How to Buy Fish: What Questions to Ask
By federal law, grocery stores and big-box stores like Costco must include on the label whether a fish has been previously frozen or is fresh, plus identify its country of origin. For wild fish, the best fish on the U.S. market generally come from the Pacific, says Erin Palinski, RD, a registered dietitian in New Jersey. Most wild-caught fish in the United States come from there, though Alaskan fish often top the list. When it comes to farm-raised fish, Palinski suggests picking American ones since this country regulates the product more tightly.
U.S. fish labels must also disclose whether color has been added to fish. Wild salmon naturally develop a reddish-pink color from their diet. The food that makes them colorful also provides vital nutrients. Farmed salmon are pale; they don't eat the same food as those in the wild but receive food pellets with added nutrition. To add color, farmers add carotenoids (a group of antioxidants) to fish feed, which gives them a salmon color. Still, by law these fish are labeled "color added."
All farmed fish must also be labeled as such. And though it's not required by law, stores usually include a "wild-caught" label for fish that aren't farm-raised, since wild fish are pricier and have more cachet. When something's missing from the label or you don't understand something, ask the seller for details.
As for labels trumpeting "organic" fish, "it's not as clear-cut," says Palinski. "Even when it says 'organic,' it could mean it's farmed fish eating organic food." That's because there's no federal law on the labeling of organic seafood.
Ask Before You Buy
|Next time you head to a market to buy fish or a restaurant to order it, make sure you know what you're getting. Asking a few questions can help ensure you get the fish you want.|
|Where does this fish come from?|
|Has it been previously frozen?|
|Was this fish farmed or caught in the wild?|
|Is the coloring of the fish natural?|
|What does the "organic" label on fish mean?|
|Is canned fish nutritious?|
|Can I freeze this fish?|
If you're set on eating wild fish but your grocery store doesn't sell it, ask your grocer to carry it. "People who are selling this food are trying to appeal to our diets. They're trying to keep their customers happy," says Sheila Bowman, a senior outreach manager with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. "When customers talk to them about [environmentally conscious or wild-caught fish], it helps reinforce the idea."
Another option: Buy canned fish, such as salmon or tuna. Not only is it cheaper, but you'll still get the health benefits. Just be sure to buy fish canned in water, not higher-calorie oil. Choose a lower-sodium product if available. It's easy to incorporate canned fish (the most popular are salmon and tuna) into other meals, such as casseroles, sandwiches, pasta, and salads.
Ordering fish at a restaurant is more complicated. Most restaurants will note that a fish is wild, and some will list its country of origin—in some states, one or both of the labels are mandated by law. But they won't necessarily add the word "farmed" to the menu. (For instance, a menu may list wild Alaskan salmon and Atlantic salmon; the latter is always farmed.) The menu may or may not include the fish's country of origin either. "What people need to do is ask," says Bowman. "I've done that many times. If the person doesn't know, then I say, 'Oh well. I won't have it.' "
There are plenty of ways to add fish to your diet, including buying it fresh, canned, and frozen. "Freezing is an excellent way of preserving the quality of fish. Frozen fish is often of higher quality than fish that's not frozen," says nutrition scientist Joyce Nettleton, DSc. "But it must be handled properly." The fish should be frozen right after being caught, not frozen, thawed, then frozen again. Before cooking, let the fish come to room temperature.
There are also many choices for cooking fresh fish, but the most common method is the worst for your health: Battered and fried fish has more calories and more fat than any other cooked fish. Your best bets are grilling, sautéing, broiling, and baking fish (adding bread crumbs first will give it a crunchy exterior). Enjoy!