Farmed & dangerous


Fish have long been revered as a healthy alternative to red meat and a great source of those ever-crucial omega-3 essential fatty acids. But few people know that most fish today are mass-produced. Have you had salmon lately? Whether bought in a store or ordered in a restaurant, odds are great that — far from what you've been led to believe by advertisers — your meal was born in a plastic mold. It was raised on a fish farm, caged in cramped quarters and unable to swim freely. It was forced to fatten up on food pellets like a marine couch potato. That may not concern you as long as the resulting fillet packs a full range of health benefits. But the fact is, it doesn't.
down on the farm

Let's take a closer look at what's for dinner and why it's not as good for you as you'd think. First, at some point, your fillet was vaccinated against disease. Later, it was flushed with antibiotics. After all, bacteria and parasites — which would normally exist in relatively low levels in fish scattered around the oceans — can run rampant in the densely packed acres of net-covered fish farms.

“The rapid increase in resistance to these antibiotics represents major challenges for this source of food production worldwide,” stated a 1994 report by the American Society of Microbiology's Task Force on Antibiotic Resistance.

Your salmon was also likely fed carcinogenic and mutagenic pesticides to help it shed its inevitable beard of sea lice — the consequence of remaining inactive in a tiny cage. But wait, it's a healthy pink color, isn't it?

Well, sure it is — you chose it. That's color number 33 on drug giant Roche's color list. Extensive market tests were conducted to determine the precise shade of salmon color that appealed most to target consumers.

“Deeply colored flesh was associated with higher quality, better tasting salmon,” according to sales literature for Sysco, the giant food service supplier. So to get that perfect pink hue, your fish was fed astaxanthin, a synthetic pigment. Without it, the salmon — confined throughout its life to an area the size of a bathtub — would have pale and unappetizing flesh, to say the least.
wholely mackerel

But what about those heart-healthy omega-3s? You can't pick up a magazine without reading about the restorative properties of omega-3 oil and, especially, of two fatty acids found in fish: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Just last year, The New England Journal of Medicine and The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported on two new long-term studies, concluding that eating omega-3-rich fish at least once a week can significantly cut the chance of your keeling over from a clogged ticker.

Indeed, years before that, fish was touted as the food that keeps the Japanese trim and their hearts hardy — a food potentially pivotal in preventing not only heart disease, but cancer, depression, Alzheimer's disease and other chronic illnesses. Especially important as sources of omega-3 fatty acids are cold-water ocean fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring. Fish such as sole, halibut and cod, on the other hand, have relatively low omega-3 concentrations.
artificial fish?

So even if your farmed fish is packed with antibiotics and artificial colors, it still provides essential omega-3s, right? Guess again. “Farmed fish usually don't contain much omega-3 at all,” says Frank Hu, PhD, of the Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the April 2002 JAMA study. “Only fish from the open oceans contain many omega-3 essential fatty acids.”

The reason? Diet. “Wild fish and algae are stored as omega-3,” says Hu. “Fish in farms eat mostly corn or soybeans and will store omega-6 in the body.”

Fish farmers originally tried to stick to the natural diet, but salmon can eat 10 times their body weight, which necessitates grinding up 10 pounds of sardines, anchovies, mackerel, herring and other fish for every pound of fish produced. Not exactly a profitable equation. So feed manufacturers started adding vegetable proteins, such as soy, canola and corn gluten, as well as animal by-products and vitamin and mineral supplements to their pellets. Today's commercial fish feed consists of only 35 percent fish — a proportion that is falling fast — and with it, your meal's ultimate omega-3 content.

And it's these omega-3s that we need. The typical Western diet already contains a disproportionate amount of omega-6 oil, found largely in vegetable oils and processed foods. This imbalance can actually cause inflammation and lower your body's defenses against some diseases. Studies show that women with breast cancer have two to five times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s in their systems. So omega-6-rich farmed fish may not be doing you much good at all.
fish or foul

“We've made some mistakes in the past, and we acknowledge them,” says Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the British Columbia Salmon Farmers Association. British Columbia is the source of almost half of the farmed fish eaten in the United States. The rest originates in Chilean waters.

“We feel the industry is sustainable,” says Walling. “Salmon is a healthy food choice.”

But Daniel Pauly, PhD, disagrees. “They're like floating pig farms,” says Pauly, a professor of fisheries at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “They make a terrific mess.”

Fish wastes and unconsumed feed smother the sea floor beneath these farms, generating bacteria that consume oxygen vital to other sea life. And, Pauly says, pesticides and other toxic chemicals pollute the sea floor.

Antibiotics have created disease-resistant microbes that infect both wild and farmed fish. Clouds of sea lice, incubated by captive fish, swarm wild fish as they swim past. Meanwhile, some companies are seeking FDA approval to market genetically engineered fish. But what will happen to wild fish when the altered versions escape into their environment?
healthy alternatives

If you want the full health benefits of fish without harming yourself or the environment, always insist on eating wild fish, and limit your monthly intake.

