There are many health benefits to eating fish – it's a major dietary source of vital omega-3 fats, low in saturated fat and rich in iodine. Despite this, many of us don't eat fish regularly. One reason is that we're unsure what and how to choose. Kate Marsh tells us what to look for.
There is plenty to consider when choosing fish. Besides individual taste preferences, price, freshness and quality, you also need to consider omega-3 content (which provides much of the health benefits of fish), limiting toxin intake (such as mercury, particularly if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or feeding young children) and the environmental impact of your choice. So which fish is best suited to your needs?
Oily vs non-oily?
While most of us look for lower fat choices for our health and waistlines, when it comes to choosing fish low-fat isn’t the best option. In fact it is the fattier oily fish that provide most of the omega-3 fats responsible for the health benefits of fish, and these are also a good source of the fat-soluble vitamins A and D. White fish is still a good choice, as it’s low in saturated fat, a good source of protein, zinc and iodine, and provides some omega-3 fats. But if you are looking to maximise your omega-3 intake, fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines and tuna should feature regularly on your shopping list.
Fresh, frozen or canned?
Fish can be purchased in many different ways, including whole, fillets or cutlets; and fresh, frozen or canned. All can be good choices depending on availability and how you intend to use it.
Fresh whole fish should have clear bulging eyes, firm elastic flesh, red gills and shining skin with close fitting scales. It should also have a pleasant sea smell. Avoid those with sunken, cloudy eyes and grey gills. Fish fillets and cutlets should look fresh, with moist flesh, firm texture and no signs of discolouration or dryness. Fresh fish can be baked, poached, steamed, grilled, barbecued, microwaved or pan-fried.
Packaged frozen fish is convenient, particularly if your access to fresh fish is limited. The addition of crumbs, batter and sauces, however, can add plenty of unwanted fat and salt, so check the labels when choosing frozen products. Plain frozen fish fillets are the best choice but if you do want the crumbed variety look for those which are reduced in fat and which use healthier oils. Most frozen fish products can be heated in the oven or microwave.
Canned fish is convenient and versatile and most varieties of canned fish, including sardines, salmon, herring, mackerel and tuna, are rich in omega-3 fats. Canned fish is packed in either spring water, brine (salt water) or oil, with the former being the best choice if avoiding extra salt and fat.
If you choose the other canned varieties however, drain them well before using. Canned fish can be used simply in salads and sandwiches, added to pasta, made into fish cakes or eaten on toast for a tasty breakfast or quick lunch or dinner meal. It is easy to store, has a long shelf-life and is generally a cheaper option if price is an issue.
Supermarket or fishmonger?
A recent Australian survey found that a key barrier to eating more seafood, for more than one-quarter of those surveyed, was the limited availability of good quality seafood at supermarkets.
Those purchasing seafood from supermarkets also indicated a greater level of dissatisfaction with staff knowledge and greater difficulty in identifying good quality seafood.
The freshest seafood is available from outlets with a high turnover, such as fish markets, so if you have a fish market or good fishmonger close by, this is likely to be your best choice for buying fish. A fishmonger can also tell you where the fish is from, is more likely to be able to help you in choosing which fish to buy and how to cook it.
Mercury in fish
According to Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ), there are only a few types of fish that we need to limit in our diet – these are billfish (swordfish/broadbill and marlin), shark/flake, orange roughy and catfish. Other varieties of fish in Australia, including canned fish, are low in mercury and can be safely eaten on a regular basis.
Limiting the intake of higher mercury fish is particularly important for pregnant women, women planning pregnancy and young children, who are more susceptible to the negative effects of mercury. For more details on fish and mercury, including guidelines for pregnancy, visit: www.foodstandards.gov.au/foodmatters/mercuryinfish.cfm.
The eco choice
The worldwide demand for wild (not farmed) fish is now greater than our oceans can supply and according to Choice, 19 of the 97 stocks surveyed in a recent Australian government fishery report were classified as overfished and/or subject to overfishing. More than 60 per cent of our seafood is now imported. For more info on making the right choice, go to the Marine Stewardship Council’s site, at www.msc.org.