Japanese cuisine has worldwide popularity and nothing is more synonymous with Japanese food than sushi.
The term sushi is associated with raw fish dishes that we see as healthy culinary art forms that many people feel taste great. The forms and traditional types vary greatly. Raw seafood is the foundation for dishes that are consumed and stand on their own merit. Many presentations also include rice, nori and numerous other ingredients, such as vegetables and some seafood that may already be cooked.
However, sushi isn’t limited to raw fish and rice. Condiments such as soy sauce, wasabi paste (a distinctive cousin to horseradish), tofu, soy beans, eggs and mayonnaise are often components to some dishes.
Fish is a wonderful source of high quality lean protein. It is low in saturated fats, cholesterol, and carbohydrates. Salmon, mackerel, herring and tuna are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to many health benefits.
Tofu, soy beans, nori, the dried seaweed wrapper commonly used in “rolls,” are all excellent nutrient sources of minerals, calcium, vitamin D, folic acid and antioxidants. Not all ingredients are limited to raw fish. Shrimp, eel, geoduck and crab are often cooked before they are featured in a roll.
The wide array of creative rolls and styles seems endless with something to suit any taste. One must be thoughtful about some of the ingredients in some contemporary rolls, like cream cheese, fried foods, mayonnaise, and soy sauce that greatly increase the calories, sodium and fat contained in your dish. Overall, the benefits of enjoying sushi and sashimi are diverse and outstanding.
The risks of eating sushi are very low, but are worthy of consideration. The general contamination of seafood with mercury is virtually unavoidable. Unfortunately, this neurotoxin contaminates all open waters of rivers, lakes and oceans. Some caution should be exercised in choices of fish variety and quantities consumed by those who are at greatest risk of mercury consumption.
Women who are pregnant, nursing or planning to get pregnant, young children, elderly or people who have a compromised immune system, should limit their consumption of seafood to only 12 ounces per week.
Some species of seafood are likely to have higher mercury levels, such as tuna, swordfish, shark and mackerel. This doesn’t mean that they need to be avoided entirely. They just need to be consumed in limited quantities, emphasizing variety with other kinds of seafood that may be lower in mercury content, such as salmon, trout, crab and shrimp.
There are additional risks with undercooked or raw seafood that remain low if products are handled and stored properly. There are FDA guidelines for the industry that include freezing fish for precise amount of time to kill parasites.
Still, poor handling or dishonest vendors can provide tainted food that is contaminated with bacteria or parasites. The most common symptoms from eating contaminated raw fish are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, headache and fever. One must rely on a reputable dealer and trust your restaurateur to provide sanitary products of high quality. Although eating raw seafood is simply a greater risk than cooked fish, experts agree the health benefits outweigh the risks.
Enjoy the nutritional benefits of a wonderful culinary art with thoughtfulness and peace of mind. Also keep in mind to strive for variety and eat sensible portions.
By Dr. Bruce Kaler