Tuna: Great Food or Death Trap?

Filed under: General Health, Nutrition, Recipes

Tuna seems to be a food that falls on two opposite ends of the spectrum. Some people eat it like it is going out of style, while some avoid it like the plague. Tuna is a great source of protein, the cancer-fighting selenium, vitamin B-12, with some omega-3 fats. These are the benefits of tuna. The downside is that it contains a fair amount of mercury, depending on the type.

The two real options are white tuna, and light tuna. Though there are variations of each, these are the two main differences. White tuna comes from albacore tuna, a large species with a fair amount of mercury.

Light tuna usually comes from skipjack tuna, a smaller species with significantly less mercury content. Though a small amount of light tuna also comes from yellowfin tuna, which has roughly equal mercury content to that of albacore.

The albacore has a higher fat content and therefore more omega-3′s and fat-soluble vitamins, but I would say this is off-set a bit by the higher mercury content. For adults 1-2 cans of albacore per week is completely acceptable and well below the risk area of mercury issues. For pregnant women and children, please refer to this stance of the FDA. While I do think the FDA is very conservative in their advice, you can obtain all the nutrients in tuna with less risk than eating more than 1-2 cans of albacore per week.

Light tuna has a significantly lower fat content, meaning only small amounts of omega-3′s, while also only having about 1/3 of the mercury content on average (unless from yellowfin). Light tuna can be eaten more often than albacore due to its lower mercury content, so 3-4 cans per week should not be a problem whatsoever.

The last conundrum with tuna is that white tuna tastes so much better than light. I usually suggest using an organic, canola oil based mayo (preferably the canola oil being cold pressed) or a mayo made from extra virgin olive oil. You can even make your own mayo, with this recipe that I really like:

  • 1 omega-3 or pastured egg
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • Redmond Real Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil

I hope that helps clear up some of the confusion surrounding tuna safety, intake, and the best choice to make.

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Posted on September 16th, 2009 by Brian St. Pierre

12 Comments

  1. Jack Says:

    Brian,

    Have you ever tried any of the seafood from the company Vital Choice? If you are familiar with them, can you get away with eating a bit more of their seafood per week (assuming cost is not prohibitive)?

    http://www.vitalchoice.com/uploads/Mercury%20Chart%20Master.pdf

  2. Jack Says:

    Brian,

    Sorry for the second post, but I also meant to ask about tuna as a source of selenium……….since selenium can act as a chelator, is this at all protective against part of the mercury that would also come along for the ride with seafood?

  3. Arden Says:

    Hey Brian – can you expand on the recipe you provided? I’m assuming that recipe is to be used in place of mayo but that seems like a lot of oil for one small package of tuna. How much tuna would you use in that recipe above? It seems like it would look/taste like a can of tuna that comes in the oil. But obviously I haven’t tried it yet.

    Also, how do you eat tuna as part of a healthy meal or snack? I have all this tuna at home because I know its healthy but then don’t use it because using even light mayo seems like a bad idea. Then comes the issue of how to eat it. I usually just put it on bed of lettuce but that gets old pretty quick.

  4. Michael Says:

    Arden, if you don’t want to use mayo (neither do I) try adding balsamic vinegar, and a small amount of olive oil. I also put in chopped celery. Carrots may work also. Then if you’d like, put it on Ezekiel or whole grain toast. It really is excellent!

  5. Eric Lagoy Says:

    Good post Brian, in general, you hear so much about tuna and mercury but it’s tough to find recommendations on what is acceptable and what the different variations of tuna mean.

  6. Brian St. Pierre Says:

    Jack,

    I personally have not tried Vital Choice, but I have heard many great things. Definitely seems like a great company, and you might get away with it. You could also eat seafood like salmon with an even lower mercury content.

    As for selenium, I am unsure. It might, but the chemistry behind that is a bit beyond my realm. Something to definitely keep in mind.

  7. Brian St. Pierre Says:

    Arden,

    That mayo recipe is simply a recipe for a healthier home-made mayo, and is not intended to be eaten in one sitting with the tuna. It is simply one you can make and keep yourself in the fridge (stays for about a week) and use at your leisure.

    I usually eat tuna with a little bit of the organic expeller pressed canola oil mayo (mainly because I am too lazy to make my own mayo, and because it is so rare). I put in on an Ezekiel wrap with some spinach, maybe a little mustard, cucumber and chopped carrot. I might also add in some spices like garlic powder, might chop up some onion too. Really it just depends how inspired I am!

  8. Bob Parr Says:

    Brian, about mercury in fish: I heard about a rule of thumb that says the higher up the food chain a predator fish is, the more mercury there tends to be. Top-of-the-ocean-foodchain species like shark, swordfish, and albacore tuna accumulate the most mercury because they eat smaller fish with a little less mercury, which in turn eat still smaller fish with even less, etc.

    So it follows that small fish like sardines, herring, and anchovies don’t have much mercury. To some, these are too gross to eat, but not me. (I’m a bit weird in that I love fish, even fishy-tasting varieties.) Canned foods are convenient and portable, and I used to eat tuna straight out of the can like it was going out of style. Now I mix it up a bit with smaller fish. (But I’ve yet to find anchovies without tons and tons of salt.)

    Thanks also for the mayo recipe. Even the olive oil-based mayo you find in stores still includes soybean oil. I think soybeans, just like corn, is so over-produced that food companies try to incorporate it anywhere possible!

  9. Frank Buurman Says:

    Hi Brian
    Great job, your blog – keep on going !

    Best source of selenium is Brazil nuts (one a day is far enough).
    Selenium helps against effects of mercury, but better avoid sources of mercury. So I agree with Bob.

    You should not use tuna with spinach because of the nitrosamine that results. Salmon almost doesn’t have this effect, cod, herring – to a lesser degree – and most other fishes do.
    TNO in Holland did a fine job researching this subject.

    Besides, the fishing of tuna is disputed, the methods used destroy the oceanlife.
    You know anything about the migration of metals from the can into the food ?
    tnx

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  12. Keenan Martineze Says:

    I’m sorry to say but a lot of you guys are wasting time and money on supplements. Some are good for what they’re worth. These supplements can damage your liver being that organ has to process and break down those products.Do more research on weight gain for skinny guys and you’ll find it worth while. The key things are proper nutrition, muscle confusion, and plenty of rest. Don’t spend hours in the gym trying to bulk up. 30 min or so…train hard and go home. I can’t stress the rest part enough. Good luck to you all.

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