Recently, I visited a high-end restaurant that listed “sustainably raised organic salmon” as an entrée.
Intrigued, I pointed at the menu and asked the server what exactly those terms meant. She appeared confused, conferred with the chef, and came back to tell me this particular salmon entrée had been farm-raised in an “ethically conscious environment” and fed organic grain.
My server seemed rather proud of these selling points. I wasn’t, and here’s why.
Why Does Most Fish Seem So… Fishy?
Few foods become more confusing and polarizing than fish. Vegans and traditional vegetarians excluded, most people consider a piece of grilled salmon or tuna perfectly healthy. Unfortunately, nebulous aforementioned buzzwords, sourcing issues, a fish’s diet, and other problems can baffle even the savviest fish-deciding consumer.
“When I was doing the research for [the book] What to Eat… it was clear that the fish aisle was the Wild West of food marketing,” writes Marion Nestle, Ph.D. in Nutrition & Food Studies at New York University (NYU). “Anything goes. Unless you are an expert, it’s hard to tell one fish from another. Many fish sellers, alas, are not expert either.” (1)
Loaded with quality protein, nutrients like selenium, antioxidants, and perhaps most famously, anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)… Well, fish sounds like nature’s perfect food, right?
Not always. As with most things, big business can corrupt what was once a pristine food source.
Fish Shouldn’t Live on Farms
Most fish these days is farm-raised rather than wild-caught. In other words, farm-raised fish are raised in pens on land often submerged in ponds, lakes, and salt water.
Although isolated, farmed fish remain too close to and contaminate the wild population with pollutants like pesticides and antibiotics. [Worth noting: Onshore, “closed” farms are experimenting with recirculating systems that filter wastewater to reduce their adverse impact on sensitive habitats where wild fish live. (2)]
Wild-caught fish, on the other hand, swim in their natural environment. When you think of those burly fisherman catching fish in cold Alaskan water, that’s wild-caught.
Once upon a time, all fish were wild-caught. Someone got the clever idea if you just raise and breed fish in big pens (sort of like cattle… more on that in a minute), they would grow bigger more quickly, you could control their feeding regime, they weren’t exposed to mercury and other toxins, and you didn’t have to pay those burly fisherman decent wages to round up wild fish.
If something sounds a little too perfect, it probably is.
Farm-raised fish are wrong on so many levels. Their confined pens harm the environment and disrupt nearby ecosystems because harmful chemicals, waste, bacteria, and viruses leak out into and contaminate nearby wild populations. (3) In some cases, these parasites and viruses have made wild Atlantic salmon populations nearly extinct. (4)
Wild salmon feed on insects, invertebrates and plankton, small fish, squid, eels, and shrimp. Algae contain astaxanthin, which gives wild fish their vibrant hue and you a powerful antioxidant source.
Not farmed fish, which eat soy, corn, grain, and vegetable oils. Why should fish dine on soy and grain, you ask? Well, they shouldn’t.
Because they don’t eat their natural diet, farmed fish get synthetic versions of astaxanthin (5) from petrochemical-created colored dyes, giving fish their brilliant color but also making them toxic. Otherwise, farmed fish would be gray, and nobody wants to buy or eat gray fish. Add in further ingredients — you’ve got an overall sad fish story. (6)
Altogether, this crappy unnatural diet yields junkier fish but also an inferior fat profile: Farm-raised fish altogether contain far more inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids. (7)
I say altogether because as a whole, wild-caught fish have higher levels of anti-inflammatory omega 3s compared to farm-raised fish. Among farm-raised fish, some types have higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids than others.
