Seafood Shopping Guide

By | August 23, 2019

If you’re looking for the ultimate guide to seafood shopping, you’ve come to the right place!

What constitutes quality seafood? Should I be wary of the contaminants in fish? These are just a couple of examples of the many questions we hear clients ask about shopping for seafood.

If this feels right for you, then including fish on your weekly grocery list can be a great way to get both protein and healthy fat in your diet. The difficulty comes with all of the variables and factors you need to consider — from fish quality to sustainability and possible contamination, consumers are often confused and intimidated by the fish counter.

Here we’ll discuss all the ins and outs of seafood shopping including what to look for, when to purchase, and how to know you’re making the right choice. Bookmark this article and use it as your guide to shopping for seafood!

Seafood Terminology

So you decide to get a little adventurous and make homemade sushi. Now all you have to do is go to the seafood counter at your local grocery store and ask for a pound of tuna, right? Not quite.

As you approach the seafood counter, you’ll start to see terms that denote how the fish was raised, caught or kept. Before ordering and shopping for seafood, there are a few terms you should know:


Essentially the farming of fish, it’s the breeding of aquatic animals and other organisms. This may take place in the ocean, rivers, ponds or lakes.


A type of aquaculture, the seafood is raised in pens or tanks. The pens can be placed in lakes, rivers or the ocean. When farmed, the fish are not allowed to interact with wild species.

Previously Frozen or Refreshed

Before reaching the seafood counter, fish may be frozen up to two times. Often times the first is at sea, but fish may also be frozen once it reaches the shore. Twice frozen fish are usually first frozen at sea, thawed, turned into steaks, then frozen once more for sale. If the fish is first frozen then thawed for sale as fresh, this is when you’ll see the “previously frozen” or sometimes “refreshed” label.

Sushi-Grade or Sashimi-Grade 

Contrary to popular belief, neither sushi-grade nor sashimi-grade holds much merit in the labeling department. The terms aren’t regulated by the FDA, it was essentially developed as a marketing tool more than anything else.

In reality, if the fish is denoted as sushi or sashimi-grade, chances are it is safe to consume raw. It’s in the seller’s best interest to keep their customers healthy.

With that being said, to ensure your fish has been properly handled for raw consumption, make sure it has been frozen at a very low temperature to kill any potential parasites.

You also want to make sure the fish is fresh, the seller should receive regular shipments of fresh fish. This is a bit easier to come by in the coastal states, but if you live inland and find a great fish market (most likely one where the local chefs’ shop), you can find some good options.

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The seafood is caught by a fisherman from its natural environment. These fish are not kept in a controlled environment and therefore maintain a natural life cycle and marine diet.

Frozen Seafood

A proper seafood shopping guide must include the frozen food aisle. For many years, frozen seafood was often thought of as a taboo. Today, frozen seafood is instead viewed as a viable option for seafood, and for good reason too.

When done properly, once a fish is frozen it essentially stops the aging process. If the fish is fresh when it is frozen, it will be fresh when you thaw it out. Frozen fish can be less expensive and last longer too, which may help contribute to a decrease in waste.

With that being said, there are a few requirements you want to use as a guide when shopping for frozen seafood. First and foremost you want to make sure there aren’t any unnecessary additives in the ingredient list, you just want the fish as is. You also want to ensure the packaging is fully intact without any tears, and check the inside for any crystals or ice. This would denote freezer burn, which you definitely don’t want.

Additionally, the National Fisheries Institute has a great guide for the shelf life of specific seafood items for you to refer to here.

Seafood Breakdown

Now that we have the lingo down, what are the different types of seafood in our shopping guide and what do we need to know about them?


Shellfish can be divided into two categories: mollusks and crustaceans. Mollusks include scallops, oysters, muscles and clams while crustaceans include lobster, crab, and shrimp.

Shellfish are a great source of lean protein and also have a bit of healthy fat in them. The majority of the healthy fat present is in the form of omega-3 fatty acids, which are powerful fats that aid brain and heart health and act as an anti-inflammatory agent as well. Shellfish are also known for their vitamin B12, zinc and magnesium content.

Just as with anything else, it’s important to make sure your shellfish has been handled and prepared properly. You should consume and obtain your shellfish from reputable sources that value quality control. The Washington State Department of Health has a great guide for safe handling of shellfish at home for you to refer to.

Lean Fish

For our purposes, lean fish refers to those with lower fat content. Fish in this category include halibut, cod, sea bass, haddock, flounder, hake and sole (1).

These fish are packed with lean protein, are low in saturated fat and are good sources of many B vitamins.

This Fish And Chips recipe is one of our favorite ways to eat lean fish!

