Fish Fingers: Favorite Dish or Better Not?

Fish fingers are extremely popular – with young and old. Manufacturers help to ensure that it stays that way and strive to present their products as sustainable and healthy. Let’s take a look behind the scenes of fish fingers, gourmet fillets and co.

Fish fingers: That’s in it

Few people know what’s in a fish stick. There is a list of ingredients that everyone can see. But fish and fish products have long ceased to be about what the fish stick manufacturer mixes with the fish meat. Much more important is what happens before – when catching the fish. Unfortunately, the information from the manufacturers, which can be found on their websites or on the packaging, is not entirely objective.

The packaging usually says “Alaska Pollock”. This is where the inconsistencies begin. Alaska Pollock is not a salmon but a coalfish, a schooling fish of the cod family. It’s just called coalfish because it sounds better than charcoal and sells better. It’s a marketing ploy.

No fish waste in the fish stick

One in five consumers also believes that fish waste is used to make fish fingers and is reassured when they say no, they are fine fillets.

The recycling of “waste” for reasons of sustainability would have been the better answer. Finally, the nose-to-tail principle is also becoming more widespread when it comes to meat, i.e. eating the whole animal and not just the fillet. This is not only more sustainable, environmentally and animal-friendly, but also healthier, since low-fat muscle meat contains the fewest nutrients and vital substances. It’s the same with fish.

(Of course, not eating meat or fish at all is the most sustainable, environmentally and animal-friendly option, but the nose-to-tail principle when it comes to meat and fish consumption is still the lesser evil or a step in the right direction.)

The hunger for pollock is growing rapidly

Alaska Pollock, also known as coalfish, is one of the most popular fish and consequently one of the most caught worldwide. With a 20 percent market share, it is even more popular than herring. Nearly 3.5 million tons of Alaska Pollock were caught in 2015.

In 2012, the Germans alone consumed almost 60,000 tons of pollack in the form of fish sticks – and the trend is rising. In 2017, 2.2 billion fish fingers were eaten by German fish stick lovers. This requires 43,800 tons of pollock fillet per year.

80,000 tons of pollock alone for fish sticks in Germany

Since humans only eat about half of a fish (only the fillet), you can easily calculate how much the demand for pollack for fish sticks alone has increased in Germany in recent years (to around 80,000 tons).

The consumption of other preparations of the fish is not included here, because the fillet is also bought and prepared directly (for pollock bordelaise, pollock with tomato crust, Thai style, with mustard carrots, gratinated, as meatballs, etc.).

After salmon (17.6 percent) and tuna (16.4 percent), pollock is thus already in third place with a share of 15 percent in the German favorite fish ranking. In total, around 13 – 14 kg of fish are currently eaten per capita and year in Germany.

Alaska pollock replaces cod

A few years ago, pollock was still completely unknown. Nobody wanted to eat it. Therefore, it was considered unwanted bycatch and thrown back into the sea.

Because fish fingers used to be made from cod. But it is now the case that the cod stocks have shrunk so much that they are now using charcoal burners instead. So we’ve already almost completely eradicated one species of fish – and are now moving on to the next.

Cod: Stocks down by 90 percent

The cod is the most overfished fish and is considered endangered. Its population has declined by an average of 90 percent in recent decades, e.g. in the North Sea. In the early 1990s, its population in Canada had dwindled to just 1 percent, forcing the Canadian government to ban cod fishing altogether. However, the cod could not recover.

Normally, the fish, which is up to 1.5 meters long, becomes sexually mature at the age of 5 to 7 years. Since the 1980s, he has become sexually mature at the age of 2 to 2.5 years. In this way, the endangered fish tries to preserve its species despite overfishing. However, it is known that the offspring of these precocious animals have worse chances of survival than the offspring of older and more mature fish.

In the Baltic Sea: cod stocks collapsed

In the Baltic Sea, too, cod fishing has to be stopped because stocks have collapsed. The herring is also badly affected. The reason: the far too high catch quotas of the EU Fisheries Council and the greed for profit of the fishing industry (and of course the high demand).

