Meat of the Matter: A sea of absurdity

Conventional nutritional 'wisdom' continues to espouse the consumption of healthy proteins—other than meat—without much of a clue as to why that might not be such a great idea.

We all need pet peeves, something to hate on or bitch about — especially as you get older.

Heck, about time the gray hair takes over, crabbing about some obscure topic is practically mandatory.

I like to think I've got a fairly lengthy list of such topics, but one particular subject that never gets old is the lionization of fish — if you can forgive a trans-species analogy.

Even a cursory online search of seafood nutrition turns up all sorts of legitimate and quasi-legitimate proclamations about how great it would be for Americans to ditch the burgers and switch to salmon.

Or cod or halibut or even herring or sardines.

No offense to the good people of Norwegian heritage, but pickled herring's not going to displace bacon and eggs in the USA anytime soon — or ever.

But that's my point: Far too many dietary authorities swear by the nutritional content of foods, without regard to aesthetic, culinary or environmental considerations.

Here's a typical example, from a recent New York Times "Well" section article titled, "Why Is Fish Good for You? Because It Replaces Meat?" (talk about answering your own question in the headline). Here's a sample:

"Many fish, especially oily, darker-fleshed fish like salmon and herring, are rich in healthy, polyunsaturated, omega-3 fatty acids. Dietary guidelines encourage adults to eat eight ounces of a variety of fish and seafood each week."

Diminishing returns

Granted, "lean protein" is the Holy Grail for most nutritionists these days — as if meat and poultry don't supply people with enough of it — but what's worse is the cluelessness of this writer. Forget the absurd reference to herring; let's talk about salmon.

To be generous, touting increased consumption of salmon might make sense — if we were still living in the 1930s when there were thriving salmon fisheries up and down the West Coast.

Since then, the impact of development, pollution and watershed degradation have devastated domestic salmon harvests — not to mention that dam construction for flood control and hydroelectric power generation have all but wiped out salmon runs on many of the major rivers that the species have to navigate during spawning season. On the Columbia River watershed alone there are 60 dams that have been built since 1938, effectively ending commercial harvesting of Chinook, coho and sockeye salmon in the Pacific Ocean waters off California, Oregon and Washington.

In fact, salmon's collective survival is so threatened that a few years ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service had to temporarily ban all salmon fishing whatsoever in all of California, the first time that's ever happened in the more than 160 years the Service has had jurisdiction there.

I'm not arguing against the existence of dams per se: there would be huge environmental consequences if all the electricity they generate had to be produced by other means, and major irrigation projects that produce needed food and fiber would be negatively impacted, as well.

But to pretend that salmon is wonderful food choice, and not even mention concerns about its sustainability, is absurd.

And that doesn't even account for safety concerns. While anti-meat activists love to complain about (alleged) antibiotics residues and harmful microbes — which are destroyed simply by cooking meat — the issue in seafood is the presence of something way more dangerous. Currently, the FDA advises people, especially women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, to avoid fish that are high in methyl mercury, a warning that includes mackerel, swordfish and tuna.

Environmental organizations, the ones who regularly bash livestock producers as people-poisoning profiteers, have an even lengthier list of fish that they have deemed to be toxic.

Despite the overharvesting of virtually every fishery on Earth, coupled with the dangers of mercury poisoning from many of the preferred species, consumers are still force-fed such blather as, "Fish is very low in saturated fat and low in cholesterol," a statement from e Jennifer McDaniel, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who followed up an assertion that seafood contains "heme iron, which is more easily absorbed" in the digestive tract than the iron in plant foods.

True, but heme iron, which is carried by hemoglobin in the blood, is richest in such seafood choices as clams, mussels, oysters and canned sardines — foods that virtually nobody eats in quantities anywhere near sufficient to supply required levels of dietary iron.

Here's some advice for people interested in consuming less meat and more "lean protein." Want to cultivate a taste for a species of fish that is safe, healthful and causes minimal environmental problems?

If so, try catfish.

It's local, it's sustainable and it's not imported, as is 90% of the seafood Americans are currently eating.

Just don't wait around for some New York Times blogger to recommend it.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Dan Murphy a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator