An eight-piece set of sushi might be a healthier dinner than fries and a cheeseburger, but some advisories on fish and mercury content have put many people in quite a fine kettle of fish.
Do you need to forgo sushi to avoid mercury?
Mercury exists in traces in virtually all fish and seafood, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Mercury is both naturally-occurring and caused by industrial pollution. While the effects in adults are unclear, it may damage the nervous system of developing babies or children under the age of six. Women who plan to become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children should take particular care in selecting fish they are going to consume sushi (or any fish).
But that does not necessarily mean you should limit yourself to pickled ginger when you are out for sushi! You can optimize a serving by consuming the pieces that are lowest in mercury content and also packed with the most nutrients, according to Katherine Tallmadge, RD, a nutritionist and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Sushi is brain food…and heart healthy
Not only has fish been a reliable source of lean protein, some of the smaller kinds have beneficial nutrients, such as calcium and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. “Women should be eating at least 12 ounces of the safe fish per week, because these omega-3 fatty acids help every cell in the body, especially for proper functioning of the heart and the brain,” Tallmadge says.
There are two types of omega-3s found in fish and seafood: DHA and EPA. All fish and seafood have some amount of these polyunsaturated fatty acids. Both types lower the “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise the “good” cholesterol in the body and decrease risks of heart disease. DHA might provide benefits for those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and it may help reduce inflammation and even alleviate depression.
According to the American Heart Association, the fish with the most amount of these beneficial fats per serving is salmon, which has .68 to 1.83 grams of omega-3s per three-ounce serving, with .01 parts per million of mercury — which is among the lowest documented.
It may be rare, but if herring sushi is available on the menu, order it with the salmon. The amount of omega-3s is higher than salmon, with 1.71-1.81 grams per three-ounce serving, and it also has a low .04 parts per million mercury content.
“For calcium, you must eat fish small enough that you can easily eat their bones, which house the essential nutrient,” says Tallmadge. But sardines and anchovies are not necessarily sushi-friendly. Instead, opt for rolls with seaweed, which is chockfull of calcium, to maximize your intake.
The true test is mulling over the à la carte menu and picking the right catches. Here are some general guidelines in making the healthiest choices, piece by piece.
Good things come in small packages
The main rule of thumb is to eat smaller fish, which – due to being at the bottom of the food chain – do not accumulate the mercury in their flesh.You can still order fish and seafood such as wild Alaskan salmon, shrimp and clams, but minimize your intake of typically large fish, such as bluefin tuna, king mackerel and tilefish.
Have only one piece of large fish
If you love the taste of yellowfin tuna and must have a piece, then go for it, but keep it to one. “If each piece of fish has moderate amounts of mercury, and you eat eight or 10 of them, it will add up,” says Gina Solomon, MD, Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in San Francisco. Solomon strategizes by ordering only one piece of tuna, but balances the rest of her platter with low-mercury pieces such as salmon, unagi (freshwater eel), and softshell crab.
Sushi should be a treat, not a daily meal
Like any other food groups, fish should be a part of a varied diet, not comprise the whole. “People get into trouble when they latch onto a fad,” says Solomon, who has had patients suffering from symptoms of mercury poisoning that improved when they curbed their intake of high-mercury fish and sushi.
Be armed with information
Inevitably, you are at a restaurant trying to make a decision between Atlantic herring and Spanish mackerel, but you cannot remember which is a better choice. Environmental Defense and NRDC offer wallet cards that you can print out and have handy at restaurants.
Order fish from trusted purveyors
You can buy any old tuna in a can, but according to the NRDC, the amount of mercury in the can depends on the type of tuna, and where it was caught. To be on side of caution, tap into online sellers such as Vital Choice, which sells Alaskan salmon and only young, sustainably-farmed tuna (each less than 12 pounds) that have not had a chance to accumulate mercury in their systems. Not only are the fish high in omega-3s, experts say they taste better, too.
Research is ongoing to help people meet their nutritional needs without risking their health and doing damage to the environment. Oceans’s Alive and Environmental Defense have a growing sea of information to help you make the smartest choices.
More on sushi
DK’s Sushi Chronicles from Hawaii