New pescetarian filter: Is it unhealthy to eat canned fish everyday?
January 8, 2014 8:06 AM   Subscribe

I am a healthy (BMI is well within the normal range) early 30s male. For my New Years Resolution I wanted to start working towards pescetarianism (vegetarian that eats fish). I have been cooking more fresh fish, but I have also started experimented with canned fish (mostly Sprat, Sardines, and Anchovies) (example meal) because of the price, shelf-life, and simplicity to make. Before this year, I normally never ate canned food (this basically describes my typical grocery store route), so I am a little weary about doing so (almost) everyday. Plus I keep reading things about mercury and such, of which I know very little. Any advice would be appreciated.
posted by Spurious to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
One thing that you might want to explore is Mediterranean canned seafood. That is, Spanish and Italian (etc) style, not seafood specifically from the Mediterranean. While canned fish in the US is generally either looked down upon or treated as a second best option, in that part of the world it's a lot more, well, fancy. The canning process is treated more as a preparation, and you can find really tasty seafood packed in high quality olive oils with nice spices.
posted by Nothing at 8:11 AM on January 8, 2014

Smaller fish will have less mercury because it is in the fish due to bioaccumulation.

Wikipedia has a chart.

Sardines and Anchovies are pretty far down the list.
posted by tomierna at 8:20 AM on January 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

Sprats, sardines and anchovies, being really low on the food chain, don't accumulate significant mercury levels like, say, tuna can (terrible pun entirely intentional! i regret nothing!). The one I always have trouble with is remembering which types of mackerel are safe, because some are pretty much no concern with mercury, and some are pretty high.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:22 AM on January 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

Small fish (like sardines and anchovies, I don't know what sprat is) have much less mercury than large fish. Large fish eat the small fish and the mercury accumulates in their tissues, that's why tuna tends to have a lot of mercury. So: don't worry about mercury from sardines.

Canned food can contain BPA if the cans are coated with plastic on the inside (which is common). Since canned food is cooked food, you do change the taste and in some cases may destroy some of the nutrients, but that's not much of an issue with sardines and anchovies either, since you would be cooking them regardless.

You will get a lot of sodium from canned fish, but unless you have high blood pressure or some other medical reason for avoiding salt, you're probably fine.
posted by mskyle at 8:22 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just be aware that you're getting more salt and oil with those types of canned fish (as opposed to both fresh fish and something like canned salmon). Salt and fat aren't evil and you need them in your diet, but just don't forget that you'll be getting more of them in your diet this way.

BTW, canned salmon is also low in mercury, and is often recommended as an alternative to canned tuna for that reason. So that's another option.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:26 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

At some point I read something which claimed that if you're eating fish that's canned because it's being caught in the deep sea and processed and canned on the ship, like Alaskan salmon or mackerel, it will actually have less mercury than the same species of fish caught nearer to shore where the pollutants emanate from. It could've been propaganda from Big Fish, though.
posted by XMLicious at 8:42 AM on January 8, 2014

My SIL is a vegetarian who eats fish. I said to my brother, "So she's really a pescetarian?" and he said, "did you just make that up? That's not an actual thing, right?"

Anyway, anecdote aside, just chiming in with Nothing's suggestion about Mediterranean canned seafood. I like canned tuna occasionally and I have tried a lot of brands, and nothing seems to beat Callipo if you can get it where you are. Good Italian delis should have some. They use cans, but they also have a range that uses glass, if you're worried about the canning process. They freeze at sea, and can within a few days. The olive oil they use is of pretty great quality, (but olive oil messes with the Omega 3s somewhat) but they have it in brine too. It's pretty much the best canned tuna I've ever had, ever.

As for mercury, all predatory fish tend to have higher mercury. So anything like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tuna tend to have elevated levels. So, I mean, tuna is a 'sometimes treat' now, as the new Cookie Monster is wont to say. I tend to eat tuna maybe once a week but because you're eating fish all the time, and every day, I'd only eat things like tuna or shark maybe once every two weeks, maybe three or so.

However, canned Tuna is usually lower in mercury than fresh tuna. No cite, but I also read it on the Australian government site. Apparently Yellowfin, American Albacore are lower in mercury and Non-American Albacore, Bigeye and Bluefin are some of the worst offenders in terms of mercury level.

Here's a compehensive .pdf I found, about how to avoid mercury when buying fish in general that may be helpful.
posted by Dimes at 9:06 AM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am also a pescatarian (though I focus on local and sustainable), but I eat a primarily vegetarian diet and only eat fish maybe once every week or so. Are you substituting fish for other meats in most meals? I would consider eating more vegetarian meals to reduce the concerns.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 9:11 AM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

@ Nimmie Amee I'd love to end up being full vegetarian but my reason for pescatarianism is that I can simply substitute fish for meat and cook mostly the game things.

