Harriet Sugar Miller has done extensive research on salmon. She is sharing what she has learned in regular posts to her Eat and Beat Cancer blog.
The oils in fish are good for us, but the accumulated pollutants are not. A blogger tells us how to stay in the pink
By SUSAN SCHWARTZ, The Gazette
It started when a friend asked Harriet Sugar Miller what kind of salmon to buy: Wild or farmed? Atlantic or Pacific? Fresh or canned?
Sugar Miller, a freelance health journalist and self described “research nut,” set out to find an answer for her. She has spent more than 200 hours on the project over six months, and the surface of her dining-room table is thick with research papers and correspondence.
She has interviewed government experts, academics and industry people in Canada, Alaska and Norway, and read dozens of studies. And since March, she has been passing on the considerable amount she has learned through weekly posts to her Eat and Beat Cancer blog (eatandbeatcancer.com).
Pretty well every mainstream nutrition organization advises that we eat fish regularly, although a 2011 poll found that most Canadians don’t eat enough. Canada’s food guide recommends two servings of oily fish, including salmon, because it’s a good source of vitamins A and D, and rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Among health benefits associated with these fats: they protect against the episodes of an irregular heart rhythm that can cause sudden death and they lower the risk of heart attack and stroke.
They play a role, too, in eye health and brain health and minimize arthritis symptoms and there is mounting evidence that omega-3s protect against inflammatory conditions, including cancer, said Sugar Miller, a survivor herself of a rare form of ovarian cancer.
But a 2004 study in the journal Science warned against farmed salmon because it was contaminated with levels of organic pollutants deemed by the authors to be unacceptably high – pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) concentrated in this “good” fat. These compounds, traced to the fish being used in the salmon feed, have been long banned, but they biodegrade slowly and linger in water, soil and “bioaccumulate” in fat so concentrations tend to be higher in animals higher up in the food chain, including salmon. And when organic pollutants accumulate in the body, they increase the risk of cancer and immune system dysfunction, as Julie Rehmeyer observed in a 2009 article in Science News.
Sugar Miller, a lawyer by training, also has a journalism degree. After moving here from New York to marry a Montrealer, she worked on contract with CBC television in the early 1990s and pitched segments to the fifth estate on trans fats and to The Health Show on soy and helped to research and produce them. She had a health column on Newswatch and, later, produced and hosted a live monthly health show for three years on Mountain Lake PBS in Plattsburgh.
Among her findings on salmon:
– Research has shown that the fish farming industry, known as aquaculture, has a relatively large environment-al footprint: fish are kept in pens, some of which are open to the ocean, and lots of chemicals are used in farming. The good news is that fish-feed manufacturers have cleaned up their act since the 2004 study. “A lot has changed: the feeds are cleaner today and governments are regulating contaminants more stringently,” she said.
Ruth Salmon, head of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, observed: “We have improved vaccines with which we treat our young fish and antibiotic use has dropped dramatically in the past years; we are comfortable that we have good management practices for fish health.” There are trace amounts of PCBs and dioxins not just in salmon but also in the most common foods we eat, she said – including beef, chicken, pork, eggs and butter.
Among several types of salmon carried at Montreal’s La Mer, widely acknowledged to be Montreal’s best fish shop, is organic farmed salmon from Ireland: although Europe has standards in place and bodies to certify fish as organic, there is no comparable body in Canada yet, explained owner John Meletakos.
(Requirements to be certified organic include: fish must be fed with fish parts that are fit for human consumption, sustainable and receive no antibiotics from the time they are tiny smolts to when they are ready for market.)
He also stocks king salmon from British Columbia, which he said is raised to organic standards, and farmraised king salmon from New Zealand as well as farm raised Atlantic salmon grown on both Canadian coasts.
–But without knowing exactly what is in the food given to organic salmon, it’s impossible to know if it’s more healthful than conventional salmon, said Sugar Miller. “Although fewer chemicals are used in organic salmon farming than in conventional aquaculture, the feed manufactured for organic salmon contains a higher percentage of fish and fish parts than standard feeds – which use lots of plants and even parts of land animals.
“Depending on which fish go into the organic feed and where they come from, you may be getting more industrial pollutants,” she said. That said, Europe has adopted strict regulations for industrial pollutants in farmed fish, so it’s not a big worry. And sources of fish used in fish feed here in North America are cleaner than in Europe because our waters are cleaner, she said.
–Some experts rate wild Alaskan salmon as the best choice for consumers, but Sugar Miller says B.C. salmon is just as good – except certain species from the rivers around Vancouver, where the water is not as clean as farther out. Sockeye, pink and chum should be fine: for the most part, they migrate quickly out of the Strait of Georgia and out to sea. Chinook and coho species in southern B.C., however, spend most of their lives in the Strait of Georgia and are more polluted.
“Every piece of salmon you select will differ in its fat content – and it’s the fat that’s important. That’s where the healthy omega-3s as well as the pollutants reside,” she said. The best choice for consumers is also one of the most economical: canned pink salmon. “The cheap pink salmon, which is considered trash salmon by the industry and thus is put in cans, is the cleanest species – and you need to eat about 500 grams a week to get the recommended amount of omega 3s,” she said.
But contact the manufacturer to make sure the can is free of Bisphenol-A, or BPA, she said: researchers classify BPA as an “endocrine disruptor” because it can disrupt activities in the body’s hormonal system.
–Although farmed Atlantic salmon is “much cleaner than it used to be,” intake should be limited to 200 to 250 grams per week. In terms of pollutants, sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon fall between pink and Atlantic. “To get the recommended amount of omega-3s and the fewest pollutants, you’ll need to eat somewhere between 300 and 400 grams a week, depending on the species and on where that species is from. Like pink salmon, sockeye often comes in cans.” Again, choose BPAfree cans.
IF IT’S ATLANTIC SALMON, IT’S ALWAYS FARMED
There is a single species of Atlantic salmon – and it is always farmed. Wild Atlantic salmon exists but it is not fished because it is an endangered species.
Atlantic salmon is farmed in countries including Norway, which has the world’s largest salmon farming industry, Chile, Scotland and Ireland, as well as on Canada’s east and west coast: to make things more confusing, then, there’s Atlantic salmon being farmed in places that don’t necessarily abut the Atlantic.
As well, North America has five species of Pacific salmon, which is generally wild. From most fatty to least, they are: Chinook, or king; coho, or silver; sockeye, or red; chum, or keta, or dog; and pink.
Canned salmon is mostly wild – and much of it is from British Columbia and Alaska.