorite island for a few weeks of frying up flounder and broiling bluefish, I had the fortuitous pleasure of hearing Paul Greenberg give a talk on this very subject. The best-selling author of Four Fish and American Catch, has dedicated his career to unpacking the layers of commerce, infrastructure, and biodiversity that have created some pretty funky imbalances in the American seafood system.
For starters, 90 percent of the seafood we eat in this country is imported, while much of the catch from our oceans is sent overseas. Sounds super sustainable, right? To add to that not-so fun fact: many of the fish we export are among the healthiest.
Unfortunately, you’ll have a harder time finding a more diverse array of seafood at your regular grocery store. It’s easier for corporations to deal with other corporations than small local fishermen. When possible, find an independent fish shop or stand at the farmer’s market that sells more than your standard trio of salmon, shrimp and tuna. But even then, keep the following tips in mind:
1. Give it the sniff test. It’s true that Americans don’t like overly fishy fish. But even varieties that taste more like the sea shouldn’t necessarily smell overly fishy in their raw state. If the seafood smells rank, don’t buy it. Because if it smells that way, guess what? It’s going to taste that way too.
2. Look for “previously frozen.” A lot of the time, signs at the seafood counter will indicate whether something has been previously frozen. If so, check the freezer aisle to see if you can buy the same item there. I know it seems counter intuitive that something in the freezer aisle would be “fresher” than the same product at the counter. But defrosting it yourself will in fact ensure that it is.
3. Buy what’s local. Because you want your fish to be delicious first and foremost, it’s always best to buy local. Flash freezing seafood (like most wild salmon) preserves the integrity to some extent, but it also leaves a lot of room for human error as it makes its way from Alaska to your plate. As Greenberg uncovered, it’s also often shipped overseas for processing before being returned for sale in this country (not-so sustainable). With seafood, even more so than produce, you can really taste the difference when something is plucked straight from the ocean that day. Ask your fishmonger what’s fresh and local. If you’re concerned about species that may be overfished, you can cross-reference your choice on SeafoodWatch.org, or see my specific guidelines below.
4. Farmed can be fine, depending on where it’s from. If you’re buying farmed seafood, it’s best to source it from either Europe (Iceland, Norway), the US or Canada—places which ranked highest in terms of compliance with the UN code of conduct for fisheries. Farming practices in South America and Asia, where the majority of farmed seafood comes from, have exhibited some pretty shady practices that are bad for the environment and your body. Buy organic when possible to avoid hormones and GMO corn found in commercial feed. See below for some specific species that are generally ok to buy farmed, and others that you should always be skeptical of.
5. Be mindful of mercury. Yes, with wild fish you get the benefits of a natural diet—free of pig feces AND corn—but you also run the risk of consuming other toxic substances as a result of industrial waste seeping into our oceans. The biggest red flag toxin is mercury, which is found in larger deep-water fish, and is known to cause a host of inflammatory conditions in the body. (It’s also been linked to autoimmune disease).
6. Ask questions. The seafood counter can be intimidating. If you’re shopping from a local market, chances are you’ve only heard of a handful of fish in the case. Talk to the guy (or gal!) behind the counter and let them help you expand your horizons. They can point you to some lesser known species that are a lot cheaper than the “name brand” salmon and yellowfin tuna you’re used to. They’ll also have great cooking advice, since they usually go home with the catch that no one else wants.
SeafoodWatch and EWG are both great resources for lists of the best fish to eat. The former takes into account sustainability, and the latter toxicity. You have to cross-reference them in order to get a clear picture for both environmental impact and health…which is exactly what I’ve done. Below are some of the general themes. I tried to include some of the more well known species that are popular on both coasts. I haven’t included each and every variety, so make sure to pop by these resources if you’re unsure of where your choice fall. Or simply drop me a line in the comments section!
The best species—those with low mercury, high levels of beneficial nutrients, and minimal environmental impact—are mollusks like clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops. While most of the above are farmed, the process actually improves the areas of ocean they’re introduced to.
These bivalves are actually “filter feeders,” meaning they eat by way of straining small food particles from the water. In recent years, there have been several innovative proposals for reintroducing oyster colonies to particularly polluted areas because of their filtration powers.
Shellfish also happen to be very high in some essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, selenium, iron and B12, and low in saturated fat.
The smaller the fish, the less likely it is to be an incubator for mercury. Anchovies and sardines get a bad rap for being the bachelor food of our father’s era. But they’re actually packed with healthy fats and nutrients. And tins of anchovies and sardines remain as cheap and readily available as they were 40 years ago.
To add some extra protein without making fish the main event, try adding anchovies to your vinaigrette (like in this recipe), or to your tomato sauce. Sardines, which are slightly larger, are also great broiled and folded into pasta, or pressed inside a sandwich.
You’ll find a lot of recipes for herring from Scandinavian sources, where it’s a national delicacy. But when in doubt, use it as you would a sardine.
These darker fish tend to be plentiful in Northeast waters, and therefore, very affordable at the fish counter. Many people get turned off by their grey flesh, but once cooked they mellow into very delicious fillets. Plus, their oily complexion, full of Omega-3’s is also very good for your health.
These varieties may not pack in as many omega 3-‘s as their oily counterparts above, but they’re the type of mild white fish that’s most appealing to the American palette. You can cook these guys in a variety of ways from stews, to packets, to ceviches. See below for more ideas.
Note that in some areas, flounder and haddock are overfished using environmentally destructive methods. Use the state-by-state guides from SeafoodWatch to determine if they’re sustainable in your hometown.
Many nutritionists and physicians will tell you to go wild. Like grass-fed cows, fish feeding in their natural ocean environment pack a bigger nutritional punch. With salmon, you can get a sense of its nutrient density from the color alone. Atlantic salmon, which is effectively extinct in the wild, is a well-worn Nantucket red versus wild Alaskan salmon’s glistening scarlet. And often that muted pink color is achieved through dyes. Without the algae in a typical wild diet, farmed salmon’s flesh often develops as a dingy grey color.
Though you’ll pay a premium, if you can go wild, it’s the healthier choice. Sockeye and Coho salmon are seasonal and can be fairly affordable during their peaks. Buy them on sale and freeze individual fillets for future use.
If we want to eat more seafood at an affordable price, farmed fish is not just here to stay, it is a necessity to meet the rising demand. As our oceans become ever more polluted, and our seafood populations begin to diminish due to over-fishing, mariculture doesn’t seem quite as bad from a health and sustainability standpoint. The problem, similar to the problem with factory-farmed meat, lies in the transparency of these practices. Stick to farmed seafood from the US and EU.
Salmon and Arctic Char are among the healthiest from this list in terms of Omega-3’s. The reason why I’ve put them on the “limited” list is because of sustainability. While farming practices help protect specific species from overfishing, it’s still not the most efficient use of marine life when you consider how many more pounds of fish is needed to feed farmed salmon versus wild. In terms of sustainability, farmed fish is still a much better choice than beef. But farming practices still throw off wild populations by pruning the oceans of “foraged fish” needed for feed.
Because farmed salmon are given ground up fish feed that is designed to be high in fish oil, they also end up being higher in Omega-6 fatty acids, and worse, PCB’s. To find out more about this toxin, click here.
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