Hold the tuna and the food guilt, please

torosashimi.jpgThis past week the New York Times published another in a series of dire warnings about how dangerous a certain food is, in this case tuna which is supposedly laden with mercury. One of the sources of this recent round is a conservation group called Oceana. There were, of course, rebuttals and counter-claims to this. The Japanese government isn't all worried because of yet another food scare rash in the U.S.

It isn't as though we haven't heard this kind of thing before, whether it's how dangerous soy is, or whatever.

A couple of thoughts came to mind as I read about this latest scare.

First of all, it's odd that people are focusing on tuna in sushi. Despite the explosion of sushi popularity worldwide, I would bet anything that the consumption of canned tuna is far higher than as sushi or sashimi. And as that NY Times article itself notes, cooking does not affect the levels of mercury at all. (Most canned tuna is 'light' so has less mercury, but it does have a not-insignificant amount.)

But then, sushi is trendier, and a nice piece of raw tuna is much prettier than a boring beige can of the thing.

It also reminded me of a certain regular customer at Sushisay. He would come in at least once a week, sometimes more, sit down at the counter, and order a big plateful of toro sashimi, about 20 pieces, at (depending on market prices) $10 a piece or so. He'd follow that up with several tuna and yellowtail sushi pieces, around $7-$10 pp. (I don't see yellowtail garnering as much attention; it's not the star tuna is, and it's also, you know, beige, but since it is also an oily fish that is higher up on the ocean food chain, I've no doubt it also comes with a generous serving of mercury.) Attempts to coax him to try other kinds of sashimi and sushi never amounted to much. He was a good customer of course, but his backside was taking up a precious chair at the counter unnecessarily - if you're going to sit there you should be prepared to tackle some variety. (I am sure a lot of sushi dilettantes sit at the counter because they've heard somewhere that's the 'best spot'. It is, but if you're just ordering a Cooked Sushi Set, go away to that corner table.)

I never talked to him directly, but I was really curious about this. Did he eat all that tuna because he loved it so? Did he do it because of its alleged health benefits? Was he just showing off? (His bill was always astronomical, as you can guess.)

It always annoys me when I see these food scares going around. It seems to reinforce this preoccupation that a lot of people have with the idea of food as medication, good or bad. There was an old science fiction short story by Japanese author Shinichi Hoshi, called "Flavor Radio" (Aji rajio 味ラジオ) about a society where people only ate bland, carefully nutritionally balanced and manufactured bread. Their urge for different flavors in the mouth, since humans are such oral animals, was met by a 'flavor radio' that was embedded in a tooth, with constantly changing programming. I think a lot of people would love to jump to a future where such a thing was possible. Many would probably just skip the flavor radio part right now and just eat nutritionally balanced manufactured food, period, right now. You know, those people who down a huge handful of vitamin pills and things every day, or subsist on protein powder drinks.

Of course I am not saying we should not be concerned about food safety. On the other hand people shouldn't be rushing to wards the latest miracle nutrient either. And above all, moderation is a great idea, especially in eating. Why not try all the different kinds of sushi neta instead of safe old tuna?

But this may actually be good news for those of us who truly love sushi. The biggest danger connected to tuna, especially bluefin (the type that's most popular for sushi and sashimi) may be that it's being overfished. If enough half-believers start to stay away from tuna, there'll be more left for us for a longer time.

So, if you're eating sushi just because you think it's 'healthy', stop! Go away. Go back to uhm, well what do you go back to these days? Spinach with e.coli? Sprayed apples? Organically produced green beans that aren't politically correct because they've been shipped from a third world nation where people could use the work desperately but think of that long journey to get them to you and the C02 emissions OMG?

Bring on the flavor radio. In the meantime, I think I will stick to moderation and variety, and enjoying how my food actually tastes first and foremost - with a wary eye on the food news.

Related, tuna porn! All about tuna, an article I wrote for the Sushisay web site back in the day.

Filed under:  ethics philosophy health

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This isn't quite food related, but I really love Shinichi Hoshi's stories. They always seem quirky with that little catch at the end.

I just wish I could find more of them translated into English, because my Japanese skills are not quite good enough to read the Japanese ones easily.

I was hoping after the NYT article became the most-emailed article, people re-think what sushi-neta to chose. In the US (and maybe in other countries where sushi became trendy as well) sushi restaurants don't usually offer a large variety of neta --or, people are not adventurous enough to try tiny fish like kohada etc, or the combination of both.
I LOVE tuna (I was born and raised in Japan), but after learning that their population is threatened by this global sushi fad, I haven't eaten any bluefin tuna. I'd wait for years until bluefin population comes back.

As to mercury contamination, well, that's a natural consequence of dumping waste into the ocean, and we should be more responsible for that.. but I know it's a huge problem that requires an international action.

I also read the New York Times article on the 25th and had the same question in my mind as you did. Why did they specifically pick sushi and why tuna for their mercury testing. The article also mentioned that the blue-fin tuna had higher mercury levels but once cut only experts would know which one was what. Bluefin tuna being the connecting thread I kept thinking about this http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0704/feature1/index.html feature on National Geographic. Rather than blaming any nation in particular for overconsumption, but it blames the uberfishing on the high-tech and super effective methods used today to satisfy the uberdemand for tuna worldwide. Perhaps some at the New York Times agree with the findings and want reduce the demand by creating food scares.(OMG I have a conspirancy theory. Huge effort but even if it produces worldwide moderation in consumption, when millions of moderate sushi eating people exercise their moderate sushi eating habits it still results in a huge demand that will ultimately cause overfishing and disapperance of blue-fin.
As for me, I like yellowtail and right now the yellowtail-belly sushi is my favorite treat: mercury or not.