The cod is also often caught with so-called bottom trawls due to its way of life close to the ground. These nets don’t just catch the cod. As they literally plow through the seabed, they injure, kill or capture all the marine life that lives there – whether they are edible for humans or not, or whether they are wanted in the catch or not.

This unwanted so-called by-catch is mostly thrown overboard again – dead, injured or dying. Bottom trawls are thus one of the most destructive inventions of the fishing industry.

Cod in the Baltic Sea: no recovery in sight

Even the cod – when it still existed – used to be a frequent victim of bycatch. Up to 90 percent of the bycatch of the plaice and shrimp fishermen could consist of young cabal owls, which were summarily thrown back into the water – also dead or dying.

Organizations such as Greenpeace have been warning of such a development for years and suspect that the cod (as the cod is called in the Baltic Sea) is already so heavily overfished that it will not recover in the Baltic Sea either. One of the reasons is that everything was caught indiscriminately – both mature animals and juvenile fish that had never spawned. So there was no one left who could have provided for enough offspring.

Alaska Pollock: WWF and Greenpeace advise against consumption

Greenpeace is generally criticized for its restrictive recommendations. According to the environmental organization, you can only eat local carp in Germany with a clear conscience. When it comes to pollock, Greenpeace advises: stay away!

But even according to the WWF ( World Wide Fund For Nature ), which generally makes less critical recommendations for fish consumption, Alaska pollock can no longer be recommended unconditionally. Depending on its origin, it has a yellow or red color in the WWF fish traffic light and should only be eaten occasionally or not at all. The WWF is one of the largest international environmental protection organizations.

The traffic light is yellow if the fish was caught in the Sea of ​​Okhotsk, red if the fish comes from the western Bering Sea because the stocks there are overfished.

Alaska Pollock Fishery: Danger to Coral Reefs

In the Sea of ​​Okhotsk, saithe is primarily caught using pelagic otter trawls/trawls, and in the Bering Sea also using the destructive bottom trawls described above. (Pelagic means located offshore in the open water zone and above the bottom zone).

Pelagic trawls are often promoted by fish stick manufacturers as a particularly sustainable fishing method because, at best, they float freely in the water and, compared to bottom trawls, only touch the bottom in patches. In contrast to the cod, the coalfish lives in large swarms in the open water, i.e. above the bottom zone.

However, the WWF fish guide states: “In the case of the Alaskan pollock fishery, however, bottoming of the nets is known, which can damage sensitive bottom communities such as cold-water coral reefs.”

Nets as big as 5 football fields

The pelagic trawls should catch more selectively, so that the bycatch should be limited to 1 to 6 percent. But even this small-sounding percentage is ultimately a huge amount of bycatch given the large catches in the Alaska Pollock fishery.

“The net opening of a pelagic net can be up to 23,000 square meters. That corresponds to about five football pitches. With these dimensions, 12 jumbo jets fit into the throat of the network. A full net can yield up to 500 tons of fish, including huge amounts of bycatch,” reads Greenpeace.

So even if the fish finger manufacturers claim that their Alaska pollock comes from the Sea of ​​Okhotsk and is caught with pelagic nets, that may be the lesser evil, but by no means a reason to call fish fingers a sustainable or recommended food – even then Not when you see the MSC sustainable fisheries seal on the packaging of fish fingers.

Fish, even with the MSC seal, are often not sustainable

MSC stands for Marine Stewardship Council . It is an independent, international non-profit organization that was founded in 1997 by the food industry, namely Unilever (one of the largest fish processors in the world) and the WWF.

Unilever is a multinational company that has launched the brands You May, Knorr, Lätta, Mondamin, Iglo and many more. Many of these have since been sold to other companies.

The MSC website states that sustainable fishing means keeping enough fish in the oceans and protecting marine habitats and other threatened species.

