The best things in life require some effort, and that certainly holds true at the fish counter. Understanding which fish are healthiest for you — how to find the right picks and avoid the bad ones — may be the most confusing endeavor for today's mindful shopper.
But trust us — when you look at the health payoffs, learning to shop for fish fits snugly in the "worth it" category. Arm yourself with these four tips, and it'll be smooth sailing in the seafood aisle.
1. First, zero in on nutrients.
This should get you pumped — literally. Fish and other seafood offer a boatload of vitamins, minerals and other health-boosting elements, all bundled in a unique nutritional profile that maximizes protein while minimizing artery-clogging saturated fat.
The star of the show is omega-3 fatty acids, which research shows are likely to protect your heart and blood vessels by keeping triglycerides and inflammation in check. A big review in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people who eat a small serving of fish twice a week may reduce their risk of dying from heart disease by more than a third.
Seafood containing the highest levels of omega-3's: Fatty fish like salmon, trout, sardines and tuna.
2. Next, consider mercury levels.
There's a place for nearly all fish at the table. But some species contain more mercury than others (fish absorb it by feeding in polluted waters). Your goal is to make sure that your overall intake is in line with what's considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Consuming too much mercury can harm cognitive and motor function, especially in unborn babies and young children. Educate yourself on which picks have the lowest levels (only king mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish should be completely avoided), and you'll still be able to eat your two servings of fish per week without a concern.
Low-mercury seafood options include cod, flounder, shrimp, salmon and scallops — but there is a wide enough variety of taste and texture among the low-mercury choices that almost everyone can find something they like. Pick your favorite three or four species and make them your go-to picks for quick weekday shopping.
3. Now, think about sustainability.
If you're reading this article, then you probably care about where your food comes from and what it goes through in its journey to your belly. Just like beef, poultry and produce, seafood may be subject to certain practices that endanger the quality of the fillet that lands on your plate or of the habitat the fish shares with other species. Make sure to avoid varieties that are overfished or caught in ways that jeopardize your health or that of other wildlife in the environment. And if you can, confine your shopping to grocers that work with fisheries that have top sustainability ratings from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch® program or the The Safina Center.
4. Make sure you're really buying the fish you think you're buying.
Because shopping for seafood apparently isn't fraught and complicated enough, now we all have to deal with seafood fraud — the all-too-common (and terrifying) practice of telling consumers you're selling them, say, Alaskan halibut, when really it's mercury-riddled tilefish. According to the watchdog group Oceana, anywhere from 25 to 70 percent of seafood may be mislabeled in settings like grocery stories and sushi bars.
You can sidestep the fraud issue by buying from retailers who take the extra step to trace the source of every single salmon or scallop they sell. It's no small feat, but when you think about it, what's good for your health is good for our business. It's all worth it.