When people ask me what I do for a living my first response is that I'm an herbalist; but I often have to clarify what I mean by that. Some people immediately think I sell one infamous herb in particular (it is legal in Washington state where I live), or they think that it means I grow and sell herbs. But neither of those is the case.
As an herbalist I spend my time in two different areas. One area is in herbal education. I write lots of herbal articles, create online courses, and I'm about to publish my second book, (if you missed it, my first book is Alchemy of Herbs).
Another area is that I work with people who are interested in exploring natural solutions for their chronic health problems. When I work with people to help them improve their health I often recommend herbs. I am an herbalist! However, I am just as quick to recommend nutrient-dense foods, lifestyle changes and sometimes even supplements. After being an herbalist for over a decade, I know that herbs work best when they are supported by a nutrient-dense diet and other healthy lifestyle factors.
That’s why I wanted to share some interesting information with you about one of the most nutrient-dense foods that I know of: salmon!
The current dietary guidelines recommend that adults get at least two servings, or 8 oz, of fish high in omega 3’s per week; yet sadly, few people actually meet this requirement.
Salmon, a cold water fish, is high in omega 3’s and other nutrients that have been an important part of people’s diets for thousands of years.
Today we specifically know that salmon has the ability to reduce inflammation, support heart health and brain health. Here’s a glimpse at some of the research being done with salmon.
The children of mothers who ate salmon during pregnancy had a reduced risk of asthma. 1
DHA - which is abundant in salmon and has been shown to reduce oxidative stress and enhance synaptic plasticity as well as learning and memory - is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes in the brain. 2
Research shows that a lifetime of eating tuna, sardines, salmon and other fish appears to protect Japanese men against clogged arteries, despite other cardiovascular risk factors. 3
A study compared the anxiety levels and heart rate variability of one group of men who ate salmon three times a week, compared to a group of men who ate other sources of protein in the same regular interval. The findings showed that men eating salmon had improved heart rate variability and decreased anxiety. 4
It’s a sad fact that our entire earth is becoming more polluted with toxic chemicals every single day. One issue that is becoming increasingly known is that ocean-caught fish can have high levels of mercury in their system, which can then be passed on to whomever eats it.
However, despite mercury concerns, research still consistently shows that the benefits far outweigh the risks, especially when eating salmon, which is nutrient dense and known to be low in mercury. 5 Sockeye salmon primarily eat zooplankton. Since zooplankton is lower on the food chain, it also makes them lower in mercury than other fish.
However, there are many types and qualities of salmon available, and getting the best salmon is crucial for your health.
I recently spoke with a friend of mine who, along with her husband, runs a sustainable fishing company in Alaska. Emily and Kyle Lints have been fishing the cold Alaskan waters for over 30 years and have been direct marketing their fish for 9 years. Their salmon, halibut, rockfish and cod is harvested, processed, and then shipped frozen to people in the United States.
I’ve had the pleasure of eating their sockeye Alaska salmon and it is so exceptional that I was really keen to hear what she had to say about choosing superior salmon. She shared some interesting information with me and so I asked her if she would have a conversation with me that I could share with all of you.
The following is a conversation with Emily Lints from Small Scales Seafood. We cover how to find the best salmon for your family, the problems with farmed salmon and how fisheries are being regulated to stay sustainable for many generations.
Rosalee: When you are picking out salmon from the store, how can you tell if it is high quality salmon?
Emily: It’s easy to see, and even smell, if a salmon is high quality. We sell sockeye Alaska salmon so I’ll focus more on that.
A wild caught Alaskan sockeye salmon should be bright red in color, rich in flavor and firm to the touch. Scale loss should be minimal, bruises and indents should also be minimal. You should also see a layer of healthy gray fat between the meat and the skin. Wild Alaskan salmon have a great fat content because of the cold waters and the large rivers and lakes that salmon return to.
How are the fish processed in order to get this superior quality?
Premium Alaska salmon has been bled and chilled on the boat, vacuum packed and flash frozen. All of these steps ensure a piece of salmon that has little to no 'fishy odor' and actually smells pleasant. Unfortunately this doesn’t always happen with large scale fisheries. We have many customers who say they never knew fish could taste so good and who only eat our seafood because they dislike supermarket seafood's off-smell and taste.
You’ve specifically mentioned wild-caught Alaska salmon, how does that compare to farmed salmon?
There’s really no comparison between the two in terms of taste, nutrients and even sustainability. Farmed salmon has decreased levels of many of the nutrients found in wild salmon, including potassium and zinc. While farmed salmon has similar fat profiles to wild caught salmon, the farmed salmon contains less healthy fats.
Farmed salmon spend their lives crowded in cages and may be fed foods that salmon don’t normally eat, including grains. These farms produce a lot of toxic waste and are not healthy for the environment.
The taste is also a huge difference. I wish everyone could take a bite of farmed salmon and then a bite of wild caught salmon; you’d never go back to farmed salmon again.
Okay, so if I want premium quality salmon then I can go to the store, specifically look for wild-caught salmon - not farmed - and then use those visual cues that you mentioned above such as color, scales, etc. Does that cover it essentially?