One study looked at four common farmed fish: Atlantic salmon, trout, tilapia, and catfish. Researchers found trout and Atlantic salmon contained relatively high concentrations of omega 3s and better omega 3:6 ratios, especially compared with tilapia and catfish. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18589026
If you see Atlantic farmed salmon on the menu or at your grocery store on sale, you’re probably safe to believe it has impressive levels of omega 3s and an overall favorable omega 3:6 ratio.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case with farmed fish. Tilapia, which didn’t fare so well in the above evaluation of four common farmed fish, has about 20 times more omega 6 than omega 3. Interestingly, red meat and pork like bacon as a whole contain fewer omega 6s compared with farm-raised tilapia and salmon. (8)
Increased intake of these inflammatory omega 6 fatty acids especially prevalent in farm-raised fish plays a role in nearly every disease including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, and cancer. (9) These fatty acids wind up in cell membranes, adversely impacting the way cells communicate and function. (10)
Because they eat their natural diet like algae, wild fish deliver more omega 3 fatty acids. More of these anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids mean omega 6s don’t build up, reducing inflammation in the bargain.
Don’t shoot the messenger, but even among wild-caught fish, nature’s perfect food isn’t so perfect these days. Many wild-caught fish contain mercury, pollutants, and toxins like polychlorinated biphenyls (PBCs) that contaminate our global waters. (12)
You consume what you eat ate. In other words, when you eat wild-caught fish, you also ingest mercury and other harmful substances those fish eat. (13)
If you’re concerned (you should be), bigger fish like shark, swordfish, and tuna often contain more mercury and other pollutants because they eat smaller fish. Be an informed consumer. Check out the National Resources Defense Council’s Smart Seafood Buying Guide for a summary of the fish with the highest and lowest concentrations of mercury.
One upside: Fish contain selenium, a mineral that binds some mercury. (14) That doesn’t give you a free pass to overeat fish, particularly higher-mercury fish, and certain demographics like pregnant women should probably minimize or avoid fish altogether.
That’s sad about this once-perfect food, even though wild-caught fish proves superior to nutritional content and lower toxicity. (15)
Let’s go back to my restaurant inquiry. While that “organic” claim carries a health halo, it buries an important point: Organic salmon is still farm-raised, with all its problems.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows certified-organic fish to be raised in open-ocean net pens, a standard salmon-farming practice that can pollute the sea floor and spread disease to the wild salmon population. Because these pens are very close to the ocean, they contaminate nearby wild fish populations just like conventional farm-raised fish. (6)
Organic, farm-raised fish are a step up from conventionally raised farmed fish. Though they still eat grain and other foods (albeit certified organic versions) and live in overcrowded net pens or “feedlots.”
Organic farmed salmon producers argue their fish have more space than conventional farmed salmon, yet that point belies that they live in an unnatural confinement.
Whereas strict guidelines surround most organic foods like fruits and vegetables, they aren’t as strict or enforced with fish. In Canada, huge loopholes surround organic seafood. Normally prohibited items like antibiotics and anti-parasitic medications are allowed to keep fish healthy under unnatural living conditions like net pens.(16)
Altogether, it becomes a real bummer.
Whatever fancy buzzwords surround what you buy or order, the only truly healthy (if not perfect) fish is wild-caught.
Buying sustainably, wild-caught healthier fish needn’t be a herculean task. Simply go to your local food market and look for the label that says wild-caught, never farm raised. If you aren’t sure or can’t find it, ask. For more tips about what to look for and what questions to ask, check out the Environmental Defense Fund.
Conventional versus Grass-Fed Beef
Just as with fish, how cows are raised and fed dramatically affects their nutrient profile.
Once upon a time, cattle grazed on grass while roaming freely in sunny pastures ad pristine open air. Today’s livestock eat grain, corn, and soy: Hardly a natural diet for cows.
Both conventionally raised and grass-fed cows begin their life in a similar fashion. Calves drink their mother’s milk and graze for about six to 12 months. Around that time, conventionally raised cows move to crowded feedlots where they’re fed corn and soy.
Ranchers give these cows hormones to grow faster and antibiotics to stay well under harsh, unsanitary living conditions. After existing in a crowded, stressful, dirty living area for a few months, these cows are brought to a slaughterhouse.
Grass-fed cows, which usually live on grassland their entire lives, eat grass and usually live under far more humane conditions. Unsurprisingly, that yields nutrient-richer meat.
