Why You Should Be Eating More Seafood

Steering clear of fish for environmental and health reasons? The bigger risk might be not getting enough of it.


On a recent night out at an Arlington restaurant, Linda Cornish asked her server which fish dish he’d suggest, though she was already leaning toward a blueberry-sauced salmon on the menu. His response reminded her why she does what she does for a living.

“He said, ‘Oh, I don’t eat seafood. You know…because of the mercury,’ ” Cornish recalls later, sitting in the Rosslyn headquarters of the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, the national nonprofit she founded in 2013. Mercury in fish is an oft-cited concern for all kinds of people, she says, even though the decade-old warning about consuming it was intended for children and pregnant women, and applied to only a few types of fish. “I looked at him and thought, ‘But you’ll never be pregnant.’ ”

Federal nutrition guidelines recommend eating seafood twice a week as a source of both lean protein and the omega-3 fatty acids our bodies cannot produce on their own. These acids are the building blocks of our brains, hearts and eyes, and can reduce the risk of serious ailments such as cancer and heart disease.

Eating seafood doesn’t just add variety to the average diet. Harvard researchers have found that it also reduces the risk of dying from heart disease by 36 percent.

Still, surveys by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find that just 1 in 10 Americans meet the recommended weekly intake.

Price resistance and stubborn perceptions about seafood may be partly to blame. Grocery shoppers may swing by the fish counter, see fresh scallops on sale at $20 per pound—and opt for pork instead. Some are overwhelmed by the variety of choices, confusion over which kinds of fish are the most sustainable, or an outsize fear of food poisoning.

Others who’ve gotten past those hurdles and tried their hand at a whole-fish dish at home may find the bones or scales off-putting. A bad clam or an overcooked grouper at a restaurant has been known to convince a few folks to steer clear of sea creatures altogether.

“A lot of restaurants and chefs don’t know how to cook seafood properly, so a lot of our guests don’t, either,” says Jennifer Carroll, who until recently was the executive chef at Requin, a French-Mediterranean restaurant in the Mosaic District that serves choices like catfish, cod, salmon, dorado, crab, oysters, mussels, tuna and octopus. “They haven’t had a good experience with seafood and automatically say, ‘I don’t like it.’ ”

Carroll became a seafood savant early in her career while cooking under chef Eric Ripert of New York City’s acclaimed Le Bernadin. She now sees it as her mission to get more diners aboard the proverbial boat by demonstrating the wonders of a fish’s natural flavor and texture when it’s properly prepared.

Linda Cornish, founder of the nonprofit Seafood Nutrition Partnership, shops at The Organic Butcher of McLean. Photo by Liz Lynch

When the USDA released its latest nutrition guidelines in 2015, many media reports focused on the don’ts—particularly the recommendation that we cut back on red meat.

Cornish, who was born in Taiwan, where seafood is eaten two to three times a day, prefers to emphasize the do’s. A lot of good dietary habits involve pescatarian choices, she says, like occasionally swapping that hamburger for a salmon burger, or doing tacos with panko-crusted halibut instead of chicken.

Diners and home cooks in our area have an advantage when it comes to getting good fish. Not only do we have access to a variety of well-stocked markets and restaurants, we also have the abundant Chesapeake Bay watershed in our backyard.

Worried that you might inadvertently buy something that’s on the endangered list? Rest assured that most major retailers are doing the worrying for you. Some 80 percent of today’s big grocery chains, including brands like Walmart, Safeway and Target, are members of the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, which maintains guidelines for sustainable seafood buying, selling and consumption. You aren’t likely to find so-called “Chilean sea bass” (a fancy-sounding euphemism for the slow-growing Antarctic toothfish) behind the counter if its current population has been depleted by overfishing.

On a recent shopping trip to the Harris Teeter on North Glebe Road in Arlington, Cornish makes a beeline for the freezer case next to the fresh seafood counter. Eating fish doesn’t have to break the bank, she stresses.

“These mussels are already shelled,” she says, grabbing an 8-ounce box of the bivalves, on sale at $2.97, from the freezer shelf. “You just puncture the plastic and microwave it for three to five minutes. You can add it to pasta with a butter-and-garlic sauce.”

That’s two servings of seafood for under $3. Moreover, the package says it includes 647 milligrams of omega-3s per 4-ounce serving. (USDA guidelines recommend a minimum of 250 milligrams per day of the healthful, brain-boosting fats.)

Salmon burgers and crabcakes are two other items that Cornish keeps in her home freezer for last-minute meals. She also stocks whole fillets of fish that were flash-frozen on the boat just after harvest. These can be quickly thawed in water or in the fridge overnight. “You can have dinner on the table in 15 minutes,” she says.

