Is Sushi Really a Healthy Meal?
Sushi has had great reputation for being a healthy, low fat, natural food, usually filled with some type of fish, vegetables, and rice, wrapped in a healthy seaweed wrap. Sounds fabulous, right? Well, sushi can either be really healthy, or a chemistry nightmare with a lot of fattening, processed and artificial ingredients. It all depends on what—and where–you are ordering. Of course, there are the obviously unhealthy ingredients: battered and deep fried ingredients, slathers of mayo and other mysterious fattening sauces, and the ever-present white rice. But even the most health-conscious among us can go wrong eating sushi, even when we think we are making the healthiest choices.
Let’s start with the fish and seafood used in sushi. So much of the fish served in many sushi restaurants is mislabeled. Oceana, a seafood watchdog company, did DNA tests on over 1,200 fish samples across the US. What they found is that 87% of red snapper is mislabeled, and tuna was 60% mislabeled. However, in major metropolitan areas at some of the most popular and expensive sushi restaurants, Oceana found that as much as 74% of the fish were mislabeled. This percentage was from every single restaurant that was sampled. That’s not a very good track record. Most often the mislabeled fish are substituted for a cheaper, more common type of fish. When over 90% of seafood is imported but only 1% is inspected, it’s easy to see why this happens.
Aside from the mislabeling, even if you are actually eating the type of fish the menu states, there are issues of toxins in the fish to be aware of. Tuna is one of the worst, with often high levels of mercury, dioxins, PCB’s, other heavy metals and agricultural chemicals that wind up in the water supply. Another study showed that the tuna sold in restaurants usually contained even higher levels of mercury, because the types of tuna used in sushi—bluefin akami and bigeye tuna have a higher fat content, meaning that the toxins build up in the fat. Better choices (if you can trust the labeling) are Bluefin toro, and yellowfin.
Shrimp is definitely not much of a better choice if it is farm raised. 94% of the shrimp that is consumed is farmed and raised in man-made ponds along the coasts of Thailand, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico, and Ecuador. Farmed shrimp, however, is far from healthy, and is considered probably one of the most unhealthy types of seafood you can possibly eat as explained in that shrimp blog we wrote recently. In fact, it’s considered to be even more toxic than imported farmed tilapia and catfish, which are among the most toxic, polluted fish you can eat. And on top of that, less than 2% of imported shrimp is inspected by the FDA. Choosing wild shrimp is imperative in order to get healthy shrimp.
Crab is another ‘iffy’ option for sushi. Often crab is substituted for the imitation crab, and many times is not labeled as such in a restaurant. Imitation crab is often made from a variety of fish, including a fish called the Golden Threadfin Bream, which is facing extinction. Even if it is made from Pollack, there is generally a lot of additives. Here’s a sample list of ingredients in imitation crab:
Alaska Pollock, Water, Egg Whites, Wheat Starch, Sugar, Corn Starch, Sorbitol, Contains 2% or Less of the Following: King Crab Meat, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Extracts of Crab, Oyster, Scallop, Lobster and Fish (Salmon, Anchovy, Bonito, Cutlassfish), Refined Fish Oil (Adds a Trivial Amount of Fat) (Anchovy, Sardine), Rice Wine (Rice, Water, Koji, Yeast, Salt), Sea Salt, Modified Tapioca Starch, Carrageenan, Yam Flour, Hydrolyzed Soy, Corn, and Wheat Proteins, Potassium Chloride, Disodium Inosinate and Guanylate, Sodium Pyrophosphate, Carmine, Paprika, Monosodium glutamate.
Did you know you were eating all those additives and chemicals in your ‘healthy’ California roll? If you have any food allergies or gluten issues, you would be in trouble for sure! I don’t know about you, but I avoid eating any type of processed food and this is far from being natural!
What’s in your Seaweed Salad?
Seaweed can be a superfood, full of massive amounts of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and a excellent source of iodine. However, Nori, which is what is used to wrap around your sushi roll, can be full of toxins and heavy metals, including radioactive fallout from the Japanese Fukoshima nuclear reactors. Unless you know where your Nori comes from and if it is organic, it can be full of things you won’t want to eat.
