A fishy business

Eating fish is a healthy and beneficial choice, however there are several factors to consider when choosing which fish to include in your family's diet.

Fish and shellfish are good sources of many vitamins and minerals. Oily fish – such as salmon and sardines – is also particularly high in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which can help to keep your heart healthy. Aim for at least two portions (140g for adults) of fish per week, one of which should be an oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel or trout. Fish that is steamed, baked or grilled is a healthier choice than fried fish. Frying can increase the fat content of fish and shellfish, especially if they’re cooked in batter.

Oily fish include:

  • herring (bloater, kipper and hilsa are types of herring)

  • pilchards

  • salmon

  • sardines

  • sprats

  • trout

  • mackerel

Fresh and canned tuna do not count as oily fish. Some oily fish contain bones that you can eat. These include whitebait, canned sardines, pilchards and tinned salmon (but not fresh salmon). These fish can help keep our bones strong because they are sources of calcium and phosphorus.

Cod, haddock, plaice, pollock, coley, dab, flounder, red mullet, gurnard and tilapia are all examples of white fish. White fish are low in fat, making them one of the healthier, low-fat alternatives to red or processed meat, which tends to be higher in fat, especially saturated fat. Some species can be a source of omega-3 fatty acids, e.g. sea bass, sea bream, turbot, halibut, but at lower levels than oily fish.

Shellfish includes prawns, mussels, scallops, squid and langoustine. Shellfish are low in fat and a source of selenium, zinc, iodine and copper. Some types of shellfish, such as mussels, oysters, squid and crab, are also good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, but they do not contain as much as oily fish.

Eating more than two portions of fish per week is usually fine; most types of white fish can be eaten every day without any issues. Certain groups shouldn't eat more than two portions of oily fish per week because pollutants found in oily fish may build up in the body and affect the future development of a baby in the womb. These groups are girls, women who may one day become pregnant, and pregnant or breastfeeding women.

If your family isn’t keen on fish then you can buy omega 3 supplements for adults and for children over three years old, but these aren’t as beneficial as eating fish itself. The fish you choose can be fresh, frozen or canned. Fish fingers count too!

Sustainability is an important issue to consider when buying fish as a third of global fish stocks are ‘overfished’, and some fishing practices have been linked to destruction of natural habitats, and exploitation of workers. Climate change also threatens global seafood production by driving warmer water temperatures and ocean acidification. Look out for eco labels to show that your fish has been responsibly sourced.

According to the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), 80% of the seafood we eat in the UK comes from just 5 different species – cod, haddock, salmon, tuna, and prawns. This can place pressure on a smaller number of wild stocks or farmed species than if we choose a greater variety when shopping. The MCS has recently recommended 5 more sustainable swaps that we can try.

  1. Cod – UK stocks are not currently at a sustainable level, but European hake is a more sustainable choice to cod, which has a similar meaty, flaky texture.

  2. Tuna – there are lots of different types of tuna and their sustainability can vary. Why not try mackerel from the south-west of England, ideally caught by hook and line (check the label)? Mackerel is also a source of long-chain omega-3 fats thought to benefit heart health.

  3. Prawns – prawns are farmed or caught all over the world, and some more sustainably produced options are available, but why not try UK rope-grown mussels instead? These are often considered one of the most environmentally sustainable choices you can make as they help clean the water as they grow and don’t need to be given any feed.

  4. Salmon – stocks of Atlantic wild salmon are not in a good state, and farmed salmon may also be subject to environmental concerns although farmed salmon with organic or Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) labels may be better. Farmed rainbow trout is widely available and has a similar texture to salmon, but a slightly stronger flavour.

  5. Haddock – some sources can be more sustainable, such as haddock from the North Sea and Iceland. But you can also try Dover sole from the western English Channel (Cornwall) for something different.

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