Good Fish, Bad Fish: A Consumer Guide

Scientists at the Oceans Alive project of the group Environmental Defense have updated their popular guide to the best and worst seafood choices. For the first time, the list indicates which fish are both high in omega-3 fatty acids — the "good" fats — and low in mercury contamination.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

CHADWICK: Got fish?

BRAND: Yeah, but does it have Omega 3 fatty acids?

CHADWICK: Huh?

BRAND: You know, that's the good stuff. Makes your heart healthy. But you know, a lot of fish also has mercury - not so good.

CHADWICK: Okay, well now there's an updated list of the good, the bad, and the scaly - compiled by scientists at the Oceans Alive project of Environmental Defense, and NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, reporting:

What's good for the environment and good for your health, may not always excite your taste buds. Take for instance, oily, strong-flavored fish such as Atlantic Mackerel.

TIM FITZGERALD (Environmental Defense): I think it's fairly available if you're looking for it. I just don't think that, right now, many people are big on mackerel.

AUBREY: That's Tim Fitzgerald of the group, Environmental Defense. He says it's too bad that mackerel and other fishy fish, such as sardines and anchovies are not more popular because his group ranks them as best choices. Not only are they high in heart-healthy, Omega 3 fatty acids, they also have low levels of mercury. As a general rule of thumb, Fitzgerald says that the seafood that makes the best choices list, are typically small in size.

Mr. FITZGERALD: So if it's something like a shark or a marlin or a swordfish, anything with big teeth, is going to have many levels of quote unquote “food chain below it.” And so every time you go up a level in the food chain you're accumulating the level of mercury in the fish.

AUBREY: Beyond metal contamination, Fitzgerald's team also considers basic fish biology. Species that reproduce young and grow quickly, are good candidates. One fish new to the best choices list this year, is canned wild Alaskan salmon.

FITZGERALD: We felt that a lot of consumers weren't really aware of that fact that canned salmon was not only a good environmental choice, but it's also very high in Omega 3's and low in contaminants. So it's one of what we like to call our super fish.

AUBREY: Environmental Defense prints its full list of the best and worst choices on a wallet size card. Listed among the worst are marlin, Chilean sea bass, monkfish and orange roughy. There definitely are instances where fish are high in Omega 3's and likely to have health benefits, but turn up on the worst list due to over-fishing concerns. Blue fin tuna is a good example. Fitzgerald says it's in very high demand in Asia.

Mr. FITZGERALD: Which drives very irresponsible fishing in both major oceans, and there's reports of the Atlantic Ocean blue fin population being commercially extinct in a number of years, if the management of it isn't changed.

AUBREY: Most consumers don't pay too much attention to the politics of over-fishing, so environmental groups like Fitzgerald's are hoping to gain the public's attention with the seafood selection lists by focusing on the nutrition side as well. The message they'd like consumers to hear, is:

Mr. FITZGERALD: You can find fish that are good for the environment and good for you.

AUBREY: The environmentalist's best and worst seafood lists are not without detractors. The U.S. Tuna Foundation is not a big fan. President Anne Forristall Luke, argues that Blue fin tuna does not deserve its place on the worst list. And she says canned tuna, despite not showing up at all, remains a good option.

Ms. ANNE FORRISTALL LUKE (President, U.S. Tuna Foundation): Canned tuna belongs on everybody's best list. It is a very high quality, low calorie protein source, rich in vitamins and minerals. Especially Omega 3 fatty acids, which are very heart healthy.

AUBREY: For seafood lovers looking to try something different, Tim Fitzgerald says one fish that makes the best choices list, is Alaskan Sable Fish. Which shows up on restaurant menus as black cod. Environmentalists are working with seafood purchasers to adopt standards that promote more of these best choices. Industry leaders include, the Wegman's Grocery chain and Bon Apetit, which operates corporate and university cafeterias. As for making fishy-fish, such as sardines, more palatable, Tim Fitzgerald recommends grilling them. In his opinion, it adds a nice smoky flavor. Allison Aubrey NPR News, Washington.

CHADWICK: And online alert, you can find a link to the Oceans Alive list of good and bad fish choices, and a guide to just how much mercury is in tuna. That's at our website, NPR dot org.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Study Raises New Concerns About Mercury in Tuna

A new study from Consumer Reports recommends that pregnant women refrain from eating any canned tuna of any type. Previously, it was believed that light tuna had lower mercury content.

The magazine's study found that although most of the cans of light tuna it tested did have less mercury than white tuna, some had at least as much of the harmful chemical element as white tuna — and in some cases, significantly more.

As a result, the magazine's experts conclude: "[T]here's enough uncertainty about the safety of even brief exposure of the fetus to such higher mercury levels that a more cautious approach is warranted."

Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist for the study, talks to Melissa Block about the magazine's findings.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.