The Deli Detective Dishes on Fish
January 23, 2017
By Tamara Brown, MPH, RD, LD
Regular fish consumption comes with many health benefits from Omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory in the body. Research indicates that Omega-3 fatty acids are heart healthy, boost brain power, and provide cancer prevention. The question I am most frequently asked about fish is the difference between farm-raised and wild-caught salmon. Because I am not a fishmonger, I enlisted the help of seafood professional Tim Lauer from Coastal Seafoods to help me answer this and other important questions about fish.
What’s the difference between wild-caught and farm-raised?
Wild-caught means the fish comes straight from its natural habitat in the ocean. Pacific Alaskan salmon is caught in this way. The wild Alaskan fishing industry is about 100 years old and continues because the fisheries are sustainably managed and quotas carefully controlled to keep the fish population thriving.
Farm-raised means the fish was bred and raised in a special pen. Often the pen is in the ocean in a controlled environment for fast growth and human consumption. Most Atlantic salmon is raised this way. The fish farming industry is only about 40 years old and continues to evolve as we learn more about how farming affects the fish and the environment.
Which is better: wild-caught or farm-raised?
Each type of salmon has pros and cons.
- A benefit is that the salmon grows in its natural habitat and consumes a natural diet of small aquatic life such as herring and krill.
- A downside to wild salmon is the limited quantities only available during the summer months.
- A benefit is that consumer demand can be met year round as fish populations can quickly be controlled and adjusted. The time frame from water to table is relatively short, which makes farmed salmon less expensive than wild.
- A downside with farmed fish include that the fish are typically compacted into a small space and have no room to move or develop properly. Because the fish are cramped, they are often given antibiotics to prevent disease outbreaks. The fish are fed pellets made of ground fish meal often mixed with grain or soy and color-fixing chemicals to keep fillets looking fresh. The effect of these additives on our health has yet to be fully determined.
Tim believes there is a need for both types of salmon. There is a range of farming practices. For example, Coastal Seafoods sources seafood from a company called CleanFish whose mission is to sell high quality farmed products. The salmon they source, called Loch Duart, comes from Scotland and is raised humanely. Fish are farmed in a lower density environment that is free of hormones, antibiotics, and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).
If you can find Alaskan wild salmon, that is your best choice. If not, then aim to choose responsibly-farmed fish. For recommendations on seafood, a great resource is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Check the “Seafood Watch” section to learn which sources are better.
How to ensure freshness
Don't be shy; ask to take a look at the fillet to determine if it’s fresh. Check for flesh that is firm, shiny, and bounces back when touched, not spongy. The fillet should not be discolored—brown or yellowing edges are signs of aging. If the fish is whole, the eyes should be clear, not cloudy, and the gills should be bright pink and wet, rather than slimy or dry. Smell the fish. It should not be fishy or strong, but rather fresh smelling—like the ocean.
How to cook fish
Once you've got the fish home, the next step becomes what to do with it. Tim has a simple, no fail cooking method for fish. In a 400-450 degree oven, cook the fish 8-10 minutes per inch of thickness. When the fish is done, it will turn from translucent to opaque all the way through.
Make fish part of your weekly meal plan
When it comes to including fish in your diet, whether wild or farmed, the benefits are big. Fish is an excellent source of protein, which helps boost your metabolism and keeps your energy up all day. Salmon and sardines are high in Omega-3 fatty acids—important for your mood and heart. If you have never been much of a fish lover, I urge you to give it another try. Fish never used to be a part of my weekly meal plan, but after a few years of muddling with recipes and continuing to expose my taste buds to seafood, I have developed a taste and love for fish. It's time to forgo the fear of fish and bring healthy seafood choices back into your life.
Listen to Dishing Up Nutrition podcast: How to Buy and Prepare Fish for more information.