Fish: The Good and the Bad and What You Need to Know to Stay Healthy

Fish. How much of it do you eat? According to the National Oceanic  and Atmospheric Administration’s “Fisheries of the United States” report, U.S. per capita seafood consumption was 19.2 pounds per person in 2019 (the most recent year for released numbers). That’s a lot of fish.

Many people look to seafood as one of healthiest foods on the planet, since it is loaded with protein and vitamin D, and is an important source of omega-3 fatty acids and iodine. These help reduce the risk of many diseases, including auto-immune ones, and support brain function.

But just last week, a study published in Environmental Research found that freshwater fish in the United States are a significant source of exposure for humans to per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) compounds which seriously harm health. “Eating just one serving of freshwater fish each year could have the same effect as drinking water heavily polluted with ‘forever chemicals’ for an entire month,” the study finds. PFAS are man-made chemicals used in industry and consumer products; they are found in cleaners, textiles, leather, paper and paints, fire-fighting foams, and in wire insulation, as a few examples. They tend to not break down in the environment and to build up in our bodies.

fish, brown trout
Source: Pixabay

National testing is done on nearly all U.S. rivers and streams, and the Great Lakes. The level of contamination is 2,400 times greater than what is recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water health advisories.

Seafood tested in the grocery stores (that comes from commercial fishing and fisheries, often in the oceans) show lower levels of PFAS. But the study authors acknowledge that people who fish for their own sustenance may not be able to afford commercially available fish. So how can you still eat fish and maintain good health?

The FDA provides these tips:

  • Fish should smell fresh and mild not fishy, sour, or like ammonia.
  • Fish eyes should be clear and shiny.
  • Whole fish should have firm flesh and red blood lines (or red flesh if it is fresh tuna).
  • Fish fillets should have no discoloration, darkening or drying around the edges.
  • Shrimp, scallop, and lobster flesh should be clear and slightly pearl-like with little to no odor.
  • Fish sold as previously frozen may not have these aforementioned characteristics but should still smell fresh and not fishy, sour, or rancid.
  • If buying frozen fish, avoid packages that show signs of frost or ice crystals as that means it’s been frozen a long time or been thawed and refrozen.
  • If frozen, the fish flesh should be rock hard and not bendable.
fish in a stream
Source: Pixabay
Storage for Fish

Once you get fish either fresh caught or from the store, wrap it tightly in plastic, foil, or moisture-proof paper and put it on ice or in the refrigerator or freezer immediately. Fish can develop a bacteria between its flesh and skin if it is not kept at a temperature of 40 degrees or below. (My husband and I both developed a reaction to this toxin from fish that was not properly stored at a fish market and restaurant and it made us super sick, so heed the advice and keep your fish cold.)

If refrigerated, use your fish within two days.

Thawing Frozen Fish

Place frozen seafood in the refrigerator overnight to thaw.

Cooking Fish

Most seafood needs to be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F, if you aren’t eating sushi. If you are cooking a seafood that suddenly gets a stronger sour, rancid, or fishy smell, don’t eat it. Same thing if you sense a fleeting or persistent ammonia scent. These are signs that the fish or seafood has spoiled.

Eat while fresh from cooking, or if you are eating chilled seafood, be sure to put on ice. Never leave seafood out (off ice) for more than an hour. Bacteria can thrive in temperatures between 40 and 90 degrees.

And of course, in addition to some fish have too high of levels of PFAs, others contain large amounts of mercury. Here’s a chart on the best seafood to choose for the lowest mercury levels:


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