Another good food story of the future is Isaac Asimov's "In Good Taste". I haven't read the story in a long time, but as I remember, it is about people in the future who eat a type of flavored vitamin mush instead of actual food. They're obsessed with the flavorings of the mush, and hail a newcomer "chef" to the flavoring scene who can do more with the mush than the society ever thought possible... until he reveals his secret ingredient...
I won't spoil the end. :) But in an era of food-as-industry-plus-cult-of-cooking-celebrity-plus-everybody-panic-food-scares, it's worth thinking about how wonderful simply and thoughtfully prepared food can be.


The above is an International Herald Tribune article which mostly debunks the claims and implication of the Times article. Ironically, the Tribune is not only owned by the New York Times company, but its staff consists of Times correspondents and its own supplementary staff.

Several interesting things pointed out:

1) New York Times misunderstood what the "reference dose" indicated. This is the weekly amount (with a large safety factor) EPA thinks will lead to a dangerous level if continued over MANY years. The safety factor is also about 10. So ingesting 7 times as much as the reference dose per week is still supposed to be ok. (There is now a correction on the Times website...but in a way that doesn't make it clear how the rest of their article crumbles because of this)

2) Scientists generally agree that the high levels of mercury in tuna are due to a natural cause: volcanic activity. Some of the mercury MAY be due to pollution, but we can't tell yet for sure.

3) Some research shows ingesting selenium at the same time as mercury could cancel out the negative effects. Many ocean fish have both.

4) Eating fish is generally much healthier than eating red meat.

5) The pros and cons of eating mercury-laden fish is still a matter of active debate amongst scientists.

Given all this...I wonder what is up with the Times indeed. Will they ever publish a story acknowledging their errors? Or is this Tribune article supposed to serve in its stead?

I have to admit I've considerably slowed my consumption of tuna (just to err on the safe side), but these kind of food issues are part of a larger problem than just tuna = mercury.

I like the fact you pointed out the increasing trendiness of sushi in the Western world, but popularity and trends often comes at the price of mis-education. I live in San Francisco and you can throw a rock and hit more than 5 sushi joints within a 2-block radius. The problem with this is that they are mostly mediocre-to-bad, serving a very limited menu based mostly around rolls.

I have nothing against rolls, but I do know the restaurants use the scrap tuna pieces to make them. This segues into my other peeve of trendy restaurant for the sake of trendy. Most customers are not familiar with even eating fresh fish, so they limit themselves to a pretty roll, or the typical tuna, tuna and more tuna. Maybe a shrimp is thrown in there somewhere, but I rarely see folks order just the sashimi to enjoy the taste of fresh, raw fish. I think these restaurants are also (perhaps mostly) to blame in that they don't care to educate their customer on other types of seafood, but rather make their quick buck to turn over the table.

Additionally, I mostly see canned tuna stocked on supermarket shelves. The manufacturers driving down the prices have created such a consumer demand for this product, it's no wonder there is overconsumption of tuna. Some of my friends, raised with an Americanized diet, would often turn up their noses at me when I ate sardines, mackerel and other types of fish. If it isn't salmon or tuna, they aren't having it.

If the media and other influencers would push a diet of variety, and lessening over-consumption, perhaps that would inspire the masses to take a second or third look at their plates.

Back in the 60s there was a huge Miso scare in the West that ended up being completely unfounded.
There's a short account here


It's the 15th paragraph beginning
"[In 1960 aflatoxins (carcinogenic toxins produced by two species of Aspergillus molds) came to the public attention"

It's nice to find other people looking at food the same way as I do. I said in the description for my book (to be published later this month):

"How to Cook Like Your Grandmother is a return to recipes and techniques that are based on what tastes good, not on junk science and fad diets. You won't find the words lite, low, lean, free or skim anywhere. This is all real food, cooked the way Gramma would have done it."

I would make less hype because of mercury then the vanishing of the tuna.

Not just because people eat more and more tuna,also because farm animals are feed with fish meal and consume more fish then humans could ever eat.

Cats in australia eat more fish in their food than humans..imagine how much the pigs and chickens eat which get it as a main protein source...or fish meal used as fertilizer for fields.

The small fish which are normally eaten by tuna, are fished away, and the small tunas which are not fertile yet are thrown into aquaculture and feed with caught fish.

Then they are slaughtered and sold...and all the young fish which were 10 years ago thrown back and grow old enough to procreate, are now fattened in short time and are missing in the line of producing more baby tuna.


In 10 or 20 years we have no longer to be angsty about high mercury levels or other chemicals in the fish..because then tuna will be just as threatened as panda bears or orang utans ..if there are some individuals left.

There is a combined problem of overfishing, fishing away all the old, reproducing and also too young fish, polluting the sea and destroying reefs which are protection and food source for baby fishes

Agreed with the above.
I love America, but I can't believe my countrymen foolishly feed katsuobushi to their cats, for crying out loud.
As a bonus, most of them seem to labor under the delusion that that's what bonito flakes are *for*, like it was invented as a cat treat.
Leave the tuna for the humans so it doesn't run out!

Japanese kitties only get bonito flakes that have been used to make dashi....