5 Surprising Sushi Do's and Don’ts
Learn how to stay safe from parasites, bacteria and other bad guys that might be lurking in raw fish
If you’re a sushi lover, you probably know it poses potential risks — parasites, viruses, bacteria, contaminants. But you may be surprised to learn exactly what the best ways to protect yourself are.
Getting sick from sushi is surprisingly uncommon: Only 6 percent of foodborne illnesses stem from all seafood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And when folks do get sidelined following a sushi meal, it’s typically a short-lived case of mild food poisoning.
To enjoy your sushi more safely, follow these tips.
Do: Avoid albacore tuna and King mackerel
These contain high levels of mercury. Lower-mercury options include salmon and freshwater trout, says Lori Zanini, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Mercury is a toxin that can build up in the blood and cause neurological problems, impairing memory and fine motor skills. Average adults won’t get mercury poisoning from an occasional sushi dinner — that would require eating large amounts of high-mercury fish. But consuming less mercury is always better than consuming more.
Pregnant women, babies and children under 6 are particularly sensitive to mercury’s effects, which is why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says they need to limit or avoid certain types of cooked high-mercury fish. Eating any raw fish should be off limits to these groups. The same applies to adults 65 and older and anyone with a weakened immune system.
Don’t: Eat dockside sushi
Eating fish just plucked from the ocean may sound ideal, but fresh raw fish isn’t necessarily safe. In fact, because many fish are natural hosts for parasites, the FDA Food Code states that most fish should be frozen before being served raw to kill off the offenders. (Some exceptions: oysters, clams, scallops and certain species of tuna and farmed fish.) The amount of time the fish must be frozen depends on the storage temperature.
Don’t: Discount supermarket sushi
The idea of supermarket sushi may sound scary, but in fact, supermarkets are regulated by local, state and federal food safety inspections agencies and are expected to follow stringent rules on sushi prep and storage. Just make sure you eat the sushi before its labeled expiration date (usually somewhere between eight and 24 hours from when it’s prepared), advises Keith Schneider, Ph.D., a professor in the Food Science & Human Nutrition department at the University of Florida. The longer you keep your sushi — even if it's in the fridge — the more opportunity you give bacteria and other pathogens to multiply. Same goes for restaurant doggie bags, which should be tossed after 24 hours if not sooner.
Of course, if the fish smells bad, don’t eat it. "Raw fish shouldn't smell fishy, and its flesh should be tight, not flaky and mushy," says Zanini.
Do: Avoid health bombs
Fish is good for your heart — but a few menu mistakes can really sink an otherwise healthy sushi meal. These include ordering rolls with mayonnaise-based sauces or cream cheese (like the Philadelphia roll), as well as tempura rolls, which are deep-fried. All of these options are packed with saturated fat. Also, don't let the low-sodium soy sauce fool you. Yes, it’s lower in sodium than the regular version. But a single tablespoon still packs a whooping 1,150 milligrams — 75 percent of the American Heart Association's recommended daily intake for adults. If you’re trying to avoid sugar, steer clear of eel sauce, which has tons of it. White rice, a refined carb, can also raise your blood sugar. You can swap the white rice out for brown. If you have type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, sashimi (raw fish without rice) is the way to go, says Zanini.
Do: Be careful when making sushi at home
There's a lot more that goes into professional (and safe) sushi making than you may realize. Rice that is cooked and then brought to room temperature and combined with fish, veggies and other toppings can harbor food-poisoning bacteria called Bacillus cereus. In restaurant and other retail settings, sushi rice is brought to a very specific pH using rice wine vinegar to ward off the proliferation of bacteria. If you're making raw-fish sushi at home, don't skip the acidification step with rice wine vinegar (which also makes your end-product taste more restaurant-like). And don't leave your homemade sushi out for hours at a party. "Eat it immediately," Schneider advises. Finally, make sure you're buying your fish from a fishmonger you trust.