Seafood: What To Buy


Continuing with my series on Real Food and What To Buy, let’s discuss seafood.

Most health-conscious folks agree that fish is good for you, but as with most foods these days, it’s not that simple.

Most conventional health and nutrition professionals will tell you to stick with the oily kinds, such as salmon, tuna, sardines, etc. as they deliver those heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fats we hear so much about. But fish in general is a good source of lowfat protein and iron.

But then we hear about the issues of sustainability, and should we eat farm raised or wild, and what about those pesky mercury concerns???

Let’s discuss.

Farm-Raised or Wild-Caught?

One of the biggest debates among fish eating individuals is whether wild or farm-raised is better.

Wild-caught fish are exactly what it sounds like. These fish are caught in their natural habitats, lakes rivers and oceans. They eat what fish naturally eat and because they are free to swim freely, they are generally leaner than their farm-raised counterparts. Wild-caught fish tends to be higher in Omega 3 fatty acids and protein, and they generally contain very low levels of antibiotics, pesticides or artificial dyes.

Farm-raised fish are usually raised commercially and contained in tanks or enclosed pens. Think feedlots for fish. They don’t have much space to roam, and they are often given antibiotics because disease breeds in tight quarters. Often their food is unnatural and may contain PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and other carcinogens.

So why don’t we all just eat wild-caught fish and be done with it? Well, there is a limited supply, for one thing, which drives up the cost. Eating wild-caught fish is a pricey endeavor. And also, some countries don’t have the same standards as ours, so we want to avoid seafood from those places entirely.

To make things more complicated, just because something says “wild” on a label doesn’t mean it’s as wild as we may think.

Many to most “wild” salmon actually spend half their lives in hatcheries before being released. While these quasi-wild fish are a better nutritional deal than fully farmed salmon, they still bear the burdens of early exposure to toxins (dioxin, PCBs, etc.) and a less impressive omega 6:3 ratio. [source]

What about Mercury?

Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury, but some contain more than others. Unfortunately tuna is a big concern because they are highly migratory (they cover a LOT of water) and they live for a good 10-20 years, so they can accumulate a lot of toxins in their lifetimes. This is unfortunate because canned tuna is tasty, easy to prepare, and affordable. And now we have to be concerned about the radiation from the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima last year, which continues to slowly spread through the oceans.

After consulting a variety of sources, it seems that the most common sense advice is to continue to eat tuna, but no more than once a week. Some refuse to eat any tuna at all anymore, and honestly, I am wary of it myself.

What to Buy?

I try to buy wild-caught seafood when I can, and we just don’t eat as much seafood in general as I’d like because we are a family of five and we like to eat. A lot. And that gets pricey. We try to choose wisely and only spend extra on wild-caught if it’s necessary.

Rodale News has a good article about wish types of seafood is best to buy wild and which you can get away with buying farmed in their article, This or That: Wild vs. Farmed.

Salmon & Tuna

We buy wild salmon. Always. Here is some good advice from Mark’s Daily Apple.

Look for Alaskan over Northwestern salmon. And don’t rule out canned salmon for big savings. Apparently, farmed salmon doesn’t can well, which means the majority of canned salmon is wild. (Pink salmon, the most commonly canned variety, doesn’t contain as much good fats as other kinds.)

I do tend to buy a lot of canned salmon and tuna. Salmon cakes are a favorite in our house and a much more economical way to get these healthy Omega-3s into our diets. I try not to buy conventional tuna. I like the Wild Planet brand.


When it comes to shrimp (which we love) I am more concerned with it being from the U.S. than whether or not it is wild-caught. Take a look at the packages of shrimp the next time you’re at the grocery store. It probably came from Vietnam or China. You have to look hard to find shrimp from the U.S., but I believe it’s worth it.

The U.S. has fairly strict standards about sustainable shrimp harvesting, but other countries use some questionable methods such as trawling to catch their wild shrimp, which evidently is horrible for the environment. But it’s more than that. Other countries also use questionable ingredients in their feed. I’ve read quite a few articles on this topic, but Mark’s Daily Apple once again sums it up quite nicely: A Quick Guide to Shrimp.

