Over the past few years there has been a real concern about the dangers of high mercury levels from fish such as shark, mackerel, swordfish and that mainstay of the traditional weight loss and fat reducing diets used by everyone from individuals trying to lose weight to competitive bodybuilders and fitness models. While seen as a staple, it is always my preference for food that has not undergone as little processing as possible. That being said, and as inconvenient as it may be, it is always best to have fresh fish as the mainstay of your required seafood. However, understanding the difficulties of always having fresh food, choices like canned tuna are okay, as long as it is consumed in moderation.
This article gives some insight into the problem posed by mercury in popular canned tuna, and also introduces tongol tuna fish; a low mercury tuna fish that is my strong recommendation for anyone that has tuna fish in their diet. Mercury levels aside, always be sure to choose canned tongol tuna that is packed in water and with no added salt or high sodium vegetable broth. If you are unable to find a salt free variety, then be sure to wash your tuna thoroughly with hot water to get as much of the excess sodium out as possible. That said, here is everything you ever wanted to know about tuna:
Nearly all fish contain some amounts of methylmercury, from both natural and man-made sources. Factory smokestack emissions are high in toxic mercury emissions gets into rivers, lakes and oceans when it returns to the earth through precipitation. The mercury is then broken down by bacteria into a form that’s easily absorbed by insects and other small organisms. In the predatory cycle, the mercury moves up the food chain as small fish eat the small organisms and big fish eat the smaller fish. The higher up the food chain, the higher the levels of mercury as concentrations accumulate in large predators such as shark, swordfish and our all time favorite, tuna.
In the year 2000 the FDA came out with the first of several warnings about the significant mercury levels in canned tuna fish, especially for children and pregnant women. Mercury, very much like lead, can cause severe neurological impairment, inability to focus and pay attention, delayed language development, impaired memory, vision and motor coordination, and problems processing information. It affects children and pregnant women most severely as mercury’s neurotoxicty can harm the fetus and negatively impact the development of young children.
At the time of the warnings, I was a bodybuilder that consumed often as much as five cans a day, and one that advocated tuna as a staple for my clients preparing for contests as well, it was a real blow to my way of eating, and I lowered my intake (although, stubbornly, I figured that with the number of tuna fish cans that I had eaten over the course of my career, if mercury was a problem, then I should pretty much be a thermometer by now), but not too drastically. What made it worse was that albacore tuna (the better tasting one) had much higher levels than chunk light tuna and so tuna fish pretty no longer could serve as the staple that it once was, and I found other protein sources to supplement my intake.
As time went on and I became more and more health conscious, the idea of fish in a can itself was not really a savory prospect. In keeping with (what is now called) The Naturally Intense Approach to health and fitness, I saw the wholesomeness of foods as being far more important than convenience, and I made every effort imaginable to only eat foods that were in its natural form, and I would go to any lengths to ensure that my foods came from as safe and natural a source as possible (if I didn’t have to work as much as I do, I would probably be growing and hunting my own food, to be honest.)
But in spite of my own weaning off from tuna fish, for reasons of health being more important than the convenience that this ready-to-eat protein source offered, my clients still looked to it as a cheap and easy way to meet their protein requirements (especially given my stance against the use of protein powders and the like). I cook everything that I eat, all six to seven meals, and I spend a significant amount of time doing so, however I was very much aware that it was difficult bordering on impossible for many of my clients to be able to do the same, so I always kept my eyes open for alternative solutions that would help them achieve their goals. To simplify life for most of them, I advised that if they did eat tuna fish that they choose the chunk light version over albacore, since it is actually an entirely different species of tuna and has lower mercury levels, and stay within the recommended levels.
Tongol Tuna: A Better Choice
One day, about a year ago, I happened to find tongol tuna fish at one of the local organic markets that I frequent (my weekly shopping usually takes me to about 3-4 different stores to get everything I need, like I said my commitment to getting the highest quality food is really something I take seriously). I picked up a can and looked it up when I got home, as I had never heard of tongol tuna fish before. Tongol tuna comes mainly from Thailand and Indonesia and has negligible mercury levels as it is a much smaller fish and thus further down the food chain than its albacore and blue fin cousins.
But what was really striking about it was the taste. I have done just about everything to scarf down cans of tuna fish over the years and I always saw it as a necessary evil, as the taste and the smell starts getting to you after a while. Tongol tuna, however, came packed in spring water and didn’t have the strong smell, nor the unpleasant taste. In fact it tasted pretty good- something I never thought I would say about tuna fish at this point in my life, but it does.
Not only does tongol tuna taste far superior than albacore, but it is also cheaper (be careful here, as we live in a demand driven market, and so as more people start consuming it, the value will go up). They even come in pop top cans, which make opening and eating a breeze. There are also no added ingredients to many of the brands, no soy, vegetable broth or MSG additives, just simply tongol tuna and water, which in turn keeps the sodium levels negligible as well. So at the end of the day, taking the lower mercury, cheap price and great taste, tongol tuna really is the informed choice for someone looking for a somewhat wholesome quick and easy meal.
My clients cannot stop raving about it, and neither can the members of some of the forums that I have spoken to about it. I personally still prefer to limit my intake at this point for the most part, and get the vast majority of my fish from fresh sources (I eat about 1-2lbs of fish a day, mostly a variety of tropical fishes that I grew up eating in my adopted home in Trinidad, that are also low in mercury- it isn’t always easy to find, but as I said, I pull out all the stops).
That all being said, I encourage everyone to give tongol tuna fish a try. Here in New York City, it is available at most of the better organic type stores, but it is also popping up in regular supermarkets as well, I would imagine as the demand grows. They fly off the shelves pretty quickly over here, so I would assume that this is very much the case.