Nutrition Articles

Best and Worst Fish Choices

A Guide for a Healthy Body & Planet

When you start to consider contamination from mercury and PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyl, or industrial chemicals), picking the best fish gets a little more confusing. Organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Institute of Medicine (IOM), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the World Health Organization (WHO) have tried to weigh the contamination risk of eating fish against the nutritional benefits it provides.  The EPA and FDA have established guidelines for pregnant women, women trying to conceive, nursing mothers and young children. For other adults, the general advice is to basically ''eat fish.''  Based on research, these groups feel that the health benefits of eating fish far outweigh any risk from contaminants.  While it may be possible that a fish could be so high in contaminants and low in omega-3 fatty acids that it could do you more harm than good, no such fish has been found to date that fits this description.  The advice from these organizations is to eat two or more servings of fish weekly from a variety of species, therefore reaping the nutritional benefits and lessening the risk of over-exposure to the same contaminant in the same species repeatedly.   

On the other end of the spectrum is the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).  This group has a published guide that lists 20 species of fish from which adults should consume no more than once serving per month.  When formulating their list, the EDF only considers risk—how much contaminant is present—not whether the listed fish may have any health benefit that could outweigh the contamination risk.  Both the EPA and FDA are concerned about the overstating of risk by the EDF, when using a risk-only method to compare fish. They have therefore set up an advisory for fish consumption for all US states based on available species. 
Experts on both sides of the discussion agree that, in theory, it is possible to get excessive mercury contamination by eating a large quantity of high-mercury fish---but they don’t agree on how much is too much.  However, the amount of fish that would need to be consumed is far more than the 3 oz. of fish per week that Americans are currently eating, on average.    
For people concerned with mercury contents of fish, refer to the guide below.  Mercury concentration is listed as Parts Per Million (PPM):
  • The fish with the highest levels of mercury include:  tilefish (1.45), swordfish (0.995), shark (0.979), and mackerel king (0.730).
  • The fish and shellfish with the lowest levels of mercury include:  anchovies, catfish, clam, cod, crab, haddock, herring, jacksmelt, spiny lobster, mackerel, mullet, oyster, perch, pollock, salmon (canned, fresh and frozen), sardine, scallop, shad, shrimp, tilapia, trout, tuna (canned, light), whitefish and whiting.  These varieties of fish have a mercury range of (0.008 - 0.128 PPM).
  • Fish and shellfish that fall in the middle area include:

Species Mercury PPM
Orange Roughy 0.571
Spanish Mackerel 0.454
Grouper 0.448
Bluefish 0.368
Sablefish 0.361
Frozen/Fresh Albacore Tuna 0.358
Frozen/Fresh Yellowfin Tuna 0.354
Canned Albacore Tuna 0.350
Halibut 0.241
Snapper 0.166
Bass 0.152
Perch 0.150
Tilefish, Atlantic 0.144
Fresh/Frozen Skipjack Tuna 0.144
Carp 0.137

