Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Under the Sea: Something Smells Fishy!

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What I'm about to say pains me. I love seafood. Growing up, I spent summers in Destin, Florida, and you better believe I was munching on some fried shrimp, seafood gumbo and fresh fish. Today, I usually choose fish over meat when I have the opportunity and let me tell you, I go cuckoo for tilapia. Oh...and let's not forget blackened catfish Cajun-style. I die.

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My current read on the subway is Dr. Marion Nestle's What to Eat. If you've ever wondered about anything food-related, I can promise you this book will cover it. It's like the encyclopedia of eating...a college education in nutrition wrapped up in a paperback (though as heavy as a hardback, be forewarned). As far as food education goes, this book has given me more knowledge in the past few weeks than I've acquired in a lifetime. Pick it up next time you're in Barnes and Noble or cruising the wares on

Dr. Nestle devotes 5 chapters of her book to fish - fish safety, fish consumption, fish politics - all the fishy things your heart might desire. I'm here today to give you a quick overview... get the wheels turning, if you will.

It's no doubt that fish is good for you. It provides a lean source of protein, is packed with vitamins and minerals and houses those heart-healthy fatty acids that we keep hearing so much about. So what's the big deal about fish? Why should we be concerned? Are pregnant women the only ones that need to keep an eye on their consumption?

In a perfect world, yes... but it's time we took a closer look at the fish we eat because we all know that the world is far from perfect. Politics play a huge part in what you eat.

The biggest concern related to fish is the level of toxins you ingest when eating it, more specifically, the levels of methylmercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs), which can both cause neurological problems and many other health issues. As far as mercury goes, most of the emissions in the United States come from coal-fired power plants and mining operations. The toxins run off into the waterways. Sadly, you'd be hard pressed to find a clean body of water in the United States as it stands today. Toxins builds up in the tissue of the fish that are exposed to it, so the larger the fish, the higher level of toxin presence. Shellfish and other small fish like anchovies, trout and flounder have the lowest levels of toxins, while bigger fish like tuna, swordfish and mackeral fall on the other end of the toxicity spectrum. 

Fish industry advocates and even the government will tell you that there is a certain level of toxins you can ingest safely - you just need to watch your consumption. Does this sound like an oxymoron to anyone else? A safe level of toxins?

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Dr. Nestle compares the supermarket fish counter to the Wild Wild West. Fish regulations in the United States are sub-par at best - labeling is often wrong and affordable, safe choices are hard to come by. One of the huge problems with fish regulation is that it's divided between 4 federal agencies - the USDA for marketing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for ocean fisheries, the EPA for fish caught for sport and recreation and the FDA for fish safety. Wouldn't it be much easier if one agency regulated the industry? With this sort of system, some safety concerns inevitably fall through the cracks, and that's something you, my friend, should be concerned about.

For one, did you know that farm-raised salmon - which comprises about 80% of total salmon for sale in the US - is dyed to meet your standards of how a salmon filet should look? Would you buy a grey-colored piece of salmon at the grocery store? Probably not. Well, farm-raised salmon are grey because they are not fed their natural diet. Salmon in the wild eat marine krill, which are small crustaceans containing the beautiful pink pigment that gives salmon it's color. But when salmon are farm-raised, they are fed pellets (much like dog or cat food pellets); therefore, their skin is not a natural color. How does the industry solve the problem? Oh, that's easy! They resort to cosmetics!

Salmon isn't the only fish receiving a makeover... tuna falls into that category too. Tuna has become so popular in recent years that it's greatly overfished and very hard to provide to you in the store at peak condition. Tuna naturally turns chocolate brown the longer it's out of the water and since consumers probably won't get excited about buying brown tuna, the industry responds by spraying it with carbon monoxide - this prevents and also reverses discoloration. But is it good for you?

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Now let's talk about fish imports. Much of our fish comes from overseas, especially when it comes to the frozen fish section of your local grocery store. It's widely known that fishing practices and regulations overseas are not as good as you'd prefer them to be. For example, in China, fish farms often feed the fish chicken waste and HUMAN waste. Sounds like a recipe for disease if I've ever seen one. To keep disease at bay, farmers pump their fish full of antibiotics before they end up in your grocery store. Need I say more?

Obviously, I haven't even begun to touch on the topics that Dr. Nestle covers in her book What to Eat, but hopefully these quick points will give you the desire to become more aware of the fish you consume and even the politicians that you choose to elect. Many of the fish problems we face boil down to lack of environmental regulations from government. When you become more informed, you can feel good about stepping up to the fish counter or ordering that salmon filet at dinner.

For more in-depth explanations of fish industry concerns, I recommend picking up a copy of Dr. Nestle's book. It's not really a poolside read, but it's not a college Calculus book either. She does have a sense of humor about these things...and thank God for that, or you'd be running to the hills, growing your own food and avoiding grocery stores altogether.

For more detailed info on tuna and carbon monoxide, click here.

To hear what Dr. Nestle has to say about supermarket sushi, click here.

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