The good thing about shrimp is that it doesn’t live long enough to accumulate high concentrations of mercury and PCBs. Shrimp is high in dietary cholesterol but has virtually no saturated fat so this is a win in my book. Plus, shrimp is a good source of lean protein.

Also, I almost always buy frozen shrimp, as opposed to fresh. Here is why.

Most “fresh” shrimp sold in supermarkets in the United States have been shipped frozen and then thawed for the fish counter. That means that the shrimp you find in the freezer aisle is exactly the same as what’s presented as “fresh”—it just hasn’t been sitting around on a bed of ice all day. Unless you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that your fish counter shrimp is really, truly fresh from the ocean, the frozen variety is probably a bit fresher. And you can take it home and keep it frozen just until you’re ready to use it so you’re sure it’s as “fresh” as possible. [source]


Lobster, I love, but I ONLY ever buy it in Maine. I was born in Maine, my mom was born and raised there, and most of her family still lives up there. We vacation there every summer, and I’m a lobster snob. We buy fresh, as in it is still alive when we get it home, and always hardshell. I know it’s a bottom dweller, but we only eat it a few times a year so I don’t think it’s a problem.

Other Random Info

As far as other types of fish, I occasionally buy something on sale fresh from the fish counter, but I almost always buy wild, and I almost always buy it at Wegmans or Whole Foods because I read once (I have no idea where, and it was a long, long time ago) that they are fairly reputable about being honest about where their seafood comes from. Evidently a lot of retailers are not. Nice. Sorry, no source. I’m a bloggah, not a research scientist. Feel free to google away and double check me! I welcome hearing your opinions.

Oh, sometimes I buy frozen wild-caught fish and seafood at Trader Joe’s. It’s pretty affordable, but I know that many question their commitment to sustainable seafood. So, ya know . . . whatchagonnado?

Other seafood . . . you’re on your own. A quick google search says that farmed oysters are good, and wild-caught sardines are a fabulous source of nutrients (I’ve never had a sardine. EW.)

According to Eating Well, fish to avoid because they are endangered or contain high levels of mercury and other contaminants are: bluefin tuna, monkfish, chilean sea bass, grouper, orange roughy and farmed Atlantic salmon.

The exception? Freshwater-farmed Coho salmon are raised in closed freshwater pens and require less feed, thus reducing the environmental impacts.

At the end of the day, it comes down to knowing where your food comes from and asking a lot of questions. Seafood is a nutritious addition to any diet if chosen carefully. Because the good stuff costs so much, we only eat it a couple times a month.

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7 Responses

  1. I can’t remember the last time I had tuna, but I really like it. Guess I am okay. I don’t buy a lot of fish fresh, but when I do, tend to get wild-caught. My husband is a huge trout and bass fisherman, so all of ours are fresh out of the river. Thankfully he does the cleaning, and I do the cooking. Great info!

    And BTW, I am not a huge sardine person, but they are kind of good. If you don’t look at it while eating it!

  2. I live in south Louisiana near New Orleans. Fresh seafood is not a problem I have. Both my husband and son fish so redfish, flounder or speckled trout are a pretty regular menu item. I always buy local shrimp and crawfish, fresh when in season, frozen when it’s not. You are so right when you said to look at the label. If it dosen’t say LOUISIANA, I don’t buy it. Oysters are always bought from a reputable seafood vendor. The box/sack is labeled as to when and where they were harvested. The husband shucks ’em and I cook ’em. Neither my husband or I am a big salmon or tuna fan, so I don’t cook it. Lobster is a different story. That’s the only foreign (as in, not from Louisiana) seafood I will buy. Some day I am going to get to Maine and buy one right off the boat, steam it up and eat it.

  3. Great info – something I’ve been wanting to research but never quite got round to, so thank you! I’ve heard prawns are not good to eat at all though, not sure how true that is?

      1. I believe so – I drastically cut down on my (alarmingly high!) prawn consumption after reading a book called The Makers Diet which was really interesting. I tend to eat them in moderation now! 😉

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