Healthy foods: Salmon

What is it? Born in freshwater, the steadfast, strong salmon swim to the ocean only to turn back several years later, struggling back upstream to their birthplace to spawn. As a food source and as a symbol, the salmon holds much significance in North American native and First Nations cultures. Salmon's shiny scales conceal silky, fatty flesh that ranges in colour from pink to orange and red. Salmon is the second-most consumed seafood in the US, behind shrimp.

What is it good for? Serve up 4 ounces of salmon, and for only 261 calories you'll get over 100% of your recommended daily vitamin D, 76% of your daily protein, and 87% of your daily omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamin D keeps bones and teeth strong by helping the body to absorb calcium, while protein supports overall health, development, and energy. But it's salmon's omega-3 fatty acid levels that make it such a super nutritious food. These unsaturated fats work hard in your body, protecting not just your brain, but your heart, your eyes, and your joints. Western diets often come up short in omega-3s, so salmon is a lean, low-calorie way to fit in this fine fat.

What does it taste like? With its full, savoury flavour and silky, creamy texture, salmon is a fish loved by many who otherwise dislike fish. Some of salmon's flavour and nutritional benefit comes from its oil. Salmon can be prepared in numerous ways – grilled, baked, poached, barbecued, rolled into sushi, sliced into sashimi, pickled and smoked – and it works well with a variety of flavours and spices. Canned salmon makes a nutritious, affordable meal choice and can be easily added to many recipes or simply piled onto bread or rolled into patties.

Should you choose wild or farm-raised salmon? Whichever way the salmon gets to your plate, you will benefit from the omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients. But when looking at the risks versus the benefits of both types of salmon, researchers have found that the wild variety slightly edges out the farmed fish.

Healthy foods: Tuna

What is it? Most of us know tuna as the fish that comes chopped up in a can. But despite canned tuna's popularity, this fish is far from being the sea's answer to chicken. Before making it to your plate, many tuna lived their lives as large (up to 700 kg), carnivorous, quick-swimming, far-roaming residents of ocean and seas. Some tuna race through cold waters, while others make their home in the warmer water areas of the Mediterranean Sea and the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.

What is it good for? Four ounces of tuna has only 157 calories, but it packs in loads of nutritional benefits. Our body's tissues rely on protein and the antioxidant mineral selenium, which can both be found in fish like tuna. Dine on tuna to meet a majority of your daily requirements of vitamins B1 and B6, which support proper functioning of your circulatory, immune, and nervous systems.

Another B vitamin abundant in tuna – B3, also known as niacin – may help to stave off cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease. This, along with its omega-3 fatty acid content, makes tuna a big-time brain food. Omega-3 fatty acids can help maintain healthy heart function, help to lower cholesterol, and aid blood flow to the brain, an effect that may reduce stroke risk as well. And that's not all for omega-3s! Eating omega-3-rich fish like tuna may protect your eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration and lessen inflammation associated with arthritis.

What does it taste like? If you've only ever tried tuna from a tin, you're missing out on the dense, meaty texture and taste of the fresher fish. Whether it comes in deep pink or rich red, in a full steak, chunks, or fillets, tuna takes on the flavours added to it while maintaining its own mildly fishy essence. Grill it or bake it with an olive or mustard spread or simply drizzled with lemon juice; it's hard to mess up tuna because it mixes so well with so many flavours and spices. Canned tuna will taste a bit different depending on what it is packed in. Oil-soaked tuna may be moist, but it's also higher in fat. Opt for water-packed tuna instead.

A note about choosing tuna: Choose whole tuna that has been buried under ice, or fillets and steaks that have been displayed on ice. Do a sniff test to make sure there is no strong "off" or "fishy" smell. Avoid tuna with dry or brown spots.

Healthy foods: Sardines

What are they? When most people think of sardines, they think of being "packed like" them. Or they picture that tiny rectangular tin that you have to open with the turn of a church key or the tug of a pull tab.

Think outside the tin can and picture this instead: a flickering, roving school of millions of small, silvery-scaled fish. Named after the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, sardines travel together in schools throughout the world's seas and oceans, reproducing quickly and "filter-feeding" – eating plankton and fish larvae as they swim and swim and swim.

