The healthy benefits of sushi are far outweighed by the risks. Ironically, there is more risk in the vegetables than in the seafood. (If you encounter difficulty with the terms in italics, try this first.)
1. Produce Contaminants
Insecticides and pathogens, such as E. coli. The sushi itself should be free of both through refining, but the cucumbers, carrots, peppers and other vegetables in the maki or temaki carry the greatest contamination risk. You encounter the same amount of risk as ordering a salad in your favorite steak house.
Large predatory fish can carry large amounts of mercury. Doctors, the CDC and the NIH warn pregnant women and those with suppressed or compromised immune systems against ingesting mercury in large quantities.
Large enough doses of mercury can be fatal to adults and fetuses. Birth defects have been linked to mercury. Nigiri, sashimi and chirashi made with predatory fish, like tuna, present the greatest risk in this category. Unless sushi is a staple of your diet (more than six ounces of raw fish per day), mercury is a small risk.
3. PCBs and Pollutants
Pollution-caused water contamination poisons water denizens. Due to the diluted nature of the sources, these contaminants represent only nominal risk and have not been linked to sushi-borne illness. This risk is tiny.
A microscopic, larval worm, which lives in some fish, can cause a possibly fatal infection. Sushi-grade fish undergoes deep freezing or cooking to a high enough temperature to kill the creatures in order to pass American food standards. (USDA)
5. Tapeworms and parasites
Saltwater fish have virtually no contamination because of the life cycle of the tapeworm. Freshwater fish, like trout, should not be eaten raw because parasites thrive in the warmth of freshwater. Statistically, sashimi consumers are in little danger from this contaminant.
Your best is a reputable restaurant which is health regulation compliant. Its fish will be delivered fresh daily and stored at the proper temperature until it is delivered to your table. You will run more risk of a bellyache from eating too much than by contaminated food.
As with everything else you consume, eat in moderation. The omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin-rich vegetables and nori are good for your heart!
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(c) Ann Marie Dwyer 2011
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Who took you to your first sushi bar, and what did you order?