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Halibut and bass are most susceptible to mercury contamination. When it comes to mercury-containing fish, it’s important to limit your intake to once per week to avoid complications. We’ll discuss the specifics of mercury contamination a bit further down (2).

Fatty Fish

As opposed to lean fish, fatty fish have a much higher fat content. But don’t be fooled! This fat is the good kind, primarily omega-3 fatty acids.

Fish that fit into this category include swordfish, salmon, striped bass, bluefish, mackerel, rainbow trout, yellowfin tuna and sardines (3).

These options are great sources of both protein and fat. Just as the lean fish category, there are a few fatty fish variations that generally have higher mercury content. Swordfish, bass, king mackerel, and yellowfin tuna are known for having more mercury present. Because of this, we want to stick to one serving per week at most (4).

Mercury Contamination

Mercury is a heavy metal that neither fish nor humans are able to excrete. Because of this, consumption over time leads to a buildup in both fish and human tissue.

Larger fish are more susceptible to higher mercury contents due to the fact that they are frequently feeding on smaller fish that also have mercury present. As you can probably assume when we eat fish in this same fashion, the buildup of mercury in our tissue increases as well.

So why does the presence of mercury even matter? A buildup of mercury in the body can lead to health complications such as heart disease and impaired brain function (5).

Does this mean we should avoid mercury-containing fish altogether? Not exactly. When consumed in moderation (at most once per week), you will be able to reap the nutritional benefits of lean and fatty fish without experiencing mercury poisoning.

Seafood And Pregnancy

It’s important to note that pregnant women need to be a bit more cautious when shopping for seafood. While eating fish when pregnant can provide some great nutritional benefits, you just want to be sure you’re making the best choices.

High mercury-containing fish should be avoided due to possible impaired fetal development. The FDA has created a great graphic for pregnant women and mothers to refer to.

Seafood Portion Sizes

How much seafood should we be eating?

If seafood is a part of your diet, you ideally want to consume 2-3 servings of fatty fish per week to receive an adequate amount of omega-3 fatty acids. When it comes to lean fish and shellfish, there is no specified amount for intake, but these are great options that can be consumed weekly as sources of lean protein and healthy fat. Be sure to consider the mercury content of certain fish as well.

What Is Seafood Fraud?

Now that you know lean fish is a great option for protein,  you decide to order the halibut the next time you go out to eat – when it comes to your table it’s white and flaky, exactly what you had expected. But how do you if it’s really the halibut that you ordered?

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Unfortunately, you don’t. In 2014 the environmental group Oceana conducted a study on seafood mislabeling nationwide. Currently, more than 90% of our seafood supply is imported, yet less than 1% of that seafood is inspected for fraud.

The results of Oceana’s study were pretty alarming. They found that 1 in 3 seafood samples was mislabelled nationwide. This particular study is one of merit due to its extremely large scale. Oceana collected over 1,200 samples in 21 states from 674 different outlets.

So what can we do about this? As consumers, we can first check the price. If the price appears to be too good to be true, chances are it is. Additionally, we can purchase the fish whole. When presented whole, it is much more difficult to disguise one species as another (6).

Seafood Sustainability

While seafood is a protein source we can feel good about eating, we want to make sure we’re not causing major damage when we do so.

When fish are caught faster than they can naturally be replenished, this results in something called overfishing. Today, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations assesses that an excessive amount of overfishing has resulted in one-third of the world’s current fisheries to be pushed past their biological limits.

When too many fish are removed from the ocean, entire ecosystems are degraded. It can also lead to losses of other important species such as coral reefs and sea turtles (7).

How To Consume Seafood Sustainably

As consumers, utilizing proper resources and making educated decisions can help reduce the amount of overfishing and allow us to sustainably consume seafood.

First and foremost, when shopping for seafood, we want to purchase fish from sustainable fisheries. Sustainable fisheries will target smaller species that are found in larger amounts, due to the fact that they can reproduce quickly. The Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector is a great resource for this.

You can also look for the Marine Stewardship Counsel’s Certified Sustainable Seafood Logo to ensure sustainable fishing practices were used.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is probably one of the most popular and trusted guides to help us determine what is “ok” to buy. They have an app in addition to printable buyer’s guides on their website. This tool will tell you where to go, what to choose and when to do it.

Connect With Us!

I would love to hear about your experience shopping for seafood – are there particular types of seafood you struggle with? What are your favorite seafood dishes? Are there any other seafood resources you use as a shopping guide?

I’m sure someone else reading this article would love to hear about your experience as well! As always, you can connect with us on Instagram via @nutritionstrippederica@nutritionstripped, #nutritionstripped.

Nutrition Stripped