Healthy Seafood Buyer's Guide

Tips for choosing popular fish and seafood at the supermarket.

From the WebMD Archives

Healthy Seafood Buyer's Guide

Do your body good—eat fish! Seafood is an excellent source of lean protein and is healthy for your heart. In addition, some types of fish, particularly cold-water species like salmon, tuna, sardines and trout, are rich in omega-3 fats. Studies show that these omega-3 fats may reduce the risk of heart disease and may also provide other health benefits, such as helping to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and boost your mood.

To get the heart-health benefits from eating fish, the American Heart Association recommends that everyone aim for eating two servings of fish each week. However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say that, for most people, the risk of mercury from eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern; experts agree that for men and for women who won’t become pregnant, the benefits of eating fish a couple times a week far outweigh any risks associated with mercury. Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system. The EPA and the FDA have developed specific guidelines for these groups.

Pregnancy and Fish Consumption

Research suggests that eating fish during pregnancy and while breastfeeding may benefit babies’ brains. Fish offers not only low-fat protein, a nutrient for which pregnant women’s needs increase slightly, but also good amounts of DHA, the omega-3 fat that is crucial for a fetus’s brain and nervous system development. The EPA and FDA recommend that pregnant women should not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury and that pregnant women should eat up to 12 ounces of other fish each week. Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish. Albacore (white) tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna—pregnant women should eat no more than 6 ounces of albacore tuna per week.

Fish and Healthy Eating for Kids

The FDA and EPA recommend following the same recommendations as above when feeding fish and shellfish to young children. Children should not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish and they can safely consume up to 12 ounces of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Just as with pregnant women, children should not eat more than 6 ounces of "white" or albacore tuna each week (1 medium can).



Once viewed as a decadent luxury reserved for special occasions, shrimp is now the most consumed seafood in the United States. Although shrimp is high in dietary cholesterol, it has virtually no saturated fat. Nutritionists and scientists agree that unless dietary cholesterol intake is combined with high saturated fat, it does not elevate blood cholesterol.

Shopping Tip: Raw, frozen and cooked shrimp are all sold by the number needed to make one pound—for example, "21-25 count" or "31-40 count"—and by more generic size names, such as "large" or "extra large." Size names don’t always correspond to the actual "count size." To be sure you’re getting the size you want, order by the count (or number) per pound.

Best Choices for the Environment: Both wild-caught and farm-raised shrimp can damage the surrounding ecosystems when not managed properly. Fortunately, it is possible to buy shrimp that have been raised or caught with sound environmental practices. Look for fresh or frozen shrimp certified by an independent agency, such as Wild American Shrimp or Marine Stewardship Council. If you can’t find certified shrimp, choose wild-caught shrimp from North America—it’s more likely to be sustainably caught.

Prep Tips: Thaw frozen shrimp in a covered bowl in the refrigerator. If you’re in a hurry, place shrimp in a colander under cold running water until thawed.

The "vein" running along a shrimp’s back (technically the dorsal surface, opposite the legs) under a thin layer of flesh is really its digestive tract: use a paring knife to make a slit along the length of the shrimp, then pull it out with the tip of the knife.


A fatty fish, salmon is high in both EPA and DHA, two omega-3 fatty acids that help heart health by slowing growth of arterial plaque, lowering triglyceride levels and reducing the risk of irregular heartbeat.

Shopping Tip: Salmon steaks and fillets are most commonly found at the seafood counter. Canned salmon is a convenient choice for making salmon salad and salmon cakes.

Best Choices for Your Health & the Environment: Buy wild-caught salmon from the Pacific (Alaska and Washington) when you can—they are more sustainably fished and have a larger, more stable population. The increase in salmon farms has led to high concentrations of fish waste in the ocean surrounding them, which threatens wild salmon populations. The price of wild salmon is lowest when it’s in season—mid-May through mid-September.


Prep Tips: To skin a salmon fillet, place it on a clean cutting board, skin side down. Starting at the tail end, slip the blade of a long, sharp knife between the flesh and the skin, holding the skin down firmly with your other hand. Gently push the blade along at a 30° angle, separating the fillet from the skin without cutting through either.

If you’re grilling salmon, keep the skin on. Doing so helps hold the fish together and protects the delicate flesh from the searing heat. Once cooked, the skin slips off easily.


Despite their reputation as a luxury ingredient, scallops no longer fetch lobster-class prices. Sea scallops are larger and are great for sautéing or broiling. Try the smaller bay scallops in soups or tossed in a pasta sauce.

Shopping Tip: We recommend cooking with "dry" sea scallops (scallops that have not been treated with sodium tripolyphosphate, or STP). Scallops that have been treated with STP ("wet" scallops) have been subjected to a chemical bath and are not only mushy and less flavorful, but will not brown properly because they’ll give off too much liquid. Dry sea scallops are often labeled as such.

Prep Tip: Look for the small, tough muscle on the side of most scallops and pull it off with your fingers before cooking them.


A freshwater fish that originated in North Africa, tilapia can now be found at fish counters and on restaurant menus across the U.S., where its mild taste and light white meat have made it increasingly popular.

Best Choices for the Environment: Look for U.S. farm-raised tilapia, which is usually grown in closed farming systems that limit pollution and prevent escapes of the farmed fish into the wild. Some Central and South American tilapia is farmed in this manner as well, but avoid tilapia from China and Taiwan, mostly farmed in open systems.


A warm-water fatty fish, tuna is found throughout the world’s seas. Yellowfin and bigeye tuna, also called ahi, is common at supermarket fish counters. Yellowfin is one of the types of tuna used in the canning industry under the "chunk light" label.

Best Choices for Your Health & the Environment: Tuna is high in omega-3 fatty acids, but can also be high in mercury, since it eats high on the food chain. Those who need to be concerned about mercury (pregnant and breast-feeding women, and children) should opt for smaller species—look for yellowfin (ahi) tuna at your seafood counter and choose canned chunk light tuna. Avoid bluefin tuna—they’re severely overfished and the methods used to catch them endanger other sea creatures, such as sea turtles and sharks.

WebMD Feature from "EatingWell"
© Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Used with permission.