Saturday, July 17, 2010

What is Better...Fish or Fish Oil Supplements? Answer is Yes

Fish is so healthy,
For your heart, your brain, and skin,
Eat more fish or die.

I'm just having a little fun with that haiku...but seriously, eating fatty fish is a good thing.  As I mentioned previously, fatty fish and fish oil have been associated with several different health benefits, most notably heart health.  The active ingredients are two compounds with seriously long names.  Most folks just call them EPA and DHA.   

Fishies contain EPA and DHA because they eat microalgae in the ocean that synthesizes both compounds.  Over time, the fishes accumulate more and more of the stuff in their bodies.  It's quite important for the fishes that swim in deep water to have the EPA and DHA because it keeps them from turning into fishsicles when swimming in cold waters. 

Now on to the topic of which is best: whole fish vs. supplements.

My personal philosophy, based on the abundance of research studies on a wide range of topics that compare foods to supplements, is that food is (almost) always better.  I feel the same about fish oil.  Fish contains protein and other stuff that help keep us healthy (see below for the not-so-healthy stuff in fish).

Most experts recommend 1-2 servings of fatty fish a week (a serving is 3 oz or about the size of a deck of cards).  This includes salmon, albacore tuna, herring (blech), mackeral (double blech), sardines (egads, blech), and trout (not so blech, but certainly an acquired taste). If you cannot get your 1-2 servings per week, then a supplement is great.  I'll blog about supplements...the best much to take...strategies to taking week. 

Now about that fish....there are some challenges with eating whole fish as a source of fish oil...cost, availability, contaminants, and sustainability/ environmental concerns:
  1. Atlantic salmon is the highest source of EPA and DHA.  It is also an endangered fish (particularly on the east coast) and therefore availability is low and the price is high.  To meet the demand for Atlantic salmon, a bunch of farms starting raising Atlantic salmon and selling it for far less than wild caught.
  2. Unfortunately, farm-raised salmon contain lots of contaminants (PCBs, dioxins and furans, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, copper, zinc, fluorine, PAHs).  This is because these farm fishies are usually fed food pellets made from other fishies.  All fish have these contaminants present (these are all present in our oceans), so when fishies are ground up and turned into food pellets, the bad stuff gets concentrated.  Interestingly, farm-raised salmon have the highest level of EPA and DHA of all other fishies (even wild caught), but also the highest level of contaminants. 
  3. Other types of salmon contain EPA and DHA, albeit at lower levels, but many of these types of salmon are also endangered or at risk of becoming over-fished.  The following wild-caught fish are considered "sustainable" and not endangered: Alaskan Coho, Chum, Keta, King, Pink, Red, Silver, Sockeye, Sake.  Sadly, many of these varieties of salmon are not as mild and flakey and delectable as Atlantic.  
  4. Bigger, predatory fish (tuna, shark, swordfish) are not farm-raised, but they are contaminated with mercury.  They accumulate mercury over time by eating lots and lots of smaller fishies (mercury is in our oceans and therefore is naturally present in fish).  Mercury can mess with your nervous system and a bad way.  Shark and swordfish are some of the worst.  Light canned tuna has little mercury.  Yellowfin tuna (the kind seen in a lot of sushi restaurants) has moderate levels. 

So what to do?  If you are pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant or lactating (or a small child)...think twice about eating farm-raised fish or mercury-containing fish (talk to your doctor about this if you're concerned)...definitely eat wild caught salmon, canned light tuna, or take a fish oil supplement (that does not have the contaminants...again, talk to your doctor if you're concerned).  

If you are otherwise healthy, try to find the wild caught salmon (Trader Joe's sells a great frozen Atlantic wild caught salmon for a good price), and enjoy a nice tuna fish sandwich once a week (and the occasional yellowfin tuna sushi). A serving of farm-raised, high EPA and DHA  salmon once a month seems to be okay, according to experts.  It's most likely the kind of salmon that you'd find at a restaurant (unless otherwise noted).   

This is how I like to eat my salmon.  Yummmmm....


    1. Farmed salmon does not have more contaminants than wild, in fact it is actually the other way around. The feed pellets are not all fish meal, so don't buy into that contaminant hype. Both farmed and wild salmon are healthy products and good for you and all the levels are way below any recommended limits.

    2. Ecogirl6....thanks for your comment! I'm always open to hearing about new information..particularly on this topic! Can you share your sources of this information? It would be fantastic if farmed salmon was safer, more eco friendly, and cheaper than the wild!!! The sources that I used for my opinion above are as follows:

      Article published in Environmental Research in 2007 by Hayward et al. saying that farmed salmon contained more PCBs and PBDE than wild.

      Article published in Environmental Science and Technology in 2004 by Hites et al. showing the same results.

      I found a few articles showing that a new process to decontaminate the fish feed will reduce the level of some major contaminants in the farm-raised fish, but it is not obvious to me yet that all farms are employing this feed (Bernssten et al. Chemosphere 2010).

      In another article by Bernssten et al (Chemosphere 2010, published in Feb), an alternative feed source decreased some contaminants but actually increased polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) versus the other feed source. Not good.

      And I don't know how reputable this group is, but they have a nice overview on the topic, again saying that farm-raised salmon have more contaminants than wild: The Environmental Working Group is also recommending avoiding farmed salmon over fresh. Again, not sure if this is a reputable group or not. Does anyone know?

      The Environmental Defense Fund also advises against farmed salmon.

      I also found evidence that the farmed salmon can have health risks themselves that they then can pass on to wild fish...something called heart and skeletal muscle inflammation:

      I guess sea lice is a big problem in salmon fisheries...they pick it up from the wild fish outside of their pen and then propagate it within the pen and further infect other wild fish. Having had a child with lice, I'm a little creeped out now.

      I would love it if a salmon farm has navigated its way through all of the potential problems and has a high fish oil, low contaminant product that is not destructive to it's environment. Maybe there is a particular fishery that has achieved this? Maybe it's not all fisheries yet?

      And one last thought...the environment where the wild fish is swimming will also affect the contaminant level of that particular fish. Some oceans and streams have more pollution than others. Maybe it really just depends on what you're comparing when it comes to wild vs. farm salmon???

      Just a few random thoughts...Ecogirl...please let me know the source of your info when you get a chance. I'd be happy to post a retraction if the totality of the evidence are supportive of such.