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SUSHI - thumbs up or thumbs down?

It really depends on who you are asking. Recent survey which was reported in the New York Times and asked a sample of members of the public as well as nutritionists if sushi is healthy came up with 75% of nutritionists saying ‘yes’ and 49% of the public saying ‘no’. If you present this question to me (as often people do) my answer would be ‘it depends’. It really depends on the content, the source and the circumstances. It can be very good, very bad or just a waste of calories.

Case in point is the avocado. One of my favourite healthy food (it’s a fruit by the way and not a vegetable). Once you take it and deep fry it in oil it stops being the healthy avocado we started with. And don’t even get me started on the source of the fruit the environment it grew in, the water it was irrigated with, pesticide, possible colourants and what not. You know where I’m going with this.

On the other hand, if you had an avocado pure and virgin from an organic grower but it’s the only thing you eat, 100% avocado diet, you would be missing on many vitamins and nutrients that are not contained in the avocado as well as getting too much fiber. Too much fiber is likely to cause abdominal problems including bloating, cramping and farting. You would agree that if you start passing too much wind it’ll be difficult to keep friends. The result is loneliness which can lead to depression. Depression may lead to you doing nothing but watching television and we all know how bad that can be for you. By this point I think you would agree that avocado only diet is not really a good option.

The problem is that many people in general and more specifically when it comes to nutrition tend to think in black or white. Binary thinking is very simplistic but if you apply it here the results will probably not be what you’re hoping for. Many people would like to be able to tell whether a certain food is good or bad for you (black or white) they are not interested in any subtext, qualifying criteria, qualifiers or middle ground. For that reason, we’ve all seen certain types of food that like celebrities can one year top the charts and another year will lose their celebrity status. One example that comes to mind is chocolate. I’ve lived long enough to see it on top of the pops and on the bottom of the chart over several cycles.

Now that you have a general idea where I’m going with this let’s talk specifically sushi which seems to enjoy ever growing popularity in the last couple of years.

So let’s start by defining what falls into this classification. I’ve not managed to find any definition on Google so let’s try my own: In essence, sushi is something with rice mixed with vinegar. Usually it involves fish it’s not a prerequisite because some have seafood, other vegetables. So does a stick of butter with rice and vinegar qualify as sushi?

Essentially, sushi can be very healthy or very unhealthy. From my own experience, mostly somewhere in the middle. It really depends on the ingredient, manner or preparation and how much of it you consume. Fresh cold water fish such as tuna, salmon and trout are rich in omega 3 fatty acids and proteins. That’s good for you. Depending on the type of fish, it may also have varying amounts of vitamins A and D, magnesium and calcium. That is also good for you. But they also may contain mercury which is very very bad for you. Fresh vegetable which are often an integral part of sushi are loaded with healthy vitamins and minerals. That’s good for you. But they may also be full of herbicides, pesticides and other things you don’t really want in your system. This basically means that calling something sushi does not necessarily mean it is healthy. How can we make sure the sushi we eat is healthy, I hear you asking.

  1. Avoid deep fried sushi. Anything that is healthy which is deep fried loses the right to be considered healthy. Arguably it can make it tastier but that’s a matter of personal taste. The fat, salt and high temperatures make it unhealthy.

  2. Skip the sauces. Like makeup, it supposed to beautify and hides what’s inside. In the case of food, it can hide the true appearance and taste of the fish, vegetable or rice, especially when they are of inferior quality.

  3. Prefer smaller rice portions. Rice is the cheaper ingredient of the sushi, so some restaurants use high proportions of it. Sushi rice tastes different than ordinary rice because of the added vinegar, salt and sugar. Depending on the origin of the rice, it may contain high quantities of arsenic.

  4. Check out the ingredients. Quality of the ingredients is crucial. Don’t be afraid to ask the chef how much salt, vinegar and sugar is contained within. Ask for the origin of the fish and whether it is organic. Same goes for the vegetables.

  5. Choose your fish wisely. It may contain mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and other harmful chemicals. Fish that is likely to have the lowest amounts of mercury are the five S’s (salmon, shrimp, scallops, squid and sardines), oysters and tilapia. Fish that tend to be high in mercury include king mackerel, Chilean sea bass, bluefish, halibut, Spanish mackerel (Gulf) and tuna. Please note that, fish farmers frequently add chemicals to make the fish larger and more attractive, so you may want to inquire whether the fish is farm-raised or wild. Pink dye is almost always added to farmed salmon feeding.

  6. Check out how clean is the kitchen and now fresh is the fish. Even the most nutrient-rich food can give you food poisoning if the kitchen is filthy or the ingredients are not fresh. With fish this is even more important because sushi tends to be uncooked, which raises the risk that infectious pathogens (such as Hepatitis A, norovirus and Vibrio vulnificus) remain in the food. Once again, if there’s too much sauce, ask yourself what is it hiding underneath.

  7. Consume in moderation. Too much of anything (apart maybe from love and health) cannot be too good for you. Same goes for sushi. So better not have it daily.

When it comes to sashimi the rules are pretty much the same. Use your common sense. But if anyone (apart from my wife) wants me to write specifically about sashimi, just let me know and I’ll be happy to oblige.

The bottom line is that nutrition and personal choice is quite a complex issue which we should not do injustice to by simply putting them in categories. Instead, you should be asking yourself what makes certain foods healthy or unhealthy and under which circumstances. My own personal preference is to avoid sushi from large commercial chains and supermarkets and save the opportunities to have it when I’m in the Far East and can see how the food is prepared.

If you found any of this helpful please share it with others, and if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me.

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