Some tips for buying ethical and healthy tuna, with a simple nicoise recipe

by sophie on May 4, 2007 · 13 comments

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About 10 years ago, all you could get in the supermarket was tinned tuna, and fresh tuna was luxury, something that you might have out at restaurant. Fast forward a few years and apparently our obsession with fresh tuna has gone too far and tuna is the latest fish to be added to the list of those in danger of over-fishing. This is least in part due to it’s popularity in Japan, but hey, they aren’t the only country that eats sushi these days.

Happily, the humble but versatile tinned tuna has had time to regroup and reinvent itself. Our local supermarket now sells tinned premium tuna fillets – beautiful firm slices of fish, glossy with olive oil and with a somehow Mediteranean air to them. These have been a revelation to me; it’s a bit like comparing beautiful, thick sliced traditionally cured ham with that wafer thin stuff that is about 90% water. But are they good for you and is it ethical to buy them?

Some notes on ethical tuna buying
The big issue originally associated with tuna (and still around) was the use of fishing methods that involve using nets that catch and kill dolphins (apparently tuna and dolphins tend to form mixed schools). Most tuna in the shops now has a little dolphin-friendly logo on it, so it is the tuna itself that requires a bit of label pondering. Bluefin tuna is now critically endangered -if you want to avoid it, bluefin tends to crop up where you buy fresh tuna, including sushi and sashimi, so ask or have a look at the label. The WWF has a good page on how to avoid buying bluefin tuna. Canned tuna is a little more simple; most of it is skipjack tuna and if not probably yellowfin. If you want to find out more about who supplies what, many manufacturers now have this information on their web site, if it isn’t on the can itself. My photographs are of yellowfin ventresca fillets, velvet-textured slices from the belly of the fish (bizarrely you can buy these on amazon, the Ortiz brand). These seem to be a good premium canned tuna choice as the other one that tends to be available, albacore, is an endangered variety.

Tuna and nutrition
It turns out that some canned tuna (and not just fresh tuna) has useful amounts of omega 3 fatty acids in it. Canned tuna in oil is a moderate source of omega 3, while canned tuna in water is a low source (fresh tuna is a good source of omega 3, but is sadly usually the endangered bluefin variety). We’re still talking relatively small amounts of essential fatty acids compared with the more commonly mentioned oily fish, but if you don’t enjoy eating any of those then every little helps, as they say (by the way, there’s a good acronym for remembering the really high in omega 3 oily fish which is SMASH: sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, herring). It really depends what your personal priorities are too; tuna in spring water or brine is super low-fat which has great health benefits of its own (as long as you remember to hold the mayo!) However, these omega 3 thingies aren’t called essential fatty acids for nothing, so if you don’t tend to eat any other oily fish then it might be worth giving the tuna in oil a try.

Anyway, you’re probably more worried about which tastes best, to which I unequivocally say the tuna fillets in olive oil (I prefer them even to fresh tuna!). And if you can find the lightly smoked variety you’re in for even more of a treat. Because the canned fillets have so much more in the way of texture and taste than skipjack in brine, they lend themselves to a less is more approach, perhaps a salad, rather than mashing them up for a sandwich.

I use mine to make an impromptu sort of tuna nicoise. Probably not very authentic, just a quick way to make a healthy lunchbox, and to use up some leftover ingredients from the fridge (the beans and olives). My other favourite instant tuna lunch is a salad with leaves, red pepper and toasted seeds (the seeds neatly providing your other type of essential fatty acid, the omega 6 family!).

Easy Nicoise

If you are taking this for lunch, place the parsley on the top but don’t stir it in until you are ready to eat, this will help to keep it tasting fresh. Ditto for the egg (probably just because I like to keep the yolk and white together!). These timings should give you an egg with a slight soft yolk but you can boil it for longer if you need to or prefer it like that (see Delia’s How To Boil An Egg if necessary!)

Recipe for Simple Tuna Nicoise for One

A small tin of good tuna in oil, the sort where the fish comes in slices
1 egg
A good handful of green beans, washed and cut in half
About 5 olives, halved
Flat leaf parsley leaves, a small handful

To season:
Lemon Juice
Olive Oil
Black Pepper

Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil and add the beans and the egg. Set a timer for four minutes.

After the four minutes are up, taste one of the beans to see if it is cooked (leave a little crunch but not much) . Fish out the beans with a slotted spoon and let the egg boil for another minute or so before taking the pan off the heat.

Mix the tuna, beans and olives together and dress with a little olive oil, lemon and black pepper.

After the egg has had about 8 minutes or so sat off the heat, change the water in the pan to cold water to get the egg cold quickly.

Once the egg has cooled, peel it and slice it into quarters. Place the egg and parsley on top of the other ingredients, stirring in gently when you are ready to eat.


Trig May 5, 2007 at 16:52

Wow, I had absolutely no idea that tuna and dolphins form schools together. I guess that can be quite problematic when it comes to catching.
The salad with the leaves, red pepper and toasted seeds sounds great, I think I’d go for pumpkin or sunflower seeds. You’ve certainly taught me a thing or two about tuna I can tell you that for sure!

paula May 7, 2007 at 01:21

nice blog – I hadn’t found it before. Glad i’m not the only one plagued by ethical dilemmas…

Freya May 8, 2007 at 07:35

Fascinating article! The salad looks great as well!

Sophie May 11, 2007 at 15:33

Hi Trig, I’ll take that as a great complement that you learnt something new, knowing that you are at proper chef school and all that!
Paula – no, it’s definitely not just you :-) I’m always being torn between the healthy choice and the ethical choice these days!
Freya – thank you, I’m glad it worked out to be the interesting sort of facts rather than the dry sort. I found out the most surprising thing when checking out another article for this – apparently tuna are actually warm blooded fish!

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