This week's widespread coverage of a study presented at an American Heart Association scientific conference confirms two things.
First, deep-fried fish is bad for your heart, while baked, broiled, and boiled fish are good for it.
Second, the media reports confirm that most news organizations suffer from short-term memory syndrome… accompanied by a bad case of no-context disorder.
Many media outlets reported on the new population study, in which University of Hawaii researchers looked for links between heart health and different cooking methods for fish.
Those who reported eating mostly baked or boiled fish enjoyed good heart health outcomes.
In contrast, those who reported eating mostly fried fish suffered below-average heart health outcomes.
Media outlets hungry for fresh content spread the news fast… but the “new” findings were actually old news.
That’s okay, though it would have been valuable for people to know that the Hawaii-based study simply echoed similar findings published over the past several years.
What’s really unfortunate is that reporters made no attempt to explore or explain the study’s outcomes... even though the likely reasons hold serious implications for the impact of Americans’ diets on their heart health.
Researchers led by Lixin Meng, M.S. analyzed the diets and medical records of 186,000-plus people over a 10-year period (Meng L et al. 2009).
The participants were 186,127 men and women of African-American, Caucasian, Japanese, Native Hawaiian and Latino descent, aged 45 to 75 years and living in Hawaii or Los Angeles County, with no history of heart disease.
Ms. Meng’s team divided them into groups, depending on the subject’s reported intakes of canned or fresh fish, and according to the fish preparations people ate most often—raw, baked, boiled, fried, salted or dried.
As we’ve said, the analysis showed that those who reported eating mostly fried, salted, or dried fish had below-average heart health.
Regular consumption of salted or dried fish was also linked to below-average heart health after 10 years.
But folks who enjoy our smoked fish needn’t be concerned about moderate consumption. This is because salted fish—a term applied to fish cured by salt alone, without smoking—contains levels of sodium much higher than most smoked fish.
And our Vital Choice brand smoked salmon and sablefish generally contain less sodium than national brands (and no nitrites or other commonly used preservatives) Surprisingly, smoked salmon has about as many omega-3s as fresh salmon.
As to the negative finding for dried fish, we suspect that most of the fish meeting that description on the survey had very few omega-3s, or was salted heavily.
What about the benefits of added tofu or low-sodium soy sauce? Lead author Lixin Meng made a reasonable speculation: “My guess is that, for women, eating omega-3s from shoyu [natural soy sauce] and tofu that contain other active ingredients such as phyto-estrogens might have a stronger cardio-protective effect than eating just omega-3s” (AHA 2009).
Broiling was left out, but found healthy in prior studies
For reasons not explained in the official summary, Ms. Meng’s team did not compare the participants’ heart health outcomes to consumption of broiled fish… a very common cooking method that was associated with good heart health outcomes in prior studies.
Like baked and boiled fish, broiled, grilled and pan-sautéed fish generally conveys little or no added vegetable oil to consumers… especially when compared to deep-fried fish, whose bread or batter coating literally oozes vegetable oil.
This decision by the Hawaiian team to exclude grilled and broiled fish from the analysis was a very odd one, since many Americans who eat fish broil or pan sauté it, and very few boil it.
We can only speculate that they included boiling as a cooking type because many residents of Hawaii and Los Angeles County are of Japanese or Korean descent, and people in those cultures eat most of their fish raw, steamed, or boiled in soups and stews.
“New” findings are old news
Starting six years ago, a Harvard team conducted three epidemiological studies in older adults, looking for differences in heart health based on various fish cooking methods.
Their findings linked enjoyment of even modest amounts of broiled or baked fish to enhanced cardiovascular health and reduced risk of stroke or death from heart disease… especially from heart arrhythmias (Mozaffarian D et al. 2003; Mozaffarian D et al. 2005; Mozaffarian D et al. 2006).
But like the new Hawaiian study, all three Harvard investigations linked fried fish—such as fish sticks and the breadedor battered fillets in fast-food sandwiches—to worse results on tests of cardiovascular health factors… and to higher rates of stroke and heart-related death.
Why is fried fish bad? Blame the omega-6 fats in deep-fry vegetable oils
There are two rather obvious reasons why fried fish doesn’t seem to improve hearth health and may even worsen it.
First, the white fish used in sticks and fast-food sandwiches are relatively low in omega-3s, which exert anti-inflammatory, anti-arrhythmia, and other heart-helping effects… but that alone wouldn’t explain worse heart health outcomes.
Also, the farmed white fish commonly used for fried fillets—like tilapia and catfish—eat grain-based diets that give them much higher in omega-6 levels than their wild counterparts (see “Farmed Fish Possess Unhealthful Fat Profiles” and “Inflammation Free Diet Book Puts Wild Salmon on a Pedestal”).
Instead, the problem with deep-fried fish lies in the omega-6 fatty acids that predominate in the vegetable oils food companies use to fry breaded fish (e.g., soy, safflower, sunflower, and cottonseed oils).
The omega-6 fat that’s abundant in common frying oils—called linoleic acid or LA—exerts generally pro-inflammatory influences in the body, especially when the diet is overloaded with them. And chronic “silent” inflammation is a key driver of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
While a recent American Heart Association science review found no link between excess dietary omega-6s and worse heart outcomes, many epidemiological and lab studies show that diets overloaded with “trans” omega-6 fats harm artery health and yield higher rates of heart disease.
(For more on this topic, see “Heart Association Appears Blind to Risks of America's "Omega-Imbalance"” and “Report Finds Americans Need More Omega-3s and Less Omega-6s.”)
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete for a place in their hosts’ cell membranes... and because fried fish is loaded with omega-6s, fewer of the omega-3s in it will end up in its consumers’ cell membranes, compared with the omega-3s in raw, baked, boiled, steamed, or broiled fish.
Worse, frying oil at temperatures above 350° F (180° C)—which is standard in fast food chains—produce unhealthy changes in polyunsaturated fatty acids, including the omega-6 fats in vegetable oils (Velasco J et al. 2004; Choe E et al. 2007; Marmesat S et al. 2008).
And until recently, a very large proportion of the omega-6s in fried foods occurred in the undesirable trans form that raises the risk of atherosclerosis and makes blood “sticky” … two key factors that promote cardiovascular and ischemic stroke.
Fortunately, new laws are forcing trans omega-6 fats—created by partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils—from fast-food chains’ deep fryers and from packaged foods.
It seems likely that if the Hawaiian and Harvard studies were repeated now, the heart-health signs and outcomes of people who report eating mostly fried fish wouldn’t be quite as bad.
Nonetheless, the overload of overcooked, damaged omega-6 fats present even in fried fish made with non-hydrogenated oils would in its place as the worst choice.