Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Green Kitchen: The Cheap Healthy Guide to Canned Tuna for the Planet and Your Mouth (or Something)

Green Kitchen is a bi-weekly column about nutritious, inexpensive, and ethical food and cooking. It's penned by the lovely Jaime Green.

Eating delicious meat cheaply and environmentally is not easy. Grass-fed beef often starts at $7 or $8 a pound in New York City, and shows up twice or three times that at the farmers market. Fresh and frozen fish see the same price points, as do pork and lamb.Chicken is cheaper but chicken gets boring.

Which brings us to my recent love affair with canned tuna.

It is full of protein, super-cheap, easy to prepare, and does not send my fish-allergic boyfriend into fits with its cooking fumes. But while my local Whole Foods handily grades its butchered meat and fresh fish, cans of tuna are harder to suss out.

Well, harder to suss out unless you’re at a computer. The Environmental Defense Fund has a handy ranking of seafood choices based on eco-friendliness, and canned tuna is included. (The fish’s page also includes health concerns for adults and children, related to tuna’s mercury content.)

Canned tuna tends to come in two varieties – Albacore, or white, and “light,” which can be one (or several) of several tuna varieties. When it comes to what’s good for the planet, US or Canadian Albacore is tops, with general canned white and canned light both scoring the “eco-ok” middle rating.

In terms of mercury content, Albacore’s is higher, and so should be consumed less frequently, especially by kids. (The EDF recommends children under 6 eat it no more than once a month, and sets the limit for kids 6-12 at twice a month. Adults can handle it more often more safely.) Canned light (as long as the label doesn’t include Yellowfin tuna, which has about the same mercury as Albacore) is okay for younger kids about three times a month, and once a week or so for older children.

(The EDF page on mercury in canned tuna recommends canned salmon as a healthier option – "not only because the fish are low in contaminants and high in heart-healthy omega-3s, but also because they are sustainably caught” – but I haven’t fallen in love with that taste yet.)

I was relieved to learn – admitted months after getting back into the tuna habit – that this convenient can really isn’t such a bad option. (I’m not feeding any babies nor planning on gestating one any time soon.)

There is, of course, also the issue of taste.

I’d been buying store-brand canned tuna from Whole Foods, mostly out of a mostly-blind-faith sense that their fish would be more sustainability-minded than the StarKist or whatever I could get at my local supermarket, and for $1.39 a can (versus 99 cents or so), it wasn’t too bad a price. (According to Whole Foods’ website, both of their tuna varieties are caught responsibly, and are relatively low in mercury.)

But then I started worrying that I was a snob. And chunk light tuna was on sale for 75 cents a can at the supermarket. I bought two.

I kinda wish I’d saved that second seventy-five cents.

Whereas my fancy-pants Whole Foods tuna shows its extra 64 cents in nice chunks of recognizable fish flesh and easily drained water, the cheapo can started to splurt out fish puree as soon as I tried to drain it mid-can-opening. Inside that (five-ounce, rather than WF’s six) can I found fishy mush. It tasted okay, though the texture was alarming, and why does a can of tuna need vegetable broth in the ingredients? I will be sticking to my ever-so-slightly pricier chunk tuna from now on, thank you. And enjoying it (not too many times in a week) guilt-free.

Although I’m a big fan of standard tuna salad (with, sorry Kris, mayo, and plenty of diced celery), I’m always looking for ways to do it different, and with more vegetables. This recipe from TheKitchn scores on both counts – shredded raw cabbage adds a great crispness, and fresh herbs makes everything springy. I changed the original up a bit, first of all using one can of tuna for one big, healthy, satisfying serving, and second choosing dill over chives. (It was what I had on hand, it is delicious, and it goes well with the yogurt that subs in for some mayo. Kris, you’re welcome.)

I’ll probably slow down my tuna habit a bit now for mercury concerns, but when I do go for it, this is a super-easy and healthy way to appreciate – and eat – that beloved chicken of the sea. Especially when I’m a little sick of land-chicken.


If this looks good, you'll love:

Crisp Cabbage and Tuna Salad
Serves 1
Adapted from TheKitchn.

1 5- or 6-can of tuna, drained (calculations reflect Whole Foods Tongol tuna)
1/4 a medium head of cabbage, cored chopped finely (about two cups)
1 ½ T mayonnaise (you could use reduced-fat to save calories, but don’t lie, it tastes awful)
2 T Greek yogurt (I used 2% fat)
1/3-1/4 c chopped dill
salt and ground pepper to taste (this works well with a lot of pepper)

1) Combine everything in a bowl.

Approximate Calories, Fat, Fiber, Protein, and Price Per Serving
335 calories, 17.1g fat, 4.5g fiber, 32.9g protein, $2.04

1 6-ounce can of tuna: 120 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 28g protein, $1.39
1/4 medium cabbage: 44 calories, 0g fat, 4.4g fiber, 2.3g protein, $0.25
1 1/2 T mayonnaise: 150 calories, 16.5g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.10
2 T 2% fat Greek yogurt: 19 calories, 0.6g fat, 0g fiber, 2.5g protein, $0.20
1/4 c dill: 2 calories, 0g fat, 0.1g fiber, 0.1g protein, $0.08
Salt and pepper: 0 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.02
TOTAL: 335 calories, 17.1g fat, 4.5g fiber, 32.9g protein, $2.04
PER SERVING: 335 calories, 17.1g fat, 4.5g fiber, 32.9g protein, $2.04

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Adrienne said...

