Body Blog: A Few Fishy Facts About Salmon

The media loves talking about the health benefits of salmon, almost as much as they love analyzing Shiloh’s outfits. Our doctors tell us to eat it and our favorite magazines often have a “cook an amazing salmon tonight” sort of recipe. Heck, you as a reader probably think salmon is a nutritious food and are wondering where I am heading with this article.  After all, salmon has an abundance of omega-3 fatty acids, the exact fats we need to consume in our diets for a healthy brain and heart. And while it is true that salmon is loaded with omega-3s, it’s also got some other stuff in it.  Stuff that is bad.  Stuff that is so bad and gross that the use of such “stuff” is illegal in the United Kingdom.

The scientific term for this “stuff” is canthaxanthin. Canthaxanthin is an artificial pink food dye manufactured by a company called Hoffman-La Roche.  Hoffman-La Roche is a pharmaceutical company that distributes its trademarked SalmoFan (which is a color chart similar to paint store swatches), so fish farmers can have a choice of various shades of pink from which to dye their salmon.

You see, salmon raised in the wild develop a natural pink color from eating pink crustaceans, but all farm-raised salmon eat a processed “fish meal,” which leaves their skins a lovely (not so appetizing) shade of gray.  Hence, the need to use the aforementioned “stuff.”  So back to why the UK, and most European countries for that matter, are suspicious of canthaxanthin.  Well, canthaxanthin was linked to retinal damage in people when taken as a sunless tanning pill.  The British banned its use as a tanning agent, but we Americans still use it for tanning purposes without any warnings from the government.

Anyway, so why not just eat wild salmon?  Turns out that most “wild salmon” are actually a far stretch from wild.  As concerns about the pollution and artificial colors used to turn farm-raised salmon pink have risen, the price and desirability of wild salmon has risen with it.  “Wild salmon” has suddenly turned up in restaurants and food stores everywhere. Maybe your college dining hall even offers “wild salmon.” Well, just where is all this “wild salmon” coming from?! Have wild salmon suddenly decided to procreate like mad to feed our demand?

In 2005, journalists at the New York Times shared my suspicions and decided to investigate this matter.  They reported that the majority of so-called “wild Pacific” or “Alaskan” salmon is just farm-raised salmon with a misleading label.  The Times tested salmon sold in eight New York City stores, going for as much as $29 a pound, and found that only one of the sampled fish tested wild!  That means the choice to buy wild salmon may still result in the consumption of “stuff.” Bad stuff.

I may not be much of a neat freak when it comes to keeping my room clean, but I am a neat freak when it comes to keeping my body clean.  All fish, not just salmon, contains bad stuff, like mercury, PCBs, and other chemicals. Chemicals that can stay in your body for years. Decades! Heck, these are chemicals that can stay in your body for the rest of your life!  Not only is their shelf life in the human body gross, but as the level of these chemicals in your body goes up, so does your odds of getting cancer, dementia, and heart disease.

For example, when 23,963 Long Island women were followed as part of a Diet, Cancer, and Health study, what stood out most was the link between fish consumption and breast cancer.  It is most likely because of the pollution in the fish, as much of the fish sold in Long Island comes from China (where fish farming practices are disturbingly slopping and poorly regulated), or from east coast waters (which are highly polluted).  The mind-numbing conclusion of the researchers was, “This study showed that higher intakes of fish were significantly associated with higher incidence rates of breast cancer.”  Surprisingly, women who ate little or no fish had close to half the incidence of breast cancer compared with women who ate a lot of it.  This study received way too little attention in the media, but the findings are clear: fish intake can be linked to breast cancer if the fish come from dirty waters.  So not cool.  I think I’m going to wait until my next vacation to Hawaii to eat fish, as the fish caught there are much less polluted and safer to eat.

People who would be completely grossed out by drinking polluted water don’t think twice about eating polluted fish with 1,000 times more pollution in it.  Yes, some fish contains much more pollution than other types, but all fish contain some degree of pollutants.  Bigger fish like shark, whale, swordfish and snapper contain the most, while smaller fish like shrimp, tilapia, trout and scallops contain the least.  If you do choose to eat fish, do so infrequently and always choose the types with the lowest levels of mercury. I will admit to loving scallops (or at least I did before doing the research for this article), but I’m not so sure I will be ordering them on my next trip out to eat.   I’m beginning to think that it’s a blessing in disguise that the fish served in my school’s dining hall looks so unappetizing.

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