The fisheries that have now received the MSC seal are responsible for 12 percent of the annual fish catch worldwide. In Germany, the seal even has a market share of 64 percent for wild-caught fish. That sounds very ideal.

Greenpeace, however, explains on its website why fish with the MSC label cannot be eaten in good conscience. Although producers and retailers are anxious to support the label (understandable, since it inspires confidence in consumers and promotes sales), the fish is not particularly sustainable, even with the MSC seal.

If you want to put the MSC seal on your products, you only have to meet a few criteria and be able to present a plan of what you want to change and improve in the future (!). The result is:

MSC seal despite destructive fishing methods

Those fisheries that use destructive fishing methods, e.g. so-called bottom trawls, which cause serious damage to the seabed (e.g. to fish for Alaska pollock) or so-called dreds, special nets that rip mussels from the mussel beds.

MSC seal despite high bycatch

Fisheries also receive the MSC seal if they have a proven high level of bycatch, e.g. Consider a fishery in Canada that nets 35,000 endangered shark species and hundreds of sea turtles annually, or another fishery with high bycatch of dolphins. As a reminder: Bycatch usually does not survive!

MSC seal despite fishing in overfished stocks

Fisheries are awarded the MSC label when they fish overexploited stocks but can provide a “recovery program” for the fish stock in question, even if the “recovery” is taking time.

Each MSC label brings revenue to the MSC

The MSC’s income consists of more than 70 percent from the certification fees and only 24 percent from donations (2015/16 financial year), which means that there could be a conflict of interest here and the MSC could now be dependent on or with the certified fisheries the number of certifications can increase its revenue.

No fish seal of approval recommended

According to Greenpeace, there is currently no seal for sustainable fish products that can be unreservedly recommended. The seals cannot guarantee that the corresponding products actually come from sustainable fisheries.

Fish fingers: the nutritional values

Why do you eat fish sticks? Sure, they taste good. But what about the nutritional values? After all, fish is considered healthy and nutritious. Using the example of Frosta fish fingers, the nutritional values ​​are as follows:

  • Calorific value: 761 kJ / 182 kcal
  • Fett: 8,3 g
  • of which saturated fatty acids: 1.1 g
  • Carbohydrates: 13.4 g
  • of which sugar: 2.0 g
  • Protein: 12.9 g
  • Salt: 0.9 g

If you were to prepare tofu fish fingers, the table would look almost identical.

Omega-3 fatty acids in fish fingers?

A very important argument for consuming fish is often the supply of the essential omega-3 fatty acids.

However, fish fingers only contain 160 mg of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA/DHA) per 100 g. Since the manufacturers do not specify the omega-3 content of ordinary fish fingers, the value we give comes from the official nutritional value tables.

Fish fingers are enriched with refined fish oil

In order to advertise fish fingers as rich in omega-3, some manufacturers simply put refined fish oil in their fish fingers, e.g. Igloo. These then contain 216 mg long-chain omega-3 fatty acids per 100 g. You could also take fish oil capsules right away – or better yet, algae oil capsules, which provide a multiple of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and are of sustainable quality. Because fish only contains omega-3 fatty acids because it eats omega-3-rich algae or small animals that have eaten these algae.

Alaska pollock fillets (“gourmet fillets”) also only contain 143 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per 100 g , because lean muscle meat is used for fillets – and pollock is a lean fish and therefore does not inherently have optimal omega -3 source.

Iodine in fish sticks?

Also because of the iodine – according to official recommendations – you should eat sea fish regularly. Fish fingers contain 177 µg iodine (per 100 g). This is very good given the iodine requirement (which is officially given as 200 µg for adults).

However, there are just as good, purely plant-based sources of iodine that are also more animal and environmentally friendly, e.g. the seaweed nori.

The recipe contains a total of 3 nori sheets. The fish sticks contain a maximum of 1 nori sheet per portion, because the sheets are only added to the cooking water on the one hand and to the breading on the other hand, which is usually not completely used up.