This is not really the topic, but... why are your beef prices so high at the farmer's market? Here it's usually cheaper at the market, b/c you're buying it directly from the folks who own the cows, instead of paying a markup to the store on top of that.

As for the tuna... maybe I need to try a higher quality brand. I don't like it much, but I always buy the cheapo stuff.

Laura said...

to be quite honest, eating canned tuna isn't terribly green. one should be eating fish lower on the food chain - it's essentially the equivalent of eating a wolf.

look into smaller fish - mackeral and tilapia, for example. they're lower on the food chain and much more sustainable, and have minimal "fishy" smell if purchased VERY fresh or frozen. i believe macks are considered oily fish, too, so you'd get all the good nutrition from eating oily fish.

consider incorporating sardines and anchovies into tomato-based sauces, too - both are excellent for you, and if mixed in the sauce it's pretty easy to miss them while getting all the nutrients they can provide. they also add fabulous flavor to the sauce. :)

Jaime said...

@Adrienne - I think the farmers market beef is expensive because the cows are very well taken care of. Grass-fed, often organic, etc. And also because, so far, the demand isn't extraordinarily high. There are also fees associated with selling at the market, which may be higher in NYC.

@Laura - You're right on with fish in general, but it's hard to beat canned tuna in terms of price or convenience. It's one of those compromises I make to find the balance between green-ish and affordable.

Laura said...

also, because i think you might find this site pretty interesting and informative: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx

we changed the way we shop for fish after we read through that site.

Anonymous said...

Makes me wish there were a Whole Foods near me! I like adding a small avocado (when they're in season, they're pretty cheap in NM) and some chopped tomato to my tuna, but I think I'll try your recipe, too!


JB said...

Not to make us all cower under our tables avoiding all fish, but tilapia has been showing it's issues as well:


Mary said...

What an interesting post. I'm new to your blog and have spent some time browsing through your earlier entries. I really like the food and recipes you feature here annd I definitely plan to come back. I hope you have a great day. Blessings...Mary

Sara A. said...

Ok, tuna is not very eco friendly.

First, it is very common for fish, including tuna, to be mislabelled. Therefore you might be getting endangered bluefin tuna or fish that is not even tuna at all.

Second, tuna is at the top of the food chain and as such has some of the highest levels of mercury and other toxins. Eating lower in the food chain reduces the concentration of mercury.

Third, when fish such as tuna are caught, there is a huge amount of bycatch. Bycatch is all the "junk" fish that get caught in the huge nets that commercial fishers use. Up to 95% of a catch can be bycatch. So, for each can of tuna you eat, there is 19 times that amount by volume of fish killed and not even used... just left to rot in the sea.

Lastly, current rates of fishing are depleting global fisheries faster than the can replenish. So tuna is not environmentally friendly because it is being fished faster than it can breed.

Autumn said...

Not a fan of canned tuna in general, but I LOVED your phrasing on not feeding or gestating any babies.

I am gestating a baby and it is rough cause you are supposed to eat fish for the omega 3s, yet not too much cause of the mercury, and I can't cook it at all cause it smells!

Katie said...

Canned tuna is my college student budget's savior. And beans, man. Don't forget about the beans!

Paula @ AffordAnything.org said...

Don't forget, though, that if you're pregnant or you plan on being pregnant anytime soon, you should switch to the EDF's "kids" recommendations in terms of mercury consumption -- or go one step further cut tuna and other high-mercury foods out completely.

Laura said...

Jaime - i understand, just making sure the info is out there for those reading the comments, too. :)

Sassy Molassy said...

I used to work in a Neapolitan restaurant that introduced me to two great tuna dishes. Both were served as lighter lunch fare: a spicy marinara-type sauce for pasta that included high-quality oil-packed tuna, and a cold potato salad that consisted of potatoes boiled whole in their skins, then peeled, cut in large coarse chunks, and tossed with olive oil,sea salt, tuna, capers, and onion. As a non-mayo eater, this is the only potato salad i have ever been willing to put near my mouth, and it is delicious!

catesycatesy said...

I have a related comment but of the feline variety...my current cat will NOT drink water, no kidding, I even bought him a fountain thinking that would do the trick - nope. He will, however, drink tuna water. So I am currently buying canned tuna by the dozen and draining the yummy liquid into ice cube trays for his daily consumption. HELP. I'm left with gobs of canned tuna, which I've been freezing since I can't possibly eat that much of it...and I'm already sick of it. Any thoughts on how to make eco and cat friendly tuna water?

Sassy Molassy said...

For the cat: Add water to the tuna you've already drained and use that?

Nicki said...

Thank you for this post! Funnily enough, I bought this exact canned tuna from Whole Foods last weekend for the first time and balked a bit at the price, but your comparison makes me okay with it now. Time to actually use it!

(Also, I only recently moved to NYC and am trying to find my feet in terms of grocery shopping. Not only are prices high, but there aren't chain grocery stores on every corner like in CA!)