Next stop: the canned meat and fish aisle. Cornish says many shoppers tend to breeze by it, not considering it has more to offer than canned tuna. Her pantry at home is also stocked with canned anchovies, sardines and clams—staples that can be readily transformed into a pasta puttanesca with olives, garlic, red peppers and capers. (She does buy pre-packaged tuna with crackers for road trips, knowing she’ll likely face a dearth of healthful gas station eats.)

Is the fish on ice behind the glass counter always your best option? Not necessarily. Much of that selection includes fish and shellfish that were previously frozen before being “refreshed,” or slowly thawed in temperature-controlled rooms, Cornish says. Unless it says “fresh” or “never frozen,” assume it has been. Which means you can’t refreeze it.

If the counter has a fishmonger, ask questions. For starters: What’s fresh now that I won’t be able to get next week or next month? The answer will sometimes lead you to the best deal, she says, or, at the very least, the best time to buy proteins like local striped bass or rockfish, when they’re at their peak.

During a visit to The Organic Butcher of McLean, Cornish finds whole mackerel at about half the price-per-pound of most of the meat options. Even better: It’s a fish that was recently named a “Super Green” choice by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which offers recommendations about which types of seafood are fished or farmed in ways that support a healthy ocean, versus those that should be avoided. Like most of the seafood in this small shop, the fish has been brought in fresh, not frozen—in this case from Virginia fishermen.

Local is often the best entry point for people who think they don’t like seafood, says chef Carroll. “Start with whatever is freshest and, usually, harvested in the United States,” she advises, noting that the U.S. has better fishery management practices, which take the estimated number of wild fish available into account when setting fishing limits, compared with many other countries.

That doesn’t mean abundant options like farmed salmon and tilapia are off the table. Salmon, for one, is harder for beginners to overcook because of its high fat content, Carroll says. And responsible fish-farming practices (which reuse water and take fewer feeder fish to produce) can yield fish that’s more affordable, especially when wild species are out of season.

Over the last decade, most domestic fish farms have given fish more room to grow, reduced their impact on water quality and improved their fish-feed recipes. (At the store, look for labels from the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, an international nonprofit watchdog group, to see how a farmed fish ranks on sustainability.)

“If you would have talked to me about sourcing farm-raised seafood 15 years ago, I would have said, ‘Go jump in the ocean,’ ” says Robert Wiedmaier, chef and owner of Mussel Bar & Grille in Ballston. “But they’ve come a long way at perfecting the process of farming seafood.”

The Seafood Nutrition Partnership promotes both wild and farmed seafood, which “is really the only way we can have enough seafood to feed us into the future,” Cornish says.

If she has anything to say about it, our appetites for it will only be growing.

Is It Sustainable?

Concerned that your seafood habit could be hurting the environment? Here are some helpful resources:

Synthesizing the work of several research organizations, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWatch.org applies a rigorous, science-based grading system to rank various types of seafood as “best choices,” “good alternatives,” or species to “avoid” based on where and how they are grown or harvested. Its “Super Green List” advocates seafood choices that offer the most health benefits and the lowest risk to human safety and the environment. For research on the go, the same group offers a Seafood Watch app that allows you to type in the fish you’re considering to see how it stacks up.

Read up at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s FishWatch.gov to learn what earns a particular seafood the title of “sustainable.”

The Pearl App (www.pearlapp.co), which recently launched in our region, allows users to search seafood options on the menus of local restaurants. You can quickly see, for example, where a restaurant sources its oysters and whether its fish meets certain sustainability requirements.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s online Seafood Selector (seafood.edf.org) tracks hundreds of fish species, offering an eco-rating for each type of fish, as well as information about its health benefits.

Seafood and Pregnancy

Andrea Albersheim remembers her go-to craving when she was expecting her daughter back in 2015: anchovies preserved in salt and olive oil. In the eyes of the misinformed, she may as well have been downing shots of whiskey.

Many pregnant women began shying away from all varieties of seafood after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a 2004 advisory warning of dangerous mercury levels in select species of fish. Though the warning applied only to certain large predators such as shark, tilefish, swordfish and king mackerel, some Americans stopped eating seafood altogether.

Just this year, the FDA revised its recommendation, stressing the dietary importance of seafood for expecting and breastfeeding moms and young children, along with a “best choice” list of the options that pose the lowest risk. For example, not all tuna is cause for mercury concern—just Bigeye, which is rarely sold in the can in the U.S. In fact, 90 percent of the seafood sold in the U.S. is naturally low in mercury, says Albersheim, who serves as communications director for the Seafood Nutrition Partnership, a national nonprofit based in Rosslyn.

Federal nutrition guidelines now encourage pregnant women to eat 8 to 12 ounces of omega-3-rich seafood per week, while supplementing with vitamins.

Whitney Pipkin is a freelance writer in Northern Virginia who often writes about food and food producers.

Categories: Food & Drink