Friday, March 4

Food Spotlight: Salmon

You’d think salmon would be a non-controversial food. It’s a lean, low-calorie source of protein, making it a better choice than beef or chicken and it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids which are known to help prevent cardiovascular disease. Fish in general is so beneficial that the American Heart Association recommends eating two or more servings a week.

But, as with just about everything food related, it’s never that simple.

The issue with salmon is whether to eat farm-raised or wild-caught. 

Why all the fuss? Salmon contains polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a dioxin that scientists believe could be a carcinogen in humans. And the levels of PCBs vary greatly between wild-caught and farm-raised salmon.

What’s a safe level of PCBs?

Here’s where the issue starts to get murky.

The FDA set a safe upper limit of PCBs at 2000 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA set a much stricter (i.e., lower) standard at 24 - 48 ppb. Farmed salmon averages 27 ppb, right in the range set by the EPA. So, technically farmed salmon is well below the limit set by the FDA and okay even according to the EPA, but pushing the upper limits of what the EPA deems as safe.

Wild-caught salmon, on the other hand, averages only 5.3 ppb, five times lower than farmed salmon.

What to do?

While PCBs are an issue, their risk to human life is unclear. WebMD had this to say about salmon:

“The leading cause of death in the U.S.—causing 950,000 deaths a year—is cardiovascular disease. Eating two servings per week of fatty fish, such as salmon, can reduce the risk of fatal heart disease by 40%. The dangers of eating salmon, meanwhile, are unclear, largely theoretical, and based on studies in animals. The risks would appear to be much smaller than that of developing heart disease.”

WebMD further states that, “for most healthy adults, the health benefits of salmon far outweigh the much smaller and less-clear risk that PCBs found in it could cause cancer.”

That said, if limiting PCBs is a concern for you, buy and eat wild-caught salmon. If you’re okay using farm-raised salmon you can reduce the amount of PCBs you ingest by simply removing the skin and dark flesh and either grilling or broiling it so the fat drips off. PCBs are stored in the fat. Cooking this way reduces the PCB content by 20-30%.

All this talk of PCBs hasn't scared me away from salmon. I love it. In fact, I made the following dish this week. It's one of my favorite salmon recipes. It's easy to make and my kids like it too. Well, except my eight-year-old, but she doesn't like anything so her opinion doesn't count.


Salmon with Rosemary (From The South Beach Diet Cookbook)

  • 1 pound salmon
  • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried, crushed
  • Fresh rosemary sprigs (optional)
  • Capers (optional)
  • Cut the fish into 4 equal-size portions.
  • Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, garlic, and rosemary in a bowl. Brush the mixture onto the fish.
  • To grill, arrange the fish on a grill rack or use a grill basket sprayed with olive oil cooking spray.
  • Grill over medium-hot coals until the fish flakes easily (allow 4-6 minutes per 1/2" of thickness). If the fish is more than 1" thick, gently turn it halfway through grilling.
  • To broil, spray the rack of a broiler pan with olive oil cooking spray and arrange the fish on it. Broil 4" from the heat for 4-6 minutes per 1/2" of thickness. If the fish is more than 1" thick, gently turn it halfway through broiling.
  • To serve, top the fish with capers, if using, and garnish with rosemary sprigs, if desired.

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