So you have heard about Swai fish but you are not sure what it is and why is there so much controversy surrounding it?
Read on to find out everything you need to know about this fish, as well as whether it is healthy or ethical to eat it in this extensive article about Swai fish.
Highlights about Swai fish
- Wild Swai is an endangered species due to aggressive overfishing
- The majority of Swai fish on the market is from large scale fishing farms
- The Swai fish is also known by a wide variety of names including Vietnamese catfish iridescent shark, basa, sutchi, tra, or pangasius hypophthalmus
- The farming and trade with Swai fish is environmentally controversial
- It may not be as clean a fish as previously claimed
- It is very inexpensive
Overview of the Swai Fish
Since fish is nowadays one of the top preferred products to add to one’s daily diet, as well as the fact that Swai fish has been advertised as an inexpensive and healthy fish to eat more people are turning to it and adding to their daily meals. But there has been quite a lot of controversy and questions surrounding Swai fish including whether it actually has the health benefits of other fish, and whether it is safe to eat it.
In general, Swai fish is pleasant tasting and is much more affordable than other fish products available on the market.
This fish typically is imported from Vietnam and has become increasingly popular in the last two decades as people are turning to more healthy diets with a lot of fish and healthy fresh proteins and produce instead of eating processed foods.
Since wild caught fish are usually excellent sources rich in Omega 3 healthy fats and muscle building proteins they have become popular additions to the daily menu of health-conscious people. But the problem is that most of these products come with a hefty price tag attached.
Swai fish is an affordable option being offered on a market for about $2 per pound which is just a fragment of the price of other wild caught fish. And here comes one of the most controversial aspects of buying and consuming Swai fish is the fact that this fish is not wild but it is produced in overcrowded fish farms. In fact, the wild Swai fish is an endangered species due to over-fishing.
What is Swai fish and where does it actually come from?
As mentioned above in the highlights, Swai fish is just one of the names of this fish species. It is the common name of a type of catfish native to Southeast Asia and bears the scientific name of Pangasianodon hypophthalmus.
Nowadays, due to aggressive overfishing in the region, wild Swai fish is near to extinction. Instead, Vietnam has begun widely cultivating Swai fish in large sized, but overcrowded fish farms and exporting it to the USA and the rest of the world. Even though it is widely marketed as river farmed fish, the Swai is often bred in fish farms in the area. The problem is not only because of the inhumane treatment of the fish in the overcrowded farms, but also the fact that the fish farms in those regions are not regulated and do not comply with the health regulations which we are used to, and which we feel safe with.
It is claimed that the current production of Swai fish in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam is among the largest freshwater fish farming industries in the world.
Previously, Swai was imported and sold in the US as a type of catfish, but after a law passed by the FDA in 2003, today this fish cannot be referred to and labeled as catfish, and only American catfish can be labeled as catfish.
Still, today, Swai is the sixth most popular fish in the US according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It is a fact that in some states where catfish trade is a big industry such as Louisiana, Alabama or Mississippi, the import and sale of Swai fish are illegal.
Nutritional value of Swai fish
Overall, eating fish has become so popular in the last few decades because of all of the nutrients, the lean proteins as well as the healthy Omega 3 fats it contains.
Swai fish has a protein content which is comparable to that of other fish, but it doesn’t have as much Omega-3 good fats.
A 4 ounce serving of raw Swai fish contains:
- 70 calories
- 15 g proteins
- 5 g fat
- 11 mg Omega-3 fat
- 45 g Cholesterol
- 0 g Carbs
- 350 mg Sodium
- 14% of the RDI of Niacin
- 19% of the RDI of Vitamin B12
- 26% of the RDI of Selenium
In comparison, the same serving of raw Salmon contains:
- 24 g Protein
- 1,200-1,300 mg Omega-3 fat
And the same portion of raw US catfish contains:
- 15 g Protein
- 100-250 mg Omega-3 fat
- Sodium: 350 mg
As you can see, Swai is a great source of niacin and of Vitamin B12, but the amounts can vary depending on what the fish has been fed. Also, the Sodium value can increase depending on whether additives have been added to the flesh to keep it moist during the transport.
Since Swai fish do not have very healthy diets, and the factory farmed ones are fed with GMO soy, bran, canola as well as by-products from fish, you can expect that the nutritional values of this type of fish are not as healthy as other wild or farmed fish.
Still, it does offer a reasonable amount of protein but minimum quantities of the healthy Omega-3 fat. It mainly contributes to the intake of Niacin, Selenium and Vitamin B12.
Is Swai fish safe and ethical to eat or should you avoid it?
The Swai fish has white flesh with a flaky texture which makes it perfect for frying, grilling or broiling. It has a mild flavor and is a popular choice for people who don’t like the briny taste of fish. In fact, it easily takes up the flavor of the other ingredients you are cooking with.
But since this fish is no longer considered a catfish in the US it is not subject to the same inspections and regulations as other imported catfish are.
This is a major health concern because of the fact that often antibiotics banned in the US can be found in abundance in the Swai fish imported from Vietnam. Also, there have been cases when harmful bacteria like E.coli were found in the Swai.
Thankfully, they do pass through inspections and need to meet certain health requirements when they are imported in the USA, but the experts here are not sure whether the South Asian fish producers are as concerned with the water pollution as those in the USA are.
There was a case in 2016 when more than 25,000 lbs. of Swai fillets were recalled after being sold at Aldi’s stores around the country due to failing to meet federal inspection requirements.
The greatest issue with Swai fish is no doubt the fact that it is not wild, but it is farm produced. This causes the fish in the overcrowded farms to get distressed and thus weaker and prone to various diseases.
Unfortunately, the easiest and cheapest way to treat sick fish is with the use of antibiotics. And you guessed it – these antibiotics end up ingested by you and the other people who eat Swai fish.