Since they're small, sardines are trickier to cut into steaks or fillets than, say, tuna or salmon. This can make some folks squeamish about eating them as-is; they just look so... fishy. But once you know how nutritious sardines are, it's easier to get hooked!

What are they good for? You may pick out the bones before you nibble on sardines, but your own bones will get a big boost. Sardines contain lots of calcium and vitamin D, which work together to fend off bone loss and osteoporosis. Sardines also boost energy by providing plenty of protein, iron, and vitamin B12 per serving, but with less saturated fat than other animal food sources. And in the place of that bad fat, you get good fat – in the form of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s support heart health by helping to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

What do sardines taste like? Bite into the fatty flesh of sardines, and you'll taste a strong salty, fishy flavour and a tender, juicy texture. They can be barbecued on the grill, fried, baked, sautéed, smoked, cured, pickled, or eaten straight out of the tin. Chopped up, sardines can be added to pastas, stir-fry, ceviche, or omelettes, or rolled into sardine patties. Slice up sardines to top a homemade pizza.

A note about handling sardines: Fresh sardines don't travel well and only last a couple of days. So unless you live near the source it's not easy to get your hands on fresh ones! If you do, remember that like any fish, sardines must be handled with care. Wash your hands before and after touching. To store, place one layer of sardines in a dish, cover with a damp paper towel, and stow it in the chilliest spot in the fridge. With the canned variety, simply rinse the sardines before using. Once the can is open, any sardines that are left should be wrapped and kept in the refrigerator.

Fish: Warnings and safe handling tips

How to handle and store fish: Whichever type you choose, remember that fish must always be handled with care.

  • Get the fish home and in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible.
  • If you're refrigerating the fish, place it in a baking dish or bowl filled with ice and store it in the coolest spot in the fridge. Fish can keep for a couple of days in the fridge.
  • If you're freezing the fish, wrap it in plastic and place it in the coldest part of the freezer. Fish can last 4 to 6 months in the freezer.
  • When you're ready to use the fish, rinse it under cool, running water and pat it dry.
  • Keep fish apart from other foods, using a separate cutting board and knife. Thoroughly cleanse and rinse any utensils after use.
  • Cook fish to an internal temperature of 70°C (160°F) or until the flesh flakes off with a fork.

Safety warnings: 

Allergies: Seafood is one of the 9 most common food allergens, and people who are allergic to one type of fish are often allergic to other types. Signs of a reaction include hives, red and itchy skin, swelling of the face, eyes, lips, tongue, and throat, trouble breathing, and even loss of consciousness.

PCBs: Polychlorinated biphenyls are environmental contaminants that can find their way into the foods we eat. Concern about levels of PCBs in farmed salmon compelled Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to analyze samples of both farmed and wild salmon. According to their results, neither type of salmon poses a health risk to those who consume them.

Mercury: Almost every type of fish contains mercury, a naturally occurring metal. When consumed in high enough quantities, mercury can impair nervous system functioning.

  • Since the nutritional benefits of eating fish outweigh the risks, Health Canada advises that most people can eat up to 150 g of certain fish per week (fresh/frozen tuna, shark, swordfish, escolar, marlin, orange roughy). Certain age and gender groups are advised to eat even less of those fish:
    • children 1 to 4 years old: no more than 75 g per month
    • children 5 to 11 years old: up to 125 g per month
    • women who are or may become pregnant or who are breast-feeding: up to 150 g per month
  • Recommendations for canned albacore (white) tuna differ:
    • children 1 to 4 years old: no more than 75 g per week (½ can of tuna)
    • children 5 to 11 years old: up to 150 g per week (1 can of tuna)
    • women who are or may become pregnant or who are breast-feeding: up to 300 g per week (2 cans of tuna)
  • Salmon contains very low levels of mercury and carries no special recommendations.

Purines: People with gout or kidney problems should limit or avoid certain fish such as sardines, anchovies, herring, and tuna since they contain a large amount of purines. Purines are organic matter found in all living things, but certain foods we eat have much greater amounts. When broken down, purines can form uric acid, which aggravates these conditions.