Well, not exactly. There’s a huge problem in the salmon markets where, depending on the season, almost half of the salmon in grocery stores is mislabeled.
Yeah, it’s pretty bad. Oceana, which is an organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans, did widespread testing of salmon and found that 43% of salmon were mislabeled. They showed that 69% of the mislabeled salmon was marked as being wild-caught when it was really farmed. Or, in some cases, the salmon was being sold as a superior species, but it was actually an inferior one.
Wow, so that tells me that when I buy salmon from a store I may not know what I am getting.
Yes, and that isn’t the only issue.
It's so important to know how your fish is treated - from the sea, to the boat, to the processing, to the transportation, to your doorstep.
If you are buying from a grocery store you don't know where your fish is really coming from, and what has happened to it every step along the way. Each critical step affects the quality of your seafood. If a fish is not bled the flavor will be fishier and stagnant blood may be present. If a fish is not promptly chilled the bacteria and viscera in the belly cavity begin to break down and cause degradation of the meat. Every time a fish is thawed and refrozen the quality decreases and the flavor of freezer burn starts to appear. Many fillets in grocery stores are shipped as whole fish, thawed, filleted, re-frozen and thawed again.
Can you explain how you process your fish?
We pride ourselves in offering Alaska salmon, halibut, rockfish and cod that is really top notch. Every fish is bled as it comes on board to improve the flavor. Salmon are promptly placed in refrigerated sea water that is chilled to 34 degrees and halibut, rockfish and cod are layered in shaved ice in an insulated tote. We have our seafood processed at high-end facilities that really care as they fillet, vacuum pack and flash freeze each piece of seafood. We really work hard to make sure our fish stays frozen all the way to people’s doorstep.
Another big issue I wanted to ask you about is sustainability. There is a lot of concern right now about what is going on in our oceans and fears about over-harvesting. What’s your perspective on that?
Sustainability is, and should be, important to conscious seafood buyers. From my perspective of working within this market, Alaska seafood is managed really well. Even though fishing is our livelihood, we respect any fishing restrictions we are put on because the long term health of the fishery is paramount.
It’s not a one-size fits all solution either as each type of fish is regulated differently.
When it comes to our Pacific Halibut we are regulated with an Individual Fishing Quota, specifying the exact pounds we can catch between the spring and fall of each year. We own a permit and a set quota and each year the National Marine Fisheries Service tells us what percentage of our quota we are able to catch. They regulate the catch with the ebbs and flows of the resource. If the halibut stock is growing slowly or numbers are low; as it is now, we are only allowed to fish for a small percentage of our quota. This is why halibut prices are currently high!
Our Sockeye Alaska Salmon is managed quite differently by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but all with a focus on the longevity of the fisheries. Salmon are a spawning fish and they return to their home rivers and lakes in mass numbers in a short amount of time. They are managed with an escapement goal, meaning that a pre-determined number of fish are allowed to return to their home river to spawn. Each river has a separate goal and fishing boats are restricted with time-and-area closures to make sure these goals are met. A river can be shut down to fishing completely if an escapement isn't on track or heavy fishing pressure can be encouraged if way too many fish are going to overburden the river.
As an example, the river we are currently fishing in, the Egegik River, has an escapement goal this year of 1.4 million salmon and is well on track. Salmon are actually counted as they return up river in Alaska by people stationed in watch towers and sonars. Our Bristol Bay salmon permit allows us to catch as much salmon as we can when the fishery is open.
Okay, so to sum this up, what are the key concerns when wanting to buy the best salmon?
In buying quality seafood you need to ask yourself if you know if your seafood was 1) bled 2) iced 3) promptly processed 4) vacuum packed and flash frozen and 5) has remained frozen up until you thaw it to eat. You should also ask if it's from a proven, sustainable source and, lastly, if you're supporting a small fishing family or a large corporation.
Thank you Emily! If people are interested in buying salmon and other fish from your family business, how do they go about doing that?
We sell most of our seafood in Pre-Season Seafood Shares, making us similar to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) or a Community Supported Fishery (CSF). Fishing is a roller coaster and your purchase helps buffer our family business for years when seafood prices drop at the dock and fish returns are low.
You can purchase our salmon and other fish in three different ways:
1. Pre-ordering Seafood Shares of our upcoming season that are shipped directly to you.
2. Forming a Bulk Buying Club to get our best price on Salmon Share shipments.
3. Ordering Seafood In-Stock after our season, as available.
To see our offerings you can visit our website Small Scales Seafood. There you will find more information about our fish and our philosophies. I am happy to answer questions you might have, about our offerings or buying salmon in general. You can email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lastly, there is also this great cookbook out by a lady we really like, Diane Morgan - Salmon: Everything You Need to Know +45 Recipes.
Thank you Emily! That is very generous of you and I hope that many people take you up on your offer. I really enjoy your salmon as it is the best I’ve ever tasted and I know that I am getting it from a healthy and sustainable source. Thanks for sharing your time with us.
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Heal. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and the Education Director for LearningHerbs. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.