Seaweed salad has always been one of my favorites, but when I checked out the ingredients in many seaweed salads, I changed my mind. Those really bright green salads often come already processed from a big food manufacturer, and contain ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, processed vegetable oil, hydrolyzed protein with monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial coloring, and GMO ingredients. Ask the restaurant if they make their own salad from scratch before ordering.
Wasabi—Not All its Cracked Up to Be
That delicious, tingly, hot little green mound you think is Japanese mustard may not be. The problem is that it is often not really what you think… Even in Japan, only 5% or less actually serve real wasabi. So what are you really eating? Generally, it’s a powdered mix of horseradish, Chinese mustard, fillers such as corn starch, artificial flavoring and green food coloring. While it’s not horrible, it’s not the real thing and again, just another processed food with fillers.
However, considering that most people only use a small quantity of wasabi in their sushi, it’s not a huge concern that most wasabi isn’t actually real wasabi. Plus, horseradish is actually healthy, as explained in this blog.
Ginger is an amazing super root with incredible health benefits that help fight nausea, Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, and more. It’s amazing for the immune system as well. But…unfortunately that healthy pickled ginger often also comes prepackaged from a factory and is made with monosodium glutamate, aspartame, potassium sorbate, and artificial coloring, including red dye #40 which has been linked to hyperactivity and hostility in children. Some of the better sushi restaurants may pickle their own, without the artificial ingredients, so it doesn’t hurt to ask about it.
Once again, if you’re only eating tiny quantities of ginger at a sushi restaurant, I wouldn’t worry too much about the questionable ingredients.
Soy Sauce, Rice, Fish Eggs
Soy sauce, rice and fish eggs or roe have more hidden ingredients, often full of MSG, genetically modified soy, corn syrup, preservatives, and artificial coloring. Sushi rice often contains added sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup and even aspartame, the dangerous artificial sweetener.
Not a Low Calorie/Low Carb Meal
On top of all those added artificial hidden ingredients in sushi, one typical sushi roll like a California roll is often about 250-350 calories and is the equivalent in carbs of about 4 slices of white bread. Most sushi meals are usually 2-3 rolls, in addition to soup and a salad by many people. Bear in mind, that the rice is often used a filler, and can make up to about 75% of the sushi roll. That’s a ton of white rice—which as you may already know, is like eating sugar in terms of blood sugar response! On top of that, many sushi rolls contain cream cheese, mayo, little bits of deep fried tempura and more fattening ingredients. All of that can easily add upto a sushi dinner of 1,000-1,500 or more calories.
I personally try to avoid any rolls that are made with tempura and other questionable ingredients and try to stick to rolls that are mostly fish, avocado, or other healthy ingredients.
How to Eat Healthy Sushi
There are ways to eat sushi and avoid the scary ingredients mentioned above. Although sushi is generally a pricey meal, it is better if you can eat at the higher end sushi restaurants. They tend to make more of their own ingredients and condiments from scratch. Steer clear of those cheaper, ‘all-you-can-eat’ places where they most likely are trying to cut corners wherever they can. If you want tuna, order the yellowfin as opposed to the Bluefin mentioned above. Look for wild caught salmon or other wild caught fish if possible and avoid farmed fish. And remember the crab is often artificial crab, so ask your waiter if the crab is real. You won’t get a mouthful of fillers and preservatives then.
You can also order sashimi instead, which is just the fish, usually without the rice and other ingredients. If you do want a roll, ask if they will roll it in cucumber without the rice. It’s called “Suki Maki” and is delicious!
Ask if the ginger is made from scratch there at the restaurant and avoid the very pink-looking ginger which usually means it is processed with added food coloring and other artificial ingredients. Wasabi is ok if you don’t use large quantities, and the same with the soy sauce—just go sparingly. Bottom line is…you can enjoy sushi occasionally, but try to avoid the processed additives.
All in all, sushi is an ‘ok’ meal, but given you get very little of the healthy fish and vegetables, and get a heaping serving of starchy rice, fattening sauces, and fried or unhealthy fatty ingredients, you are better off with a meal of wild caught salmon cooked at home, served alongside some organic veggies.