Tongol Tuna- A Safe Real Foods Choice
Over the past few years there have been many concerns about the dangers of high mercury levels in fish, in particular that mainstay of the weight loss diets, canned tuna. Tuna is an often ubiquitous item on the daily menu for anyone serious about getting into shape. From fitness models and competitive bodybuilders to regular members of the general population interested in looking better, tuna offers a fast, convenient and easy way to satisfy your protein requirements. With over 20 grams of high quality protein in a 6 oz can, and a healthy serving of omega-3 fatty acids, tuna is the ultimate on-the-go-food for many in the health conscious circles. (The salt free and water packed varieties, that is!) While the ideal would be to always consume fresh fish that has undergone as little processing as possible, given the difficulties of always having fresh and healthy food at hand, canned tuna is an intelligent compromise as long as it is consumed in moderation. The canning process itself, which dates back to the turn of the 20th century isn’t that involved, and as the fishes are always wild caught, you don’t have the problems with antibiotics and other chemicals used in modern fish farming. The canning process involves the tuna being pre-cooked then cleaned, filleted, canned and sealed. The sealed can is then heated for 2 to 4 hours to ensure that no germs or bacteria remain- thus extending the shelf life of the fish inside.
In this article I will try to give some insight into the problem posed by mercury in popular canned tuna as well as introduce tongol tuna fish; a low mercury tuna fish that is my recommendation for anyone that has tuna in their diet. Mercury levels aside, always be sure to choose canned tongol tuna that is packed in water and without added salt or high sodium vegetable broths. If you are unable to find a salt free variety, you can always 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 and mercury levels:
Tuna & Mercury Levels
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 favorite, tuna.
Figure 1. Mercury levels in canned tuna fish
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.
The following is a chart of recommended intakes based on the Food & Drug Administration’s advisories:
Figure 2: Eating Tuna Safely
This table provides guidelines on how much canned tuna it is safe to eat, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. While mercury poses the most serious health threat to children and women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, others may also wish to use this list as a guide.
At the time of the warnings about tuna and mercury levels, I was an up and coming natural bodybuilder who ate often as much as five cans a day. That being said, it was a real blow to my dietary habits, and I lowered my intake, but not too drastically. What made it worse was that albacore tuna (the better tasting one) had much higher levels than chunk light tuna, which I found to be unbearable , so tuna fish no longer had a place in my diet as a staple and I found other protein sources to supplement my intake.
As time went on, I became more and more health conscious. The idea of fish in a can itself was never a savory prospect and I began to see the wholesomeness of foods as being more important than convenience. Over the years I have made every effort imaginable to eat foods only in their natural form as much as is humanly possible, and I would go to any lengths to ensure that my foods come from as safe sources as possible. (If I didn’t have to work as much as I do, I would probably be growing, hunting and gathering my own food, to be honest.)
However, although I had weaned myself off from tuna fish, many of my personal training clients still relied it as a ready-to-eat protein source. Given my stance against the use of protein powders and food bars, tuna was in some ways the lesser of two evils for those whose lives were a constant blur of motion. Nevertheless, I always kept my eyes open for alternative solutions and advised that if they did eat tuna fish, the choice should be chunk light versions over albacore, as it is lower in mercury.
Tongol Tuna: Lower Mercury Levels and A Better Taste
Several years ago I happened to find tongol tuna fish at one of the local organic markets that I frequent. I picked up a can and looked it up when I got home, as I had never heard of tongol tuna before in my life. Tongol tuna has negligible mercury levels since it is much further down the food chain than its albacore and blue fin cousins as since it is a much smaller fish. Tongol tuna is found in the waters not very far offshore in the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans. Main producers are Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Iran, but tongol tuna from Malaysia is the most environmentally responsible. Malaysia has sound population management practices in place to help protect the tongol tuna populations from being depleted and the strictest enforcement measures to see to it that there is not a high bycatch of sharks and other fishes. With fish populations being decreased at such an alarming rate, I think that the ecological impact that our foods have should always be considered as well. With other species of tuna like albacore, bigeye tuna, blackfin tuna, pacific bluefin tuna, northern bluefin tuna, southern bluefin tuna and yellowfin tuna added to the Greenpeace International red list of fishes that are sourced from unsustainable fisheries, it is critical that all of our fish choices support responsible fishing.
In my own experience with tongol tuna, as much as I was impressed by the low mercury levels and responsible fishing practices, what really stood out was the taste. Tongol tuna doesn’t taste bad at all! Having scarfed down thousands of cans of tuna fish over the years, I know all too well how the taste and smell can get to you over time. I always saw it as a necessary evil, but tongol tuna doesn’t have the strong smell, or an overly fishy taste. The flesh is much lighter and quite good, words I certainly never thought I would ever use to describe tuna fish. Not only does tongol tuna taste better than albacore, but it is also cheaper. We live in a demand driven market, so as more people start consuming tongol tuna, it might become a bit more expensive. In fact I have seen the price go up significantly in the higher end stores here in New York over the past 5 years. It is available packed in spring water with no salt added and some 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 tongol tuna and water, which keeps the sodium levels low. So at the end of the day, taking into consideration the lower mercury levels, affordable price and great taste, tongol tuna is one of the best kept secrets for someone looking for a wholesome quick and easy meal. My clients can’t stop raving about it, and with good reason. While I personally prefer get the majority of my fish from fresh sources, my preference is and always will be the tropical fishes that I grew up eating in Trinidad, I am not at all against having a can of tongol tuna on occasion and I encourage everyone to give it a try.
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Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer, natural bodybuilding champion and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training™. If you live in the New York City area and need help losing weight or getting into shape give Kevin and his team a call at 1-800-798-8420.
Environmental Protection Agency.
Food & Drug Administration
Montery Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx?c=dd
“Greenpeace International Seafood Red list”. Greenpeace.org. 2003-03-17. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/seafood/red-list-of-species.