Is “Fresh” Fish Really the Best Option?

Is “Fresh” Fish Really the Best Option?

By Laura High @healthwriter61
July 12, 2016

We’ve all heard about the benefits of eating more seafood, and “fresh” would seem to be the best choice, but is it?

For years we’ve been implored to add more fish to our diet. Fish and shellfish can be a good source of lean protein and contains many of the essential nutrients we need to achieve and maintain good health. Today there are more options than ever when considering seafood — fresh, fresh frozen, flash frozen, previously frozen, farmed, and sustainable — are all labels you might encounter when making your selection.


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It would be logical to think that “fresh” fish is best, but unless you live on the East or West coast, finding something caught that day, or even yesterday, can be tricky. Fishing boats may stay at sea for several days, so the “fresh catch” may actually be a few days old. If you don’t happen to live on a coast, the farther away you are from where the fish was caught, the less fresh that fresh fish is likely to be. Some companies specialize in flying seafood to land-locked areas within 24 hours of being caught. That may be a better option from a taste and health perspective, but it’s not cheap, particularly if you’re enjoying the “catch of the day” in a restaurant.

What does “fresh” really mean?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states in its Code of Regulations:

The term “fresh,” when used on the label or in labeling of a food . . . means that the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation. . . .

What to look for

Wherever you live, if you’re fortunate enough to have access to fresh fish here are the FDA’s recommendations for what to look for:

  • Only buy fish that is refrigerated or displayed on a thick bed of fresh ice that is not melting (preferably in a case or under some type of cover).
  • Fish should smell fresh and mild, not fishy, sour, or ammonia-like.
  • A fish’s eyes should be clear and bulge a little.
  • Whole fish and fillets should have firm, shiny flesh and bright red gills free from milky slime.
  • The flesh should spring back when pressed.
  • Fish fillets should display no discoloration, darkening, or drying around the edges.
  • Shrimp flesh should be translucent and shiny with little or no odor.
  • Some refrigerated seafood may have time or temperature indicators on their packaging, which show if the product has been stored at the proper temperature. Always check the indicators when they are present, and buy the seafood only if the indicator shows that the product is safe to eat.

If you’re buying live seafood, there are some additional safety considerations. You should purchase crabs and lobsters should only if they are still moving their legs. Shellfish — mussels, clams, and oysters — should close when tapped, indicating they are still alive. Avoid shellfish that are cracked or broken. If shellfish don’t open after they are cooked, don’t eat them.

The FDA doesn’t make recommendations for the amount of time from catch to consumption beyond which the seafood is no longer safe to eat. If the seafood meets the criteria listed above, presumably it’s still safe. 


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Consider frozen

If you live someplace like Colorado, however, by the time that “fresh” fish filet makes it to your local supermarket it could be many days old. Thanks anyway, but I’ll take the “previously frozen” variety.

These days, most fishing boats are equipped with blast freezers so the seafood is “fresh frozen” or “flash frozen” almost immediately after it’s caught and cleaned. This preserves not only the taste and texture, but also the nutritional benefits of the seafood.

When you’re ready to prepare frozen seafood, let it thaw overnight in the refrigerator, or if you need to thaw it more quickly, submerge it wrapped in plastic in cold water. You can microwave it on defrost just until it’s pliable, but still cold. 

Fresh or frozen — keep it safe

Generally, fish should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees, or until the flesh becomes opaque (not transparent) and flakes apart easily. Cook scallops, shrimp, and lobster until they are opaque and firm.

When preparing seafood, make sure you keep it separate from other foods, including using separate cutting boards and utensils. Thoroughly wash your hands and anything else that comes in contact with raw seafood. 

What about raw fish?

To put it plainly, if you eat raw fish you are increasing your risk of contracting a foodborne illness. That said, for most healthy people, occasionally eating a reasonable amount of raw or undercooked seafood poses only a small increased risk. If you choose to consume raw fish or shellfish — sushi, sashimi, raw oysters or clams, ceviche, gravlax, poke, and others — make sure you do so at a reputable establishment that uses high-quality ingredients and proper food safety practices. When consuming raw seafood, the FDA recommends it should be previously frozen. Freezing kills and eliminates some — but not all — pathogens.

Additional considerations

Some people should never eat raw or undercooked seafood because of the increased risk (although slight) for exposure to pathogens that can cause serious illness. These high-risk individuals are:

  • Pregnant women
  • Young children and infants
  • Older adults
  • Those with a compromised immune system

If you are pregnant, nursing your child, or considering becoming pregnant, it’s important to avoid consuming too much mercury, which can damage your child’s developing nervous system. Completely avoid these four types of fish:

  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • King mackerel
  • Tilefish

You can consume other fish safely in limited amounts and actually provide nutritional benefits to you and your child. Two meals of cooked fish per week (approximately 12 ounces) can be safely consumed as long as you are eating a fish variety that is low in mercury. This same guideline should be followed for a young child eating seafood. He or she should also be fed a smaller amount. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) recently released the EDF Seafood Selector, a database of fish choices “that are good for you and the oceans.” Seafood is rated “best choices,” “OK choices,” and “worst choices,” and includes information about the mercury content of most seafood varieties.

The good news

Bottom line, there are more options than ever for consuming seafood that is affordable, nutritious, and environmentally friendly. By knowing the right questions to ask and what to look for on the label or packaging, you can enjoy delicious and affordable seafood as a regular part of your healthy diet.


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July 12, 2016

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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