To get omega-3s into your diet, rely on non-fish oils — quality virgin olive oil, coconut oil or flaxseed oil — and on fish oil supplements, either as a liquid or in capsules. Fish oil is purified and poses no mercury risk (see “Supplemental Advice,” p. 56). Plus, quality fish oils and fish oil supplements contain high concentrations of omega-3s, so you can be certain that you're getting an adequate daily amount.

A reasonable dose of fish oil or cod liver oil, for instance, consists of 1 teaspoon daily for every 50 pounds of body weight.

In the long run, your voice can help arrest this farming trend and prompt a movement back to wild sources of fresh fish. But for now, supplements are safer.

farmed fish usually don't contain much omega-3 at all

if you want the full health benefits … insist on eating wild fish

PHOTO (COLOR): Majestic wild salmon are threatened by farmed fish lacking full nutritional values.



By Michael Downey

Supplemental advice

While it's undoubtedly healthier than farmed fish, wild fish can also be a health risk. Increasingly, individuals who consume any type of fish are showing higher levels of mercury in their systems. Mercury from various fish varieties has been connected to fetal damage and the underdevelopment of children's brains. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning to pregnant and nursing mothers to avoid higher-risk species such as tuna, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and lobster. And new research points to a link between mercury toxicity and cardiovascular disease in adults.

So it's best to limit your intake of tuna, canned or fresh, and the other high-risk species. Instead, take fish, flax or evening primrose supplements as a healthier way to incorporate more omega-3 essential fatty acids into your diet. Here's a list of companies that manufacture omega-3 supplements and oils.

American Health

Barlean's (Flax oil)

Health From The Sun

JR Carlson Labs

Life Services (Keto)

Lifetime Vitamins



Nature's Plus

Nordic Naturals

NOW Foods

Solgar (Flax and Evening Primrose)

Spectrum Naturals (Flax oil)


Food for thought

How can you be sure that the fish on your plate is wild, not farmed? Here are some helpful hints.

* Don't be fooled by the term “fresh,” which applies equally to wild as well as farmed fish. In fact, if a restaurant or grocery store offers “fresh fish” during the off-season, you can bet it's fresh off the farm.
* If the fish in restaurants and stores isn't labeled as “wild” or “farmed,” ask before purchasing. If salmon is touted as “Atlantic,” it means it is farmed salmon.
* Look for the Marine Stewardship Council Certified Seal of Approval on seafood products to support environmentally friendly practices.

For more information about the risks of fish farming, visit the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition at; or call the Industrial Fish Farming Campaign of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy at 877.565.1287.


Fish stories

You've seen “fish oil” and “omega-3 oil.” But what's the difference? Do you need both?

By now, you've learned that you should be incorporating more omega-3 fatty acids — a specific group of liquid fats that helps prevent heart disease and stroke, cancer and perhaps psychological problems — into your diet.

Fatty, cold-water fish are a very rich source of omega-3 fats — but they aren't the only source. Certain plant foods contain omega-3 too. Flaxseeds, for instance.

But have you noticed how fish-product companies and a few naïve editors and writers keep stressing the absolute necessity of consuming fish and fish oil? Is that true? With the increasing levels of mercury in fish and the questionable quality of farmed fish, do you really have to rely on this source of those all-important omega-3 oils?
here's the scoop

Fish promoters point out that two extremely important omega-3 oils are found only in fish: eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA). Fish high in EPA and DHA include salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, anchovies, rainbow trout, bluefish and white albacore tuna canned in water.

What they don't like to tell you, however, is that although you can't get EPA and DHA from non-fish foods, you can still get it indirectly. Your body can manufacture all the EPA and DHA it needs from another omega-3 oil, known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). And ALA is available from a number of plant-based foods.

So if you get enough ALA-rich plant foods, you don't really need to eat fish. Good sources of ALA include canola oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts, walnut oil, purslane and dark green, leafy vegetables. But only a portion of ALA is converted to EPA and DHA — so vegetarians who do not eat fish should be sure to get these plant foods and oils regularly.
consider this

Of course, fish producers also claim that farmed fish are actually better off because they don't have to forage for food and are treated with antibiotics to keep them from infections. Is that true?

Farmers squeeze between 50,000 to 90,000 fish in a single, 100-by-100-foot pen — literally gill to gill. Virtually unable to swim, they spend their lives treading water in, and eating, their own waste. Add to that rampant diseases, and you start to get the full health picture.

And we just bet you thought phrases such as “ocean fresh” on the label meant the fish once meandered wild and free, right? Wrong.

So are you being misled? In plain lingo, you're being told fish stories — whoppers.

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