“As an animal source, it has one of the lowest amounts of saturated fat in relation to protein,” said Lourdes Castro, registered dietitian nutritionist and director of the NYU Food Lab. In addition to being a lean protein, seafood is high in D and B vitamins and minerals like iron, potassium and calcium.
“Our diets typically don’t contain a lot of omega-3s,” said Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine. Eating seafood twice a week is one surefire way to increase our intake of these fundamental fatty acids.
From a nutritional standpoint, salmon is the clear winner of the healthiest fish competition. “Fattier fish from cold water are a better source of omega-3s” than other sources, Camire said, and salmon is king when it comes to the number of grams of omega-3s per ounce.
Wild or farmed?
Sustainability is the other part of the equation when it comes to calculating the healthiest fish — for personal health, the health of fish populations and the planet overall.
“Today, there are environmentally sustainable sources both on the wild side and the farmed side,” said Santi Roberts, senior science manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
Farmed salmon are not only more sustainably managed than in the past but are jumping ahead in terms of omega-3s. “From a nutritional standpoint, it used to be that wild was superior to farmed,” Castro said. However, Camire said that with advances in aquaculture, farmers can adjust the diet of their salmon to produce fish that have a higher ratio of omega-3s than their wild counterparts.
Sustainable aquaculture is also a proactive way for fisheries to address the effects of climate change. “There aren’t enough fish in the ocean to feed everyone based on nutritional recommendations for seafood,” Castro said.
Camire agreed. “Wild is a sexy idea,” she said, but she questions how wild seafood from Alaska will fare over the next few decades. “In terms of us feeding billions of people and the climate getting hotter, we’re going to have to do something differently.”
Other healthy choices and fish to avoid
Unlike fin fish, bivalves don’t need to be supplemented with feed when raised in a farmed environment; they take all their nutrients from the water surrounding them. They can also filter out impurities and offset waste entering the environment, which Roberts noted is often a problem with farmed seafood.
Experts in both nutrition and sustainability don’t think we should avoid eating tuna altogether, but it requires some research to make sure you’re picking the most manageable option. “Avoid eating bluefin until we’ve seen significant improvement in management of those populations,” Roberts said.
If you want to eat tuna, skipjack and albacore offer almost as many omega-3s and are the two species most frequently found in tuna cans. Roberts recommends looking for the phrases “pole and line caught” or “troll-caught” on the label.
How to choose wisely
If you’re overwhelmed by seafood labels at the fish market, that’s understandable. But these days, apps and websites run by scientific and non-profit organizations can help you make the healthiest choices.
“It’s a dynamic and complex world — what we try and do is to simplify it down, is to look for the green,” Roberts said.
The simplest choice for farmed seafood is to make sure it is truly farmed in the United States, which has stricter standards for food safety than many overseas operations. “It’s safe to say domestic seafood is the Cadillac of seafood when it comes to environmental sustainability,” said Joshua Stoll, assistant professor of marine policy at the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences.
If you’re trying to reduce your impact on the planet and reap the health benefits of fish simultaneously, Stoll suggests you think about seafood the same way as you would local produce or meat. “It doesn’t just matter where you get your seafood from, it matters who you get your seafood from,” he said.
By sourcing salmon and other seafood options from community fisheries and companies with sustainable farming methods, you’ll be making the healthiest choice for everyone.
Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats”; and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.