Salmon tacos instead of beef tacos
Anchovy sandwich instead of BLT

I tried to go full-veg before, but I ended up pretty miserable because I couldn't find salty protein (which I love).
posted by Spurious at 9:23 AM on January 8, 2014

Seconding what Dimes says about canned tuna. This is anecdotal evidence, but - at my mother's last checkup her doctor said she had elevated levels of mercury in her blood. Mom blurted out something about eating a lot of canned tuna, and the doctor said "oh, well, there you go." He told her to cut back on that and come back in a month and he'd re-test her. Fortunately, just doing that brought her mercury levels down within that one month.

So yeah, canned tuna can lead to elevated mercury, but it seems to have been easily-correctable in at least one instance.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:40 AM on January 8, 2014

Just as an aside: Try smoked fish. It is fairly cheap and you can buy it in vacuum sealed packs that can sit in the fridge for a while.

Smoked fish fits into your proposed meals, as per the update. This Jacket Potato with Smoked Mackerel and Spring Onion recipe is great for example.
posted by travelwithcats at 10:47 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

At some point I read something which claimed that if you're eating fish that's canned because it's being caught in the deep sea and processed and canned on the ship, like Alaskan salmon or mackerel, it will actually have less mercury than the same species of fish caught nearer to shore where the pollutants emanate from.

The mercury in fish is generally a bio-accumulation from the fish's relative position on the "food chain" and in the "food web."

The concentration mercury doesn't necessarily come from industrial pollution, but instead from things like volcanic eruptions (coal-fired power plants have undoubtedly sent mercury into the atmosphere, but volcanoes have been around for a lot longer).

Canned fish can have one hell of a lot of salt.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:57 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hi, pescetarian here! If health is your primary motivation, then you shouldn't overdo it with the fish. I consume fish 1-2 times a week, small portions, from cans: wild caught Pacific salmon, and sardines. Try water-packed, the excess salt in brine and the oils are all negatives in my book. The olive oil is of low quality, and you should get your extra virgin olive oil from fresh harvests, not from cans of fish. So yes, you can do cans, but only water-packed. However, in addition to the points about heavy metals and other pollutants (including extra ones in farmed fish), you should keep in mind that fish can be naturally high in salt and iodine, and you don't want to overdo it. Every day is overdoing it. That said, it's better than every day beef.
posted by VikingSword at 12:04 PM on January 8, 2014

According to the FDA, "[f]or most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern." However, the FDA advises that women who are pregnant, nursing, or planning to become pregnant, as well as young children, limit their intake of certain fish and shellfish. So, according to the FDA at least, you (an adult male) do not need to be concerned about mercury in the seafood you eat.

I should point out that the advice I linked to seems to have been published in 2004. I have no idea whether more recent studies undermine this advice.
posted by crLLC at 12:14 PM on January 8, 2014

I tried to go full-veg before, but I ended up pretty miserable because I couldn't find salty protein (which I love).

Nothing at all wrong with liking the taste of meat, and I'm not sure how much time you've spent already learning to cook veggie meals, but this makes me think you could benefit from some more exploration into veggie options. There are lots and lots of veggie meals with salty protein - e.g. tofu stir fry with soy sauce/other seasoning, seasoned pasta with TVP/tofu, various kinds of beans with salt/salty seasoning, and in general tofu-based "fake meats" are pretty salty (YMMV for tastiness, though). You can buy all kinds of crazy variations of seasoned tofu (try asian supermarkets) which I find a lot tastier than the fake meats. Quinoa is also pretty high in protein and can be made savoury or sweet. Eggs are another option, if those work for you. They're not just a breakfast food!

If by "salty protein" you're thinking more of umami than pure salt, you can get that flavour from including things like mushrooms, a sharp cheese like parmesan or old chedder, or plain old msg.

It might be worth looking into veggie meals a bit more (again, if you haven't already), so your fish intake isn't crazy high. Other people have covered it pretty well already, but eating canned fish every day seems too high to me, if just for the high sodium content and lack of variety.
posted by randomnity at 12:15 PM on January 8, 2014

I made a website about which fish it makes sense to eat, mostly from a sustainability POV, but also including mercury data - it may be of interest to you.
posted by Zarkonnen at 12:16 PM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

This doesn't answer your question directly, but a non-canned long-shelf-life option are those vacuum packed frozen salmon (or white fish) fillets.
posted by quaking fajita at 7:54 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

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