Sushi has many health benefits but it can also carry some health hazards as well. Sushi has grown in popularity steadily over the last several decades. The Japanese have been eating sushi, in varying forms, for centuries. The sushi we know today was designed as a fast-food in Japan in the mid-nineteenth century. People could order a hand roll and easily take it to go.
Modern Sushi restaurants offer two main categories of sushi – nigiri and maki. According to CHealth, “Nigiri consists of a mound of vinegared rice topped with a dab of hot horseradish wasabi and a slab of fish, crab, egg, or other topping. A small, thin bamboo mat is used to roll maki, a cylinder of rice wrapped in nori seaweed with a morsel of fish or other filling in the middle.”
Most sushi restaurants offer such wide variety of sushi they create pictorial menus to help customers make choices. With so much diversity it’s impossible to make a broad sweeping statement declaring sushi as healthy or unhealthy. It really depends on what you order and how much you eat. Understanding which ingredients and condiments are healthy or unhealthy will help you pick healthier sushi.
Many sushi restaurants are offering brown rice as a substitute for white rice. Brown rice contains more fiber and nutrients including manganese, for energy production, and selenium, which lowers the risk of colon cancer. According to whfoods.org women who eat brown rice and other whole tend to weigh less. Post-menopausal women benefit from brown rice as well, “Eating a serving of whole grains, such as brown rice, at least 6 times each week is an especially good idea for postmenopausal women with high cholesterol, high blood pressure or other signs of cardiovascular disease.”
The dried seaweed that most sushi rolls are wrapped in is called Nori. According to askmen.com nori, “contains a dictionary’s worth of health benefits: It’s high in many vitamins and minerals including iodine; zinc; calcium; vitamins A, E, C, and K; fiber; and protein.”
Wasabi acts as an antimicrobial agent as well as an anti-inflammatory. Wasabi also improves liver health. According to 3fatchicks.com, “Wasabi is linked with certain other foods like broccoli and cabbage, which contain a set of chemicals that help to promote liver health.”
Ginger is used to cleanse the palate after each bite of sushi. Ginger relieves sinus congestion, lowers cholesterol levels, and limits blood clots in the same way aspirin does.
Mackerel is one of the healthiest fish to eat. It is packed with omega-3 fatty acids and it’s lower on the food chain which means less mercury. Askmen.com reports, “It is also a high-protein fish; there are 25 grams of protein in a 4-ounce serving, and only 160 calories. This healthy sushi choice also contains selenium, which works along with omega-3s to neutralize free radicals.”
Health Risks of Sushi
Sushi is packaged up into small bite size portions which may lead people to believe that they aren’t eating much but looks can be deceiving. A single plain tuna roll can have as few as two hundred calories but as CHealth points out, “add in embellishments like mayonnaise, fried tempura bits, or cream cheese, and you’ve got yourself one concentrated bundle of fat and calories.”
Eating uncooked fish, or any meat for that matter, always carries the risk of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Roundworm is one example of a parasite found in raw fish. CHealth reports, “roundworm is a threadlike parasite that can burrow into the stomach and cause painful symptoms that mimic appendicitis.” Yikes!
The general rule is the bigger the fish, the more mercury it contains. Fish lower on the food chain tend to have lower mercury levels. Mercury is a known neurotoxin in humans and other mammals. Chealth explains, “Large, predatory fish tend to have the highest mercury levels. This includes the fresh and frozen tuna commonly found in sushi, as well as swordfish, marlin, and shark.”
Bluefin tuna is a popular fish served in sushi. Unfortunatley it’s one of the unhealthiest fish to eat reports askmen.com, “It has among the highest mercury contents, not to mention chemical PCBs.”
Tobiko sushi is made with fish roe and raw quail eggs. Quail eggs are high in saturated fat and cholesterol and they also run the risk of salmonella poisoning.
Tempura items are deep fried in a batter made of water, flour, and eggs. Frying anything raises the total calorie and fat content.
Soy sauce is extremely high in sodium. Askmen.com reports, “One tablespoon of soy sauce has 1,006 milligrams of sodium — nearly half the recommended daily value.”
Enjoying Sushi Safely
Let the professionals do the work. Sushi chefs at respectable sushi restaurants are highly trained to handle raw fish safely. They also have access to industrial freezers which have the ability to reach temperatures cold enough to kill food-born parasites. Your freezer at home probably can’t reach these temperatures. Whfoods.org explains, “If fish has been commercially frozen for at least three days at a temperature of 4°F (-16°C), all of these worms—and their larvae—will be killed, rendering the fish more safe.”
Whfoods.org offers this advice when eating sushi, “a good approach is to enjoy it at a responsible restaurant, which has high quality purchasing and preparation practices. This is important so that you can reduce your risk of eating contaminated raw fish.”
Sushi should be considered an occasional indulgence. CHealth asks us to remember, “that fried items like tempura or creamy condiments like mayonnaise can have you drowning in calories and fat. Keep these to a minimum.”
Go easy on the tuna. Tuna is delicious and healthy but it can also be high in mercury. Typically fish lower on the food chain will contain less mercury. CHealth suggests, “the smaller the fish, the less mercury it will have accumulated. Also, wild salmon has less mercury than tuna, as do shrimp, pollock, and catfish.”
Adding more vegetables to any meal is almost always a healthy choice. The same goes for sushi. Try adding an inexpensive roll stuffed with vegetables to your next sushi adventure. Some vegetable options that are standard at sushi restaurants are shiitake mushrooms, avocado, and cucumber.