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A shopper grapples with products and technology in a grocery store [CREDIT:, Viki Mohamad]

Grocery Shopping for Your Health: The fish counter

In our last post in the “Grocery Shopping for Your Health” series, we zeroed in on meats and deli products. This time, we’re off to the fish case/counter.

Fish is a good source of protein. and most seafood is low in fat. Even fish with a higher fat content offers potential health benefits, in the form of omega-3 fatty acids, that can provide a boost with immunity, cardiovascular functioning, and more, according to studies.

Grocery Shopping for Your Health iconWhen we talk about seafood in this blog, we will include both finfish and shellfish. Finfish includes salmon, tuna, red snapper, grouper, cod and a whole host of other, well, finned fish. Shellfish includes crab, crayfish, lobster, shrimp and other crustaceans, along with mollusks like clam mussel, oyster, scallop, octopus, squid, conch and snail.

As you approach the counter to make your purchase, you might notice the choice between “wild” or “farmed” products. Wild fish are those caught from oceans, lakes, rivers or other natural water bodies. But farm fishing, also known as aquaculture, has become an important source for catfish, trout, salmon, shrimp and tilapia as demand for these products has grown.

The variety of seafood available at the fish counter has expanded markedly over the last few decades. Of course, if you don’t find what you are looking for at the counter, you can always shop the frozen fish/seafood section.

So, what should you look for when purchasing seafood?

First, fresh seafood should be displayed following food safety guidelines. Seafood should be on ice, well-refrigerated, and the display case should be clean, without smell and free of any insects. Employees handling the fish should wear disposable gloves, and change the gloves after handling non-food items or raw fish.

“See food” with your nose. That is, fresh fish or seafood should smell pleasant, not fishy or ammonia-like.

Finfish should have a fresh smell, not an ammonia or fishy smell. If you are buying the whole fish, check it for stiffness in the fins, scales that cling to the skin, and clear, bright eyes (note that walleyes have naturally cloudy eyes). The skin should be shiny, and the gills pink or bright red and free from mucus.

Fish fillets or steaks should have a mild scent, be firm to touch, have a translucent appearance, and no browning around the edges.

Shellfish like scallops typically have their shells removed at sea. Scallops vary in size and color, from creamy white to a light orange, tan or pinkish color. Look for moist with no darkened edges.

An iced display case in a market shows off a display of fish and seafood, including shrimp and red snapper. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS, Tyler Jones]

An iced display case in a market shows off a display of fish and seafood, including shrimp and red snapper. [CREDIT: UF/IFAS, Tyler Jones]

Fresh, raw shrimp will have a mild smell, and be firm to the touch with no slimy feel.

Catching a theme? Remember to use your nose!

While many people talk about the benefits of fresh versus frozen products, that might not always be the case with fish and seafood. Products frozen for transportation and then thawed for sale might actually offer higher quality than unfrozen items shipped over long distances.

What qualities should you look for when purchasing frozen fish, then?

If frozen fish is a better option, look for seafood that is frozen solid but free from ice crystals or freezer burn. Freezer burn on seafood will appear as dry areas, perhaps with some discoloration. Also, look for packaging free from damage or water staining. Look for these qualities on prepared fish items like crab cakes and breaded shrimp, as well.

One last note for your health. Whether you decide to purchase fresh or frozen fish or seafood, remember that breaded items, such as popcorn shrimp or fish sticks, often contain added fat and calories. If you want to know more about the nutrition of the seafood you purchase, check the U.S. Food and Drug Administraiton (FDA) “Nutrition Facts” label on the packaging. If you purchase fresh fish from the seafood counter, instead, look for nutritional information displayed in or near that area.

NEXT: Food safety, starting at the store.

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