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Ask Tufts Experts October 2012 Issue

Q: Is it better to eat the darker meat of fish like salmon that’s found near the skin because it’s higher in omega-3s, or to avoid it because this part of the fish also contains more toxins? What about eating salmon skin itself?

Answer :  For most people, according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the benefits of eating fish like salmon rich in omega-3 fatty acids outweigh any risks from contaminants. Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, notes that the American Heart Association advises eating two fish meals a week.

It’s true, however, that the dark, fatty areas near the skin—highest in healthy omega-3 fats—are also likely to be highest in any potential toxins. To reduce consumption of pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in fish at risk of such contaminants, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends removing the skin, belly, top of the back, dark meat, head, tail and all internal organs before cooking. Note that this will not reduce the mercury in fish (not a chief concern with salmon, in any case), which is stored throughout the tissues.

You can also avoid most contaminants in salmon while enjoying its omega-3s by smart fish shopping. The Environmental Defense Fund says the safest choices are wild salmon from Alaska, with only moderate contaminant levels (meaning adults need not limit consumption), and canned salmon, which is low in contaminants. Both canned salmon and wild Alaska salmon (all five species—chinook, chum, coho, pink and sockeye) make the organization’s “Eco-Best” list for health as well as environmental concerns. Even if you buy other varieties, the environmental group adds, “Older women and men may find it an acceptable tradeoff to exceed recommended seafood meal limits to increase their omega-3 intake.”

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