The vegan fish sticks therefore provide 92 µg of iodine per 100 g. Of course you can crumble/ground nori leaves – if you want to take more iodine – as a wonderful spice in the tartar sauce or in other recipes, e.g. in dressings, sauces, dips etc. You can find other alternative sources of iodine and the iodine values ​​of the various seaweeds (which should not be missing in any gourmet kitchen).

Selenium in Fish Sticks?

Fish is repeatedly cited as a good source of selenium, which is particularly important for us in Central Europe, since the soil here is considered to be low in selenium and selenium deficiency is therefore relatively common.

Selenium is an important trace element. It is a component of the body’s own antioxidants and detoxification enzymes, is essential for a healthy thyroid gland , helps prevent cancer and strengthens the immune system in the fight against viruses, among other things.

While pollock itself provides 43 µg of selenium (per 100 g), fish sticks only provide 17 µg – by the way, exactly as much as 100 g of tofu. Fish sticks are therefore not particularly helpful for selenium supply either.

The selenium requirement of an adult is around 70 µg per day.

Vegan fish sticks in stores

Of course, the general (and positive) vegan trend has long since led to vegan fish fingers being available in stores. On the one hand from the fish finger giant Iglo himself, on the other hand from at least two manufacturers of vegan products. However, vegan finished products in the supermarket are rarely good, which is unfortunately confirmed again when it comes to vegan fish fingers.

The vegan fish fingers from Iglo are basically nothing more than flavored and breaded rice flakes with gluten and rapeseed oil. Compared to the original from fish, they also contain 5 g less protein per 100 g and no long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, but only rapeseed oil, which only contains the short-chain omega-3 fatty acids (ALA):

Rice flakes (40%) (water, rice), breadcrumbs (WHEAT FLOUR, water, spices (paprika powder, turmeric), yeast, salt), water, rapeseed oil, WHEAT GLUTEN, WHEAT FLOUR, potato starch, natural flavor, WHEAT FIBER, salt.

After all, the vegan fish fingers from Vantastic Foods provide as much protein as normal fish fingers, but are otherwise not much better than those from Iglo. Here textured soy protein concentrate is breaded and flavored. Linseed oil is used as a source of omega-3, which also does not contain any long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, only the short-chain ones:

Water, textured soy protein concentrate (17%), wheat flour, rapeseed oil, potato starch, flavorings, sea salt, flaxseed oil, corn flour, flaxseed flour, spices, dextrose, salt, yeast, thickener: methylcellulose.

The vegan fish fingers from Vivera are based on rehydrated wheat protein (gluten), breaded and flavored. Linseed oil is also the omega-3 source here. From long-chain omega-3 fatty acids e.g. in the form of algae oil no trace. However, the protein content is adjusted to the original at 13 g:

Rehydrated wheat protein (50%), breadcrumbs (wheat flour, yeast, salt, paprika powder), sunflower oil, water, wheat flour, vinegar, thickener: methyl cellulose; natural flavors, wheat starch, wheat fiber, salt, sea salt, linseed oil , potato fiber, maltodextrin, corn starch, herbs and spices, preservative: sodium diacetate; Onion powder, garlic powder, ferrous gluconate, vitamin B12.

Fish fingers: better to make them yourself

In view of the extremely poor quality of fish fingers, in our opinion, we recommend that you prepare them yourself, ideally in a vegan version.

Fish fingers and fish: not sustainable

Fish fingers – like fish in general – are therefore not a sustainable and recommended food. For more information that underscores this conclusion, read our next episode on fish, which will cover pollution levels in fish, background information on aquaculture and other health issues surrounding fish consumption, as well as the little-known fact that fish can feel pain and are extremely social and communicative creatures.

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Written by John Myers

Professional Chef with 25 years of industry experience at the highest levels. Restaurant owner. Beverage Director with experience creating world-class nationally recognized cocktail programs. Food writer with a distinctive Chef-driven voice and point of view.

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