Compared with grain-fed, grass-fed beef contains a superior nutrient profile and much greater levels of cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, and an overall better fat profile. (17) Grass-fed beef also has higher amounts of nutrients like vitamins A and E. (18)
Overall, grass-fed cows live better, healthier live grazing on their natural diet and living in a stress-free environment (some slaughterers even use specific techniques to minimize stress).
Compare that with grain-fed cows, which often live in factory farms in crowded conditions, sometimes standing in their own feces, fed grain and corn, and when they get sick, become injected with antibiotics and growth hormones. (19)
While superior, grass-fed beef has its downsides including increased environmental impact (even though grass-fed cows don’t require toxic manure or fertilizers, creating a smaller carbon footprint). (20) Grass-fed cows also consume a great deal of land and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The more nitrogen and carbon dioxide (Co2) emitted, the greater the impact of global warming. (21)
Purchasing grass-fed beef becomes slightly less confusing fish buying, but it isn’t always easy. While “grass-fed,” is clear (usually), organic beef is usually raised conventionally, fed organic grass, and one step up from conventional beef.
If not, you might be getting grass-fed beef that was grain-finished, meaning farmers swapped the cows’ grass-fed diets to grains at some point to fatten them up quicker.
Again, if this all sounds confusing, visit a reputable butcher or grocery store and ask.
What’s the Solution?
If you eat meat, wild-caught fish and grass-fed beef always prove superior nutrient-wise and environmentally compared with farm-raised versions. They are usually more expensive and not as readily available, although as people become aware of food quality you can find them even in big supermarkets. I’ve seen grass-fed ground beef for less than six dollars a pound, which is quite a bargain.
Making optimal decisions based on budget, availability, and ethics can become complicated.
Here are six strategies to incorporate more grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish into your diet.
- Eat less meat and fish. Besides reducing your environmental impact [about 40 calories of fossil fuel go into just one calorie to feed livestock versus 2 calories for one calorie of plant food (22)], focusing on antioxidant-rich produce and less fish or beef becomes budget-friendlier. Fill about three-fourths of your plate with plants and the rest with wild-caught fish or grass-fed beef.
- Step up nutrient-rich plant foods. Besides helping your budget, lots of colorful fruits and vegetables – especially cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower– as well as garlic and onions provide nutrients like selenium and sulfur that prevent mercury buildup. (23) Even if you eat sushi (yes – you’ll get some mercury), pair it with selenium- and other nutrient-rich foods like Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, garlic, chlorella, and turmeric that chelate and bind mercury.
- Get to know your farmers. If possible, visit a co-op that local sources beef and fish. If you can swing it, make a Saturday afternoon farm adventure with your family. Talk to your grocer about how they source their fish. Visit your local butcher and ask how their cattle were raised. Yes, these things take time and effort, but ultimately you’ll save money, support your family’s health, be more environmentally friendly, and support your local stores. (24)
- Skip the dirty ones. Popular farmed fish include tilapia, catfish, salmon, and trout. If you see these on your restaurant menu and they aren’t marked “wild,” skip them like the plague. Ditto for fattier cuts of beef, since toxins congregate in fat.
- Stay away from bigger, endangered fish. Avoid endangered fish like bluefin tuna, swordfish, skate, and eel. (25) These bigger game fish are endangered as they are illegally fished and sought after for numerous demands put out in many countries black markets. (26) They also tend to be higher in mercury. Opt instead for lower-mercury fish like salmon, cod, catfish, shrimp, and other fish on the EWG’s guide.
- Supplement omega-3 fatty acids. If regularly eating fish isn’t in your agenda for whatever reasons, you can get those same essential fatty acids in quality fish oil. Regularly supplementing with fish oil bestows many benefits including boosting cognitive and heart health while reducing our inflammatory-heavy diet. (27) Look for a quality fish oil third-party tested against mercury and other toxins, with 1,000 mg of EPA and DHA combined as softgels or liquid.
If you’ve bought fish or beef, are you conscious about labels like “wild” and “grass-fed”? Do you make a point to support higher-quality meat and fish even if they cost a little more? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on my Facebook page.