Another problem with factory farmed fish is the fact that they are fed with fishmeal which consists of corn, grains as well as small wild fish which is fished in massive amounts from the rivers, and thus the wild fish is left with little or nothing to eat. This no doubt poses another environmental problem.
But don’t think that all factory-farmed fish are unhealthy and unsafe to eat. The problem is that due to lack of strict regulations, Swai fish has earned a bad reputation due to the water quality in the farms, the chemical pollutants and the antibiotics fed to the fish.
Other reports claim that Swai fish is fed with waste and garbage from local restaurants as a cheaper solution to these fish that are bottom fishers and are not picky eaters. This poses yet another health concern about the potential toxins and bacteria introduced to the flesh of the fish before it is exported to the US.
In conclusion, we must say that will all of these controversial and health and environmental concerns and issues, Swai fish better be avoided.
The main concerns about the factory farming of Swai fish
As explained above, there are multiple concerns about the fact that the Swai fish offered at a cheap price is not wild but is actually factory farmed in overcrowded farms in Vietnam and other countries in the region where the health and eco regulations are not so clear or as tight as they are in the US and in the Western world.
One of the concerns about producing massive amounts of factory-farmed Swai fish is the impact this has on the overall ecosystem.
There are concerns that the Swai fish are fed with huge amounts of small wild fish alongside the other components in the fish food, which impacts the access to sufficient food sources for the wild fish.
Also, reports claim that many of the farms in Vietnam dump all of the waste from the production of Swai fish straight into rivers and other water sources without any filtration, and without any consequences. This waste can include chemicals, disinfectants, antibiotics and other drugs used for the fish production which are freely released into the natural water reserves.
Another concern is the contamination with Mercury, due to the fact that several studies have found higher levels of mercury in imported Swai fish from the Southeastern Asian areas than the recommended limit by the WHO (World Health Organization).
Also, the fact that antibiotics are heavily used in the production of Swai fish is a major concern, because of the fact that many of these antibiotics are illegal in the US and can be ingested and cause various health problems for people who consume Swai fish on a regular basis and can cause a resistance of different harmful and even life-threatening bacteria to the drugs. This means that a person becomes infected by such bacteria, the treatment using this or similar antibiotics will be unsuccessful.
Plus, the residues from the antibiotics often can pollute nearby water sources.
The lack of strict regulations and inspections for Swai fish also leads to concerns about possible parasites and harmful bacteria which the imported fish can be contaminated with which can cause food poisoning and parasitic infections in people.
Are you consuming Swai fish without knowing it?
Unfortunately, it turns out that even if you avoid buying and cooking Swai fish at home, chances are you may have been eating this fish in restaurants without even knowing it.
According to a study by Oceana, Swai is one of the three most common types of fish which are used as substitutes to more expensive fish in restaurants.
The study found the worrying fact that Swai was sold as 18 different fish types including grouper, perch or sole.
In some cases, this mislabeling in restaurants or supermarkets can be unintentional, but in others, it is deliberate fraud because Swai is much cheaper than most other similar types of fish being offered on the market or as part of the menu in restaurants.
Since seafood often travels quite a long way to its final destination, it can be difficult to trace its exact type and origin which could be one of the reasons for accidental mislabeling.
Also, you could be consuming Swai if you order a sandwich or a meal which doesn’t specifically say what type of fish is used.
You should keep in mind that if you see a dish which is listed simply as “fish” chances are it could be Swai due to the fact that it is so easily accessible and so inexpensive.
So, overall you may have already had Swai fish even without knowing it.
What are some of the healthier and more sensible alternatives to Swai fish?
If you are a fan of Swai fish, you should choose brands which have certifications issued by independent organization or agency which issues eco certificated for food products. Look for the logo of such an agency on the packaging to be on the safe side. Such certification means that the food has been tested for reduced pollutants which can harm the climate and pollute the water.
Also, stay away from eating raw or uncooked Swai fish to stay on the safe side. Always fry broil or grill the Swai fish to an internal temperature of the fillet of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. This will ensure that any potentially harmful bacteria will be killed and eliminated from the food.
In case you want to avoid Swai altogether and are looking for a healthier and more eco-friendly alternative, you can choose among a wide variety of excellent alternatives. You may want to opt for white-fleshed fish such as wild-caught catfish from the US, haddock, Pacific cod, flounder or sole.
If you want to eat fish which is rich in healthy Omega-3 fats, you should choose salmon, herring, sardines, anchovies, freshwater trout or Pacific oysters, because they have a lot of Omega-3 and don’t have excessive amounts of mercury.
For the best results for your health and wellbeing, it is recommended that you switch the fish you eat regularly. Choose different types of fish to add to your menu in order to avoid exposure to potentially harmful contaminants found in just one type of fish.
Here are some of the most common alternatives to Swai including white-fleshed fish, catfish or river-farmed fish on the market:
- Atlantic salmon
- Rainbow Trout
Swai fish has a mild taste and is a good option for people who don’t like other fish, but unfortunately, all of the environmental and health concerns associated with its factory farming in Southeastern Asia have led us to believe that it is not recommended to consume it too often or even at all.
If you care about the environment, and if you are worried about the potential health problems which can arise from the intake of residual antibiotics, bacteria an parasites, then it is best to avoid eating Swai fish altogether.
True, it is much less expensive than the other similar fish offered on the market, but overall, Swai doesn’t have the nutritional quality of most other fish, and it poses more risks than benefits to be considered a beneficial product to add to your diet.
Still, if you like Swai fish and want to continue eating it, then look for products which are certified as safe for the environment, and always make sure that you cook the fish properly before you consume it, just to stay on the safe side.