Environmental Concerns
Finally, there is the concern of depleting the waters of fish and using ecologically damaging methods of fishing and fish farming.   Sustainable fishing practices are critical to preventing the extinction of fish species.  Advocacy groups, grocery stores, and consumers are trying to help reverse trends of overfishing so that the industry as a whole can move toward greater sustainability.  Environmental concerns are different from region to region in the United States and throughout the world.  Concerns can also change seasonally as well.  For the most up-to-date information on selecting fish with the least environmental burden, please check out the sustainability of your fish choices using this listing by the Monterey Bay Aquarium
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • I won't touch farmed anything with a 10 foot pole! The closest I will get to farmed is fish harvested from traditional Hawai'ian fishponds. I also try to get a lot of my fish from the local fisherman who sell their catch at the Farmer's Markets. I can often find Opah (Moonfish), Aku (Skipjack tuna), Uhu (parrot fish), and Weke (Goatfish). - 12/9/2014 5:11:05 PM
  • This is a very interesting and helpful article. I have recently introduced more fish in my diet as a protein source (I don't eat meat) and I was a bit worried as I have read articles on contaminants in many fish species. Here I have discovered that the fish I mostly choose (salmon, codfish, tuna, hake) are amont the least dangerous ones. Thanks! - 12/9/2014 10:05:17 AM
  • Small suggestion: expand on "light" tuna: CHUNK light, typically made from smaller tuna, has less mercury. Albacore has QUITE A BIT and is "light" in color... I think this is confusing for people. Especially pregnant women, petite people like myself, and children should not be using canned albacore as a staple!!! Larger people can get away with a can or so a week... - 6/6/2014 9:16:50 AM
  • Incredibly helpful article - I don't believe I've ever seen the statistics not only on omega-3 amounts, but also for the contaminants (especially mercury). Great report!!! - 6/6/2014 2:25:48 AM
    I am told to eat fish 3 days a week, but cannot stand the fishy taste. Cod and canned tuna is about all I can handle but feel I am losing out on the benefits the other fish have to offer, Any tips to get me through? - 10/8/2013 11:08:52 AM
  • DAWN784
    I eat quite a bit of Tilapia and I didnt see it on the list of Omega-3;s. - 8/1/2013 11:04:15 AM
  • I love my fish but this was great info. - 6/30/2013 9:53:28 AM
  • The issue is that most fish is actually poisoned with mercury and other hard metals. Also, most of the fish you buy or get at a restaurant is not actually the fish you think it is.

    ited-states-20130221 - 4/30/2013 12:24:06 PM
  • The problem isn't just overfishing of one species but the enormous amount of waste involved in the industry. With net fishing, massive amounts of marine life are killed and discarded for the sake of a relatively small amount of yield that makes it to the market. - 4/30/2013 11:28:04 AM
  • I have found that the individually portioned salmon and tuna are great go-to add ons to my salad. I always keep some in my desk drawer and having them convenient reminds me to eat more fish.

    I need to become more adventurous to buy fish in the market and prepare it for the family -right now it is usually mussles and shrimp. Thanks for a great article! - 4/30/2013 11:08:51 AM
  • My husband was a commercial lobsterman and a commercial fisherman before he became a capt. of a geophysical research boat, and then capt of tugs for over 40 years. I was a worker for the Barnegat Lighthouse fish store near where we live. We love fish. I know wild fish is better for you, but we are depleting our oceans. Farmed fish comes a 2nd choice. We love lobsters, but it takes many years to grow. They can live to very old ages. It's a beautiful animal and the are being depleted from our oceans due to our greed. The bigger the lobster, the tougher the meat. The latter can be chopped and used for salads. We very rarely eat a lobster. - 4/30/2013 9:45:57 AM
    I came to this article confused....I leave this article confused....I stick with salmon and tuna.... - 4/30/2013 1:19:55 AM
  • I personally cannot stand mackerel, which is a shame since it is high in the omegas; the fish I like is not on here, parrot fish, bream, red snapper; are these fishes not healthy? - 4/1/2013 7:01:28 AM
    not all fish is equal, interesting - 2/11/2013 2:38:15 PM
  • AJ_103
    While I don't mind fish, I can rarely bring myself to buy it at the grocery. It is so difficult to find "wild caught" anything from the United States. I will pretty much buy wild-caught Alaskan salmon, but it' hard to find. Watch what you are buying folks...the salmon at Costco (and most stores) is farm-raised in Thailand, Vietnam, China, etc...and it says right there on the package "color derived from feed"! WHAT?!?! Because the farm-raised fish aren't eating their "normal" diet, artificial coloring is added to their food to make their flesh pink. Pretty appetizing, huh? Also, there is a campaign now to stop genetically-engin
    eered salmon...if you haven't heard about the connection between GMO's and allergies, gastrointestinal issues, cancer, and other health issues, do a little research...and say no to genetically-modif
    ied salmon! - 2/7/